Friday, May 25, 2018

Beda Venerabilis

Today is the feast of St. Beda of Jarrow, Doctor of the Church; he is, of course, most commonly known in English as the Venerable Bede.

Bede's Death Song
tr. by Craig Williamson

Before he departs on that inescapable journey
Down death's road, no man is so wise
That he knows his own end, so clever or unconstrained
That he need not contemplate the coming judgment,
Consider what good or evil resides in his soul,
What rich reward or bounty of unblessings
Will be offered in eternity when his time runs out.

[Craig Williamson, The Complete Old English Poems, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia: 2017) p. 1051.]

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Evening Note for Thursday, May 24

Thought for the Evening: Rosmini on the Definition 'Rational Animal'

In Anthropology as an Aid to Moral Science, Rosmini has some critical things to say about the Aristotelian definition of man as "rational animal". They more or less come down to three.

(1) 'Rational animal' understates the importance of volition to the human being, although the volitive and the intellective aspects of human nature are both important and are not the same. While it is true that the volitive follows on the intellective, "there is no proof that this happens necessarily and that the opposite involves absurdity" (p. 21).

(2) It would be more appropriate to call the human being an 'intellective animal' than a 'rational animal' because the intellect is more fundamental than reason, and all reasoning presupposes intellectual understanding.

(3) 'Man is a rational animal' implies that animal is the subject and rational is an attribute of the animal. The intellectual element in human nature, however, has to form part of the human subject so that it can't simply be abstracted away as a secondary or consequent element.

With regard to (1), I think Rosmini just has a different notion of volition than the Aristotelians do, since I'm quite sure Aquinas would deny Rosmini's claim that there is no proof that the intellectual and volitional are linked necessarily; having a will for Aquinas just means that you have an intellectual appetitus or tendency to act.

With regard to (2), Rosmini himself concedes that the scholastics tended to prefer using 'rational' of human beings to distinguish them from the more purely intellectual angels, and that this is potentially useful. And I suspect a Thomist could also say that using 'rational' here is analogous to saying that the object of the human mind is 'material being'; it's not exclusionary but identifying the primary and principal characteristic of the faculty.

The third is interesting, and I think there is probably something to it. As Rosmini goes on to note, the definition creates some complications for the scholastic in discussing how the soul, i.e., what makes you a living thing, is both a form of the body and the form of the human being; he points to the trouble Aquinas has to take in ST 1.76.1 as an example.

Rosmini gives two of his own proposed definitions:

(A) An intellectual, volitional, animal subject.

(B) "[A]n animal subject endowed with the intuition of indeterminate-ideal being and with the perception of corporeal-fundamental feeling, and acting in accordance with the animality and intelligence it possesses" (p. 26).

A scholastic response to (A) would likely be that it looses any sense of the unity of the human being. (B), although it is supposed to be essentially equivalent, avoids the obvious appearance of disunity by being more explicit about the relations among these. It depends on a number of Rosmini's own positions, though; 'the intuition of indeterminate-ideal being' is how Rosmini thinks of intellect, and 'the perception of corporeal-fundamental feeling' is more or less animal consciousness. Perhaps more seriously for the Aristotelian, Rosmini's definition is definitely dualistic; Rosmini is a much stronger dualist than any Aristotelian would be.

[Antonio Rosmini, Anthropology as an Aid to Moral Science, Rosmini House (Durham: 1991).]

Various Links of Interest

* Ed Simon has a nice, if occasionally florid, look at the French revolutionary calendar, which was, of course, not the worst but one of the most symbolic ways in which people have attempted to erase the Catholic Church.

* Thony Christie looks at the twin histories of astronomy and astrology.

* Kenny Pearce is curating an online exhibition of Berkeley's Manuscript Introduction to PHK.

* On Pierre Hadot at "Knowledge Ecology"

* Philippe Hamou, Marin Mersenne, at the SEP

* The marginalia of John Stuart Mill online

* An interesting story about how DNA can be misleading in criminal forensics.

* Nathan Goldman reviews two books on Gershom Scholem.

* Charles Camosy on Alfie Evans.

* Claire Lehmann, The War on Dignity

* An interesting look at five kinds of Bible cultures in the United States.

* Ben Taub, The Spy Who Came Home

* Ivanoe Privitera, Aristotle and the Papyri: The Direct Tradition. It's always worth remembering how tenuous our hold on the thought of the past is.

* David Graeber, 'I had to guard an empty room': the rise of the pointless job.

* Emily Thomas on Catharine Trotter Cockburn.

* An interactive map of medieval trade route networks.

* David Whidden, The Alleged Feudalism of Anselm's Cur Deus Homo and the Benedictine Concepts of Obedience, Honor, and Order. Quite important, if you ever do anything with Anselm; the suggestion, which you still find, that Anselm's mindset (or his theology) is feudal has been known to be problematic for a while -- Anselm didn't live in a fully feudal society, rarely uses feudal terminology and probably never understands it in a feudal sense even when there is overlap, and is pretty clearly drawing most of his thought from Benedictine thought and practice. Whidden's paper is a nice exploration of some of these points with particular concepts important to Anselm's thought.

* Owen C. King, Pulling Apart Well-Being at a Time and the Goodness of a Life

* Michael Milona and Katie Stockdale, A Perceptual Theory of Hope

Currently Reading

Jules Verne, The Self-Propelled Island
Antonio Rosmini, Anthropology as an Aid to Moral Science
Christopher Tollefsen, Lying and Christian Ethics
Neil Oliver, A History of Scotland

Philosophers on the Irish Eighth

Ireland is currently on the verge of a referendum to consider whether the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, which was originally passed a quarter of a century ago and recognizes the right to life of unborn children, should be repealed. Given how much support for abortion has receded elsewhere, and how much the notion of rights has expanded in that quarter of a century, I'm not sure there's more here than modern Ireland's perpetual characteristic of only arriving at a party when everyone else has begun to get tired and go home, but we'll see what happens.

In any case, I finally got around to looking at the recent statement put out by a number of philosophers on the question, and it is a good example of how completely useless philosophers can be on these kinds of issues. The statement says:

What has not been discussed much is whether a 12-week old foetus is a person entitled to constitutional protection. What makes this particularly problematic is that the issue hinges on a complex philosophical question that has no straightforward answer, namely ‘What is a person and when does a person begin?’

If we accept that personhood is indeed "a complex philosophical question that has no straightforward answer", why would we also think it is even relevant to the question of whether one should retain a constitutional amendment that doesn't even use the word 'person'? The Amendment in question reads, "The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right." I don't see anything explicitly about personhood here. And why anyone should spend one's time on questions that have "no straightforward answer" when discussing constitutional issues is beyond me.

The obvious reason it's brought up (besides its being something the philosophers in question think they can sound clever discussing) is that it is being assumed that that what is not a person is not entitled to constitutional protection. Put precisely that way, it's obviously false -- every constitution provides protections to things that are not persons -- but presumably, by 'entitled to constitutional protection' what they really mean is 'having a right worth acknowledging by a constitution' -- in this case, a right to life. Taken so, the key issue would be what a right to life is (which would tell us, without bare assumption, what kind of thing it could apply to), not what a person is, but in an era in which people discuss whether rivers and ecosystems and chimpanzees and species can be said to have rights, they've decided to stake their whole and entire claim on personhood, as if they all just woke up from having been frozen in the eighties.

In so doing they (unsurprisingly, perhaps) make a further common mistake of philosophers discussing matters like this, namely, they assume that if personhood is relevant it must be a metaphysical rather than a forensic and practical notion of personhood. Here is an argument that gets used, in different variations, in considering animal rights: "Persons have rights; but the assumption that animals with such-and-such characteristics are not persons is a matter that can be controverted; supposing even that we are at an impasse and there is 'no straightforward answer', the law should, to the extent practically possible, play it safe in matters of rights and assume that rights are more rather than less widely spread, particularly given the atrocities in which law can be complicit if it decides to start dictating what is not a person." This is obviously itself going to be a controversial argument in many cases, but as arguments go, it is perfectly sensible, and could be easily adapted to this situation. And while it depends on the notion of personhood, it does not depend on any metaphysics about personhood; what it depends on is a notion of law and its purposes, and is arguing that, given that notion of law and its purposes, we should legally count animals of such-and-such characteristics as persons for those legal purposes.

Or take another line of argument. "There is practical reason to have laws against fetal homicide, namely, that if one doesn't then, even aside from assumptions of fundamental rights, it becomes very difficult to do justice to parents. The easiest legal way to make laws against fetal homicide work, however, is to treat the fetus legally as a person existing under particular conditions." No doubt there would be people who would disagree with such an argument, but it's a perfectly appropriate argument for legal purposes. Law is a practical field. One does not need the finer points of metaphysics to do it. And here we have an argument for attributing personhood that does not require any metaphysics at all; it depends not on the metaphysics of personhood but on the practical question of what the easiest way to do justice to a third party would be. The concept of 'legal person' or 'juridical person' is not a secret; it's widely known. So why would one assume that the metaphysical notion of personhood would be a necessary, and not just a sufficient condition, for treating something as having rights, even if one connected rights directly to personhood in the traditional way?

It gets worse. They go on to say:

Influential figures like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas held that a foetus is not a person until it begins to move, which they took to be 40–80 days after conception.

This is entirely wrong. Neither Augustine nor Aquinas are talking about personhood when they discuss these matters; they are talking about the standard view of what is involved in conception of a human being. The standard biological view in their day regarded human conception as an extended process over time; it was literally a sort of cooking process as the materials developed in the heat of the womb. Quickening, i.e., the point at which the fetus begins to move, plays no role at all in the thought of Aquinas. The only time Aquinas mentions the 40 to 90 day point he is talking about Aristotle's view, not his own (he never, as far as I am aware, commits definitely to any particular timetable at all). Quickening did not begin to have much of a presence in discussions of conception at all until the early modern period, and then it was a purely legal device for deciding how serious the penalties should be in various legal cases (e.g., if someone harmed a pregnant woman and caused her to miscarry). And, again, prior to the egg-and-sperm model, the dominant view of conception was that it was a process lasting several weeks; it shows nothing but historical ignorance to frame the discussion during this period as personhood arriving weeks "after conception". Augustine treats as the key characteristic not movement but sensation. This level of non-research in people trying to pull out their credentials in order to influence a political situation is embarrassing. What good is your status as a "professional philosopher" if you are going around making statements about texts that you've never bothered to read?

It gets even worse:

We grant that the question ‘when does a person begin’ is complex. But because the constitution is the backbone for all law in the state, it should be confined to highly plausible restrictions on the law that more or less everyone can agree with.

This is not how constitutions work. This is not how constitutions have ever worked. There is no serious theory of constitutions that would take this as a reasonable principle. Did not a single philosopher signing this document pause enough to ask, "And what would be the result if this were applied in contexts involving slavery, or mistreatment of minorities?" Is every one of the signatories so ignorant of history that they completely missed the fact that constitutions are built not on "highly plausible restrictions" that "more or less everyone can agree with" but (at most) on compromises that give concessions to as many major groups as possible, because you can't practically build a constitution entirely out of prior agreements? Do they honestly think that most constitutions in the free world are built entirely out of things that are "highly plausible" and that "more or less everyone" originally agreed with? That the purpose of a constitution is just a formality to summarize what practically everyone accepts anyway? Constitutions cannot do one of the things they are morally supposed to do -- protect the rights of the vulnerable -- on the principle given; constitutions are not in fact ever written on the basis of the principle given; and the principle quite obviously shows up here only in order to get the conclusion that they want.

Schopenhauer, I think, says somewhere that arguments are not like cabs; you cannot ride them to your preferred destination and then get off. Apparently none of these philosophers have learned that lesson yet; or else (more likely), they just decided to sign without any regard for the rationality of the argument, because they already agreed with the conclusion. The whole thing is just awful sophistry.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Power, Wisdom, and Goodness

...there must be Power, Wisdom, and Goodness, subsisting in one Degree or other, in every Government worthy to be so called, let the exterior Form of it be whatever it may.

For Example, without Power the very Idea of Government is annihilated; and there are no traces of it left.

Without Wisdom to conduct this Power towards some certain End, or Object, the Thing itself would not be Power, in a moral sense, but blind Impulse, or mechanic Force.

And without Goodness to influence and incline the Operations both of Wisdom and Power towards some benevolent Uses, conducive to public Happiness, the Efforts of Wisdom would in effect be Knavery, Trick, and Cunning; and the Display of Power mere Tyranny and Oppression. There must therefore be a Coalition, or Cooperation of all three, in order to form a Government fit to rule over such a Creature as Man.

Josiah Tucker, A Treatise Concerning Civil Government (1781), Part II, Chapter III.

Monday, May 21, 2018


Philip Kitcher has a good review of Errol Morris's The Ashtray, in which he makes some important points about the work of Thomas Kuhn.

According to the cartoon — and according to Morris: Kuhn denied the possibility of communication across the revolutionary divide. No — he said that such communication was inevitably partial. The languages of different paradigms are not straightforwardly inter-translatable. Often, no single term in one language will do for a scientifically important term in the other. What one paradigm sees as a “natural” division of the subject matter appears as odd and disjointed to its rival.

When I was in undergrad (a time when I read quite extensively in philosophy of science), I remember reading a number of criticisms of Thomas Kuhn and suddenly realizing that the reason they didn't entirely make sense to me was that the critics were assuming that 'X and Y are incommensurable' meant 'X and Y cannot be compared'. Of course, this is not true -- in fact, incommensurability implies that they can be compared. When we say that the legs and the hypotenuse of a right triangle are incommensurable, we don't mean that we can't compare them -- in fact, the Pythagorean Theorem gives you a precise account of such a comparison. Rather, the point is that in such a comparison there is no unit definable wholly in terms of a leg that measures the hypotenuse without anything left over. So to say that two theories are incommensurable in how they use the term 'mass', for instance, is not to say that you can't compare how they use the term, but instead that there is a shift of meaning between the two such that when you do compare them you find that one cannot perfectly translate what is meant by the other. 'Mass' in Newtonian physics and 'mass' in Einsteinian physics are obviously related and obviously comparable; but on comparison they do not fit each other exactly. You can identify precisely ways in which they do not fit each other. First, they are not exact synonyms. Second, if you try to get Einsteinian 'mass' from Newtonian 'mass' by adding qualifications or complications, you still don't get a direct translation until your qualifications have multiplied so much that you are just restating the Einsteinian account of mass. Third, if you try to get Newtonian 'mass' from Einsteinian 'mass' by (say) idealizing and introducing negligibility assumptions, you still don't get a direct translation until you've introduced so many assumptions that you can no longer use it for Einsteinian purposes. They are incommensurable -- you cannot intertranslate without something being lost or gained that the other theory cannot or does not countenance, because the sets of problems considered by each theory are not exactly the same, the methods used by each theory are not exactly the same, and the topics each theory treats as most important are not exactly the same.

Kuhn is hardly the first person to make the point -- Duhem argues the same, and more rigorously -- but Kuhn's version is in a generalized form so that it did not otherwise depend on the exact details of your account of how theory works. People reading him, however, regularly misunderstood what the word 'incommensurability' means, to the complete distortion of everything he says on the subject. This, combined with a dogmatic assumption about what scientific progress would have to mean -- cumulation without break -- and which Kuhn rejects, resulted in the kind of caricature Kitcher is arguing against.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Fortnightly Book, May 20

Our next fortnightly books will be lesser-known Jules Verne works from the Voyages extraordinaires: The Self-Propelled Island (L'Île à hélice, #41) and The Castle in Transylvania (Le Château des Carpathes, #37).

In The Self-Propelled Island, a Parisian string quartet touring California is kidnapped and brought aboard a vast artificial island, Standard Island, whose main city is called Milliard City because it is inhabited by billionaires. It is a utopian, if expensive (lunch costs $160 per person), loaded with an endless list of the finest technological luxuries. It has everything you would expect from a Verne tale: amazing technologies, a voyage to exotic places, and -- all too forgotten -- biting social satire. Technological utopia is not a stable utopia, and a society of billionaires is perhaps not as promising a foundation for a healthy life as its endless parade of luxuries and conveniences and gee-whiz advancements might suggest. The original English translations all cut material out; I'll be reading the recent (2015) University of Nebraska Press translation, by Marie-Thérèse Noiset, which is the first unabridged English translation of the original 1895 work.

'Propeller Island' by Léon Benett 69

The Castle in Transylvania, first published in 1892, is thought by some to have been an inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula; it is Verne's attempt to play around with Gothic tropes, including the sometimes-forgotten Gothic trope of science intersecting with superstition. In a village in the Carpathian mountains of Transylvania, rumors are flying about the local castle, which the villagers think is haunted by a devil and the spirits of the dead. Dr. Patak, a freethinker, investigates and discovers more than he had ever imagined. Count Franz de Telek, also freethinking, decides to get to the bottom of it all in order to show these superstitious villagers the light of reason. But the Count is perhaps underestimating the darkness in human nature. And he is also forgetting that the advance of science makes the world weirder and more uncanny: by technological discoveries, the past can last into the future in unexpected ways, and people can be present where they are not, and to deal with this can be as harsh and difficult an adjustment as dealing with ghosts and devils. I know less about the translation history of this work, but I will be reading the most recent translation, the 2010 Melville House translation by Charlotte Mandell.

The works are not particularly long or difficult, but because I have fairly busy schedule the next several weeks, I'm not sure if this will be a normal fortnight or will actually stretch into three weeks.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Isaac Asimov, The Complete Adventures of Lucky Starr


Opening Passages: Asimov knows how to open, so it's worthwhile to see each one. From David Starr--Space Ranger:

David Starr was staring right at the man, so he saw it happen. He saw him die. (p. 11)

From Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids:

Fifteen minutes to zero time! The Atlas waited to take off. The sleek, burnished lines of the space-ship glittered in the bright Earthlight that filled the Moon's night sky. Its blunt prow pointed upward into empty space. Vacuum surrounded it and the dead pumice of the Moon's surface was under it. The number of its crew was zero. There wasn't a living person aboard. (p. 129)

From Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus:

Lucky Starr and John Bigman Jones kicked themselves up from the gravity-free Space Station No. 2 and drifted toward the planetary coaster that waited for him with its air lock open. Their movements had the grace of long practice under non-gravity conditions, despite the fact that their bodies seemed thick and grotesque in the space suits they wore. (p. 246)

From Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury:

Lucky Starr and his small friend, John Bigman Jones, followed the young engineer up the ramp toward the air lock that led to the surface of the planet Mercury.

Lucky thought: At least things are breaking fast. (p. 361)

From Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter:

Jupiter was almost a perfect circle of creamy light, half the apparent diameter of the moon as seen from Earth, but only one seventh as brightly lit because of its great distance from the sun. Even so, it was a beautiful and impressive sight. (p. 475)

From Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn:

The Sun was a brilliant diamond in the sky, just large enough to the naked eye to be made out as something more than a star; as a tiny white-hot pea-sized globe. (p. 592)

Summary: David Starr is the youngest member of the Council of Science, an advisory body whose advice seems to be taken as considerably more than advisory, in what is variously called the Terran Federation, the Terrestrial Empire, the Solar Confederation, and the Solar Federation of Worlds. We follow his adventures through the Solar System as he uncovers plots of various kinds. The first book tries to stay true to its Lone Ranger origins, with Lucky obtaining a personal shield (his mask); after the first book, this mask then plays virtually no role whatsoever, and by the end of the series one of Lucky's problems is that everyone knows who he is, so being a masked ranger seems to have been Lucky's only failure.

An interesting feature of all the stories is that they take standard tropes and turn them in a new direction. A man who would ordinarily be a typical mad scientist character turns out to be just alone and unhappy; a story that would ordinarily be a revenge story ends with mere persuasion; an attempt to control minds becomes recognized as a brilliant discovery; the sinister Sirians, while genuinely sinister, are sometimes just being framed; deaths apparently connected turn out to be unrelated; the leak for a secret project turns out not to be either human or alien; the Sirians' most aggressive move is foiled by a diplomatic vote. And in all of the tales, means that are sinister are not seen as inherently so: Lucky's detective work doesn't just solve mysteries, but advances the frontiers of science, to the benefit of all.

While there are some inconsistencies throughout the works, the real weakness of the books, I think, is the Council of Science. The books themselves recognize the potential issues with an unelected body of men having virtually unlimited sway over matters of government -- at least, Mercury does, but this is quite limited, and by the last books, Lucky keeps telling people that he outranks them, which raises all sorts of unaddressed issues about how the Council of Science even works. Because of this, it's often unclear what's at stake. We find a similar problem with the Sirians, although the Sirians we actually learn more about (they are very much like the Solarians in the Robot novels). This is, I think, the primary way in which the book's unrelenting optimism gets in the way of the stories -- we really don't know much about this shadowy organization that seems to work more like a high-tech intelligence agency than any scientific institution we know.

But in other respects the optimism of the books makes for excellent reading. Scientific progress is a mythic idea; it is capable of epic scope and inspiring detail; portrayed well, it has a sublimity that both overwhelms and exalts. The difficulty is always the 'progress' part: you can't have a progress without a teleology, and specific set of ends, that tells you whether you are going in the right direction. But if you posit the direction, even as a primitive, you can build beautiful stories, as long as the direction is something you can bring your reader to grasp as a good thing. Asimov here does this better than he does elsewhere, because it is a very human direction, and because each apparent danger becomes a stepping stone to something more human and beneficial to all.

Favorite Passage:
But Lucky shook his head. "No, Senator Swenson is not a real cause for worry. He's ruthless and dangerous , but for that very reason he keeps the Council on its toes, keeps us from getting flabby.

"Besides," he added thoughtfully, "the Council of Science needs its critics, just as Congress and the government do. If ever the Council began to consider itself above criticism, then the time might come when it would establish a dictatorship over the Earth, and certainly I wouldn't want that to happen."

"Well, maybe," said Bigman, unsatisfied, "but I don't like that Swenson."

Lucky laughed and reached out to tousle the Martian's hair. "Nor I, but why worry about that now. Out there are the stars, and who knows where we'll be going next week, or why?" (p. 469)

Recommended: Recommended; all of them are worth a read if it comes your way. If you only do one, Venus is the best.


Isaac Asimov writing as Paul French, The Complete Adventures of Lucky Starr, Science Fiction Book Club in arrangement with Doubleday (New York: 2001).

Friday, May 18, 2018

Butler on Compassion

This constitution of nature, namely, that it is so much more in our power to occasion, and likewise to lessen misery, than to promote positive happiness, plainly required a particular affection, to hinder us from abusing, and to incline us to make a right use of the former powers, i. e. the powers both to occasion and to lessen misery; over and above what was necessary to induce us to make aright use of the latter power, that of promoting positive happiness. The power we have over the misery of our fellow creatures, to occasion or lessen it, being a more important trust than the power we have of promoting their positive happiness: the former requires, and has a further, an additional security and guard against its being violated, beyond, and over and above what the latter has. The social nature of man, and general good will to his species, equally prevent him from doing evil, incline him to relieve the distressed, and to promote the positive happiness of his fellow creatures: but compassion only restrains from the first, and carries him to the second; it hath nothing to do with the third.

The final causes then of compassion are, to prevent and to relieve misery.

The Right Reverend Doctor Joseph Butler, Bishop of Durham, in his sermon VI, on compassion, from the Rolls Chapel sermons. Butler, one of the greatest moral philosophers of his day, was born May 18, 1692.

Music on My Mind

Kardemimmit, "Hius Heliä".