Thursday, December 3, 2009

The virtue of thankfulness

This is an updated version of a post from my own blog written prior to Thanksgiving:

As Aquinas puts it in the Summa Theologiae, "Whether thankfulness is a virtue, distinct from the other virtues?" For Aquinas, the answer is yes, because thankfulness is "a special part of justice." Giving thanks to our benefactors, i.e. those who have given us a particular and personal favor, is an issue of obligation, or justice. We owe gratitude to them, and this is different from the related virtues of religion (owed to God), piety (owed to parents), and observance (owed to those who excel in dignity). We are left with thankfulness as a virtue distinct from these related excellences of character. His answer here only makes sense in light of the specific objection he is considering, as Aquinas distinguishes character traits by their objects, and it is on this basis that he claims a distinct role for thankfulness as a matter of justice.

The point, I take it, is that Thomas believes that gratitude is important in a variety of ways, related to God, parents, excellent human beings, and finally those who have benefitted us via a favor of some sort. We owe something to all of these persons, according to Thomas. One can see why we owe something to God, parents, and our benefactors, but why to excellent persons? I think we owe them gratitude for showing us how to live a human life in a way that is conducive to human flourishing. I think of people I know that have shed light on this by their example, and the claim that I owe them thanks seems very plausible. So thanks to Jon Sederquist, J.P. Moreland, Lewis Winkler, Dave Dishman, Terry McKinney, and the many others who have done this for me.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Conceptual Schemes

I first encountered the thought of Donald Davidson in 1982 in a graduate seminar conducted by Alasdair MacIntyre. The first thing I read was "Actions, Reasons, and Causes." The second thing I read was "On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme." I have agreed with almost everything that I have come to understand from the work and thought of Donald Davidson. I agree with his views on truth and meaning, for example. I agree with his views on rational action and intention. I agree with his views on the distinction between causes of belief and reasons for belief. And I agree with his rejection of the intelligibility of the idea of a conceptual scheme. On that last one, I may well be in a minority among philosophers, and certainly am among academics. So I am wondering:

First, what motivates a belief in conceptual schemes? Why would one want to think that there are “alternative” conceptual schemes, or radically incommensurable conceptual schemes? What conceptual or theoretical (or political?) work does a belief in conceptual schemes achieve?

Second, on occasion I hear someone speaking of another person as living in a completely different world. If that is not hyperbolic, I cannot make sense of what I hear. Or could it be that the person meant that the other operated under a completely different conceptual scheme?

Third, and I think this might be different from the first two, I sometimes hear people, even reasonably intelligent academics, stating that some other people see the world completely differently from the way I see it. Again, apart from hyperbole I do not know how to make sense of that thought. I could make sense of the notion that a robot capable of ambulating without running into things sees the world differently than I do (actually, that it would be metaphorical to even say it sees).

Fourth (I am trying to understand why anyone should be attracted to the belief that there are alternative conceptual schemes), could it be that some confuse differences of language and vocabulary with differences of concept? For example, might my vocabulary for identifying birds be rather coarse, while an ornithologist would have a more fine-tuned and nuanced vocabulary? The ornithologist is more discriminating than I am.

Monday, August 24, 2009

spiritual experiences with Cloud Cult

The last hurrah before school begins:

Cloud Cult @ The Cabooze in Minneapolis on 8/23/09

Fan-freakin'-tastic, spiritual experience

Thursday, July 16, 2009

a very brief and quick meditation on Aristotle concerning character

Aristotle was particularly concerned about the virtues of ethical character. It was obvious to him that habituation based on repeated exposure to particular kinds of experiences influenced an ethical agent along two entangled matrices: (a) what one professes to believe about particular ethical propositions such as “Courage is a virtue” and (b) how one actually conducts oneself ethically in the messy details of everyday life. Aristotle lays some groundwork early in his ethical treatise:

Hence it is also clear that none of the virtues of character arise in us naturally. For if something is by nature in one condition, habituation cannot bring it into another condition. A stone, for instance, by nature moves downwards, and habituation could not make it move upwards, not even if you threw it up ten thousand times to habituate it; nor could habituation make fire move downwards, or bring anything that is by nature in one condition into another condition. And so the virtues arise in us neither by nature nor against nature. Rather, we are by nature able to acquire them, and we are completed through habit. (Nicomachean Ethics Book II, chapter 1, §2)

To sum up in a single account: a state [of character] results from [the repetition of] similar activities. That is why we must perform the right activities, since differences in these imply corresponding differences in the states. (Book II, chapter 1, §7-§8)

First, then, we should observe that these sorts of states naturally tend to be ruined by excess and deficiency. We see this happen with strength and health — for we must use evident cases [such as these] as witnesses to things that are not evident. For both excessive and deficient exercise ruin bodily strength, and, similarly, too much or too little eating or dinking ruins health, whereas the proportionate amount produces, increases, and preserves it. (Book II, chapter 2, §6)

The same is true, then, of temperance, bravery, and the other virtues. For if, for instance, someone avoids and is afraid of everything, standing firm against nothing, he becomes cowardly; if he is afraid of nothing at all and goes to face everything, he becomes rash. (Book II, chapter 2, §7)

For example, one may claim to believe that courage is a virtue, but the only way in which both to profess this authentically and to have this belief function as part of one’s character is to experience scenarios in which one is challenged to behave courageously. Furthermore, one must successfully practice courageous actions in the face of those challenges. Once such successes become more the rule than not, one may say that one has acquired the virtue of courage that is expressed in an integrated manner by both verbal profession and habitual action. For Aristotle, there is no other way to acquire both the belief and the character trait.

Moral agents, including readers of this blog, possess a range of possible moral and immoral actions that they could right now, in the moment, perform and fail to perform. Even stronger, moral agents have a range of moral and immoral actions springing from habit that they could not fail to perform or could not help but performing. This is why, for example, the phenomenon of addiction is so powerful and frustrating. Addiction circumvents one’s best intentions and the most noble of one’s tragically powerless volitions to the contrary. These actions that moral agents may hate nevertheless spring forth largely as a result of a complex structure of dispositions, habits, and automatic responses that are embedded within their moral characters. These moral characters represent the social and moral identities of these agents and the complex substance of their life histories.

Aristotle was well aware of this moral psychology, and he deployed his insights to great effect in his Nicomachean Ethics, his masterpiece of ethical meditation on how one becomes virtuous. If one lacks the virtue of courage, then one must undergo a formation regimen, not unlike the athlete who trains her body and mind through specific and regular exercise programs in order to stress them into the sort of athletic compliance that one might call one’s “second nature.” The well trained athlete in the heat of the moment simply performs, as if by instinctual second nature. What is invisible to the casual observer is the lengthy, disciplined training regimen that makes possible the effortless-seeming athletic virtuosity. Sports commentators even have a phrase for this majestic phenomenon: being “in the zone.” In a similar vein, the one who has invested spiritual energy to become courageous has done so through a largely invisible life history in which the agent has been courted towards either courage or cowardice. To the degree that such pressure scenarios have resulted in volitions towards courage, the habit of courage is founded, nurtured, and solidified. Other candidate virtues can be similarly analyzed, such as generosity and patience. An exactly similar analysis can be given to the acquisition of vices, such as gluttony and miserliness. The key idea for Aristotle in all such analyses is habit. The cliché that “practice makes perfect,” though indeed a cliché, expresses a powerful truth about the human condition, whether the practice is towards virtue or vice. Consistent, intentional practice yields a habit, and moral character is largely a collection of one’s habits. It is not an accident that the notion of virtue is connected with the notion of a habitual disposition or power, and these notions are a powerful tool for understanding how it is that persons become just or wicked.

Consider what one is actually saying when one says of another, “He has become powerless to do otherwise.” One is inchoately implicating a life history of experiences and choices that have engraved determinative gutters within the agent in question, where his actions have become the runoff of his character.

Monday, June 22, 2009

fearing death

Instead of posting, I should be relaxing and thinking about fun things while on vacation on the north shore of Lake Superior...

Here’s a quick argument about death and fear in the spirit of Epicurus.

Epicurus writes in his Letter to Menoeceus, “Accustom yourself to believing that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply the capacity for sensation, and death is the privation of all sentience... when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”

(1) Everything that is bad for us is embedded in our actual experiences.
(2) Death is the absence of experiences.
(3) The absence of experiences cannot be bad for us.
(4) Hence, death cannot be bad for us.
(5) It is irrational to fear something that is not bad for us.
(6) Hence, it is irrational to fear death.

The most contentious claims are (1) and (5).

Someone might argue that something can be both bad for us and fail to be embedded in actual experiences. For example, I wonder if being the victim of a nasty, false rumor (a) which one never discovers and (b) from which one never suffers any negative consequences is something that can be said to be “bad for that someone.”

Someone also might argue it is rational to fear something that is not bad. For example, I wonder if it’s rational at times to fear success or power, neither of which are bad in and of themselves. Response: Maybe it’s not the success or power that one may fear, but rather one may fear one’s own character and what one might do in a context of possessing such things. The real object of fear then is a possibility that is bad. So, the fear is rational after all.

How about social justice? I fear that, and social justice is not bad; in fact, it’s good. Response: Maybe I’ve confused rationality with overextended self-interest. My self-interest (sometimes) conflicts with the moral calling of social justice, but that conflict is one that is distinct from the domain of rationality.

Hey, maybe claim (5) has got more going for it after all. I would have never thought that I might end up agreeing with something so Platonic and ancient.

I’m still not sure about claim (1).

Monday, June 15, 2009

Merely Verbal Disputes and the Origin of Ideas

Re-reading Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding for the umpteenth time, I am struck (again) by just how many perennial disputes in philosophy are dismissed by Hume as merely verbal disputes. Once we get clear on what we mean by our words, we can swat away pesky problems like the compatibility of liberty and necessity or the nature of causation. Other than Wittgenstein, has any other philosopher been so dismissive of so many "classic" problems in philosophy?

I think it should be noted, though, that Hume's rhetoric is a bit loftier than his (usually very careful) arguments. As he is quite clear to say, when not in high-literary mode, his principle that every idea comes from a corresponding impression plays a large role in dismissing these debates. When pressed with an alleged idea in metaphysics that must be accounted for, Hume presses us to consider the origin of this idea, and if the original impression cannot be produced, the idea is discarded. When dealing with philosophy problems, this (controversial) strategy helps clear the field quite quickly.

I have to admit to being almost completely unmotivated by this line of argument that occurs so regularly in Hume. For even if I were to grant Hume's controversial premise that every idea comes from a corresponding impression ("the Copy Principle"), I see absolutely no reason why I should have to provide that impression whenever someone questions the legitimacy of one of my ideas. Of course, it may help to get clear on an idea to ferret out the original impression, but that I must provide some sort of Certificate of Authenticity for each and every one of my ideas strikes me as an unhelpful and counterproductive test. I'm not one to think I have a great deal of insight into my own soul or my own ideas, but I do think that I can sometimes have a particular idea without being able to say where this idea originated. And I think I am fully within my philosophical rights (were there such a thing) to cling to an idea for which I cannot produce the original impression, even if I were to accept Hume's claim that every idea comes from an impression.

Even if one accepts the Copy Principle, that does not seem like enough to motivate the test of authenticity that Hume wields throughout the Enquiry (and Treatise). But at least it gives us some reason to think that many of our disputes might be dissolved by getting clear on our terms. Which is more than motivates most claims of verbal disputes. One of the most irritating expressions tossed about by students and other would-be disputants is that a problem is really "just semantics." Besides denigrating the worthy field of semantics, it is often misused for problems that are not really about the meaning of words but about concepts. And, most frustratingly, it seems motivated by the twin evils of carelessness (in the use of terms) and laziness (in working through an issue under debate). I've said many times that if I could pass one requirement for students receiving a B.A. it would be that they never, ever dismiss a problem as "just semantics."

Okay, end of grumpy old-man rant.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

end of year lunch

Earlier this week, the department took our teaching assistants out to an end of year lunch to thank them for their hard work. The food was lovely.

Ray and Dan

Dan and Carrie

graduating senior

yummy bread

graduating seniors

graduating seniors

Eric and some graduating seniors

graduating senior, Paul, and Gary (colleague from another department)

Good times were had by all.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

a bit of religious confusion

Please allow me to share my religious confusion with you.

First, the good news: There was a heart-warming story about a 3 year old toddler in Missouri who wandered away from home. He was lost for about three days, and he was found by search and rescue volunteers. He’s a tough kid who survived in the woods for three days. That’s pretty cool.

Here’s what the father said: “It’s indescribable how grateful we are. I mean, you doubt if God’s actually with you for awhile, and then something like this happens, and you know he’s there.”

Okay... I understand the sentiment. In fact, as a person of religious faith (or, for that matter, as simply a decent human being, religious or not), I share in his joy.

But I find myself utterly ambivalent about these kinds of proclamations.

There is another story of a 3 year old toddler who went missing in Montana. He also was found, but in this case, he was found dead in a septic tank three days after he went missing. He drowned in filth and refuse.

So, I guess what I’m saying is I don’t understand what it means to proclaim things like “God is there.” It cannot be the case that the expression “God is there” implies that “God saves me (us) from calamity.” Is that what the father of the rescued boy believes? Maybe he means something more subtle, such as “God is there” implies that “Sometimes God saves me (us) from calamity.” But then, what are the conditions that govern the “sometimes” qualifier? Or, perhaps it’s the case that dumb luck (bad or good) plays some determinative role. But then, is that kind of chance consistent with the traditional view of God that we find in the Christian religion? Do you see why I’m confused? I just don’t know.

At the end of the day, I haven’t said anything profound or new. All I’ve done is articulate in a somewhat plebeian way the problem that evil (both moral and natural) poses for anyone who claims to believe that there is a good, powerful, and intelligent (or at least competent) deity governing our world. Nevertheless, even though I haven’t really said anything new, I at least acknowledge a fundamental tension that some of my religious friends would rather either ignore or paste over with wafer-thin theodicies.

Another thought occurs to me... I truly marvel at the generations of past Jewish and Christian peoples (sidenote: I focus on these religions only because of my familiarity with them, not for any intentional slight on the saints of other religious traditions) who endured unspeakable hardship in the midst of their faith. In the 18th and 19th centuries of America, for example, the notion that one would lose a child was almost a matter of course given the prevailing public health conditions, and persons of faith did not automatically find that tragic phenomenon to compete against their notions of God’s governance of this world. Strange... I can’t get in that mindset. Perhaps the persons of faith in those generations would say of me that I’ve been warped by the fact that I can take a Tylenol when I have the slightest headache, and this has been transposed by me into my conception of “oughts” and “shoulds” that I then apply to how God should govern the world.

Maybe so... But I confess that I’m still religiously confused.

Friday, April 10, 2009

by Billy Collins

I used to sit in the cafe of existentialism,
lost in a blue cloud of cigarette smoke,
contemplating the suicide a tiny Frenchman
might commit by leaping from the rim of my brandyglass.

I used to hunger to be engaged
as I walked the long shaded boulevards,
eyeing women of all nationalities,
a difficult paperback riding in my raincoat pocket.

But these days I like my ontology in an armchair,
a rope hammock, or better still, a warm bath
in a cork-lined room --- disengaged, soaking
in the calm, restful waters of speculation.

Afternoons, when I leave the house
for the woods, I think of Aquinas at his desk,
fingers interlocked upon his stomach,
as he deduces another proof for God’s existence,

intricate as the branches of these bare November trees.
And as I kick through the leaves and snap
the windfallen twigs, I consider Leibniz on his couch
reaching the astonishing conclusion that monads,

those windowless units of matter, must have souls.
But when I finally reach the top of the hill
and sit down on the flat tonnage of this boulder,
I think of Spinoza, most rarefied of them all.

I look beyond the treetops and the distant ridges
and see him sitting in a beam of Dutch sunlight
slowly stirring his milky tea with a spoon.
Since dawn he has been at his bench grinding lenses,

but now he is leaving behind the saucer and table,
the smokey chimneys and tile roofs of Amsterdam,
even the earth itself, pale blue, aqueous,
cloud-enshrined, titled back on the stick of its axis.

He is rising into that high dome of thought
where loose pages of Shelley float on the air,
where all the formulas of calculus unravel,
tumbling in the radiance of a round Platonic sun—

that zone just below the one where angels accelerate
and the ampitheatrical rose of Dante unfolds.
And now I stand up on the ledge to salute you, Spinoza,
and when I whistle to the dog and start down the hill,

I can feel the thick glass of your eyes upon me
as I step from the rock to glacial rock, and on her
as she sniffs her way through the leaves,
her tail straight back, her body low to the ground.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Can I Enjoy a Good Night's Sleep?

I've been wondering recently whether it is possible to enjoy a good night's sleep, or to enjoy sleeping at all.

Here's the problem: It seems that in order to enjoy something, I have to be conscious while it is taking place. I enjoy a film only if I experience a film. I enjoy a good meal only if I experience a meal. If I do not consciously experience these events, it seems I can't enjoy them.

However, there is something unusual about enjoyment: I can enjoy things that haven't happened yet and things that already happened. The first we call anticipation and the second we call remembering (or reminiscing). So when I enjoy a good meal, I can enjoy three things: I can anticipate how the meal will be and my eating it (my mouth may even water as I imagine it), I can experience the meal in all its goodness, and I can remember enjoying the meal (I may even recreate the tastes and smells).

Turning to sleep, even if I can't experience (consciously) sleeping, I can still anticipate sleeping. (I'm not sure that I can remember sleeping, since in order to recall it, it seems that I would have to have been conscious the first time through). I don't think that when people say they enjoy sleeping, though, they mean the anticipation of sleeping. And I don't think they mean remembering sleeping. But it does still seem right somehow to say that I enjoy sleeping or I enjoy getting a good night's sleep, doesn't it?

Here's my suggestion as to what is going on. Another kind of appreciation that we have (a kind of appreciation I think can be classified as enjoyment) is appreciation of a thing as constitutive of a larger whole. I can enjoy a tragic death in a novel not because I enjoy tragic deaths but because I can enjoy how the tragedy fit into the novel as a whole - how it made that novel better. I can also enjoy a meal as a part of a well-lived life. I can appreciate having a body that needs food, and the wonderful ways that people work toward making that experience as enjoyable as possible. I can appreciate having the opportunity to eat for pleasure's sake as well as for need's sake. I can take enjoyment from the role that eating a good meal has in my life as a whole. And this is what I think we enjoy when we enjoy a good night's sleep. We enjoy the way we feel refreshed afterwards, we can appreciate those hazy moments at the edge of consciousness when we realize we can fall back asleep for another hour, and we can find joy in going to sleep after a full day well lived. So even if it's not possible to enjoy sleep as it is happening, I can still enjoy sleep in a way that goes beyond anticipation and remembering. I enjoy the role that getting a good night's sleep plays in my life as a whole.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

MacLaurin, Clarke Velocities, and Powers

I've been reading various obscure sources recently as I investigate early interpretations of Newton and how they might have influenced Hume's understanding of space, time, body, souls, and scientific method. I came across this (to me) rather surprising passage from Colin MacLaurin's A Treatise of Fluxions in Two Books (1742). MacLaurin was a friend of Hume in Edinburgh, a key figure in the "Scottish Englightenment," and one of the premier mathematicians of his day. This passage comes from the book in which he attempts to explain recent developments in mathematics (especially in differential calculus) to an educated non-sophisticate.
It is indeed generally allowed, that if a body was to be left to itself from any term of the time of its motion, and was to be affected by no external influence after that term, it would proceed for ever with an uniform motion, describing always a certain space in a given time: and this seems to be a sufficient foundation for ascribing, in common language, the velocity to the body that moves, as a power. It is well known, that what is an effect in one respect, may be considered as a power or cause in another; and we know no cause in common philosophy, but what is itself to be considered as an effect: but this does not hinder us from judging of effects from such causes. However, if any dislike this expression, they may suppose any mover or cause of the motion they please, to which they may ascribe the power, considering the velocity as the action of this power, or as the adequate effect and measure of its exertion, while it is supposed to produce the motion at every term of the time. (Book 1, p. 54)
What interests me in this passage is his seeming indifference to whether something counts as a cause or an effect. On first reading, I thought MacLaurin was making the relatively uninteresting point that one thing (B) can be both an effect (of A) and a cause (of C). This is suggested when he says "what is an effect in one respect, may be considered as a power or cause in another." But his next sentence is more revealing. He offers that an unhappy reader may "suppose any mover or cause of the motion they please to which they may ascribe the power." This echoes his earlier line that the velocity of a moving body is "a power."
This is interesting because it is a break from a particularly influential reading of Newton that was popularized by Samuel Clarke. Clarke argued that since matter was incapable of self-motion, it had no power of its own. Therefore, to explain the introduction of motions into the world, we have to posit the existence of non-material souls. These souls can't be merely human, since motion shows up where humans aren't, so we have an argument for the existence of God (or at least other non-human souls; we get to God in needing to explain the existence of non-necessary matter). According to Clarke, Newton's world can't exist without God pushing matter around (or appointing lesser souls to do the pushing). (There is evidence to suggest that this was Newton's preferred hypothesis, when he felt like positing hypotheses.)
What MacLaurin is suggesting is quite radical in saying that one needn't invoke God to explain the power of motion. It's just as good from the perspective of Newtonian philosophy to refer to the powers of the bodies as it is to say that the bodies' motions are the effects of some other being. Whether velocity is the cause of the motion or the effect of the true cause of the motion makes no difference to studying velocity. This idea, which would not have been missed by Hume, not only does away with the need to posit "powers" in nature, it also does away with the need to invoke God to explain the Newtonian world. MacLaurin isn't suggesting here that one can do away with both of these hypotheses; he may have thought either one worked just fine, so he wouldn't push for either (in this place). It wouldn't be until Hume that we get a suggestion that one could do away with all these hypotheses and proceed in science and philosophy with mere regularity.
(Note: I'm not suggesting that it was Hume's reading of MacLaurin's Treatise of Fluxions that influenced his writings; Hume's Treatise, after all, was published first. But it is likely that MacLaurin was an important source of Hume's ideas about natural philosophy, if not while a student then at least in their friendship.)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

how to explain the two Euclids

On occasion, I find myself talking about axioms and the notion of a paradigm-relative axiom.

The standard example I use is Euclidean geometry... which usually elicits judgmental stares from my students. (*sigh* Public school isn’t what it used to be, eh? But I digress...)

One of the axioms (forgive the loose description) is that if you draw two straight lines diverging from a single point, those lines will continue to diverge forever.

This is one of those propositions that seems so self-evident that the glow of its (alleged) necessity is like philosophical fairy dust... magical and dependable to boot!

But alas... the view is false.

Suppose that Euclid were born in a very different world, and by “world” I mean only a very small difference. Hold fixed all of the most fundamental laws of the cosmos. Change only one thing: the size of our earth. Imagine that our earth was only 500 feet in diameter. Euclid, had he been born on such a small planet, might have formed his conceptions of spatial representation on the basis of curved lines.

(To those careful readers out there who accuse me of an implicit (well, maybe explicit) empiricism... guilty as charged.)

If such had been the case, it would be very easy to see that two straight lines that diverge do not diverge forever. They actually converge again, say, at the south pole, which happens to be very close by. In this scenario, two straight lines can contain an area.

To the careful reader who thinks that I’m cheating a little bit in my characterization of straight lines...

Just conceive of a straight line as a line on which the shortest distance between two points on that line runs through that line. That’s true of traditional Euclidean lines as well as curved lines.

But... it’s also true of the lines on the alternate Earth that is only 500 feet in diameter. Let’s go back to the Euclid of this world... His geometry would consist of geometric figures such as squares and triangles whose angle sums would vary with the size of the figure.

Flat surfaces are one thing; curved surfaces are an entirely different matter. On the curved surface of a sphere, you can have a finite and endless line, and that requires a different kind of geometry.

Here’s the crazy cool reality: Our universe is composed of curved space(s).

Well, that’s a rather imprecise but free-of-jargon way of explaining this stuff.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

two wacky ideas

Here are two quick thoughts about Spinoza before dinner.

The students find Spinoza both interesting and wacky.

I’ve posted a few other items in this blog about what I find interesting in Spinoza.

Here’s something I find wacky... Spinoza is a necessitarian, which is to say, he believes that all events that occur are not only necessitated by the past but also necessary.

Take any proposition P about an event where some attribute is exemplified by a particular. What explains P? If you’re a red-blooded rationalist, then you’re going to cite another proposition Q that explains P. “Explains” means.... what? Maybe it means that given the history of the world, including the physical laws up to that point, P is necessitated by Q, plus the operative laws at that slice of the universe. “Necessitated” means... what? If we limit the description to the previous sentence, then it just means that P was inevitable given the history of the world. So... “necessitated” in this context means inevitable.

But... to say that P is necessitated is not the same as saying P is necessary.

Spinoza is really clear that he believes P, along with any proposition describing an event, is necessary.

Here’s one way to get to the necessity of P. Take the entire series of explanatory propositions of any given event: R, S, T1...Tn, where each in the series explains the prior one. Then, make a massive conjunction of them all; call it C.

Ask yourself, what explains C? Or alternately, why did C obtain?

Nothing from inside the series can do so. For Spinoza, nothing contingent outside of the series can explain C, since there aren’t any contingencies.

The question cannot be answered. This, however, is a fate worse than death to a red-blooded rationalist like Spinoza. The only other alternative is that somehow the very nature of the series is such that it is self-necessitating.

So... on to the first wacky thing: This is wacky in exactly the same way that it’s wacky to say that it’s God’s nature to be a necessary being. What’s wacky is to think that this delivers some item of meaningful knowledge (my empiricist tendencies shine through, eh?). Musing on this in this way, however, does help me see another angle on why Spinoza would (refer to previous post) use a locution like: “God, or in other words, Nature.”

On to the second wacky thing: Even really dull students of philosophy get what I’m about to say, and so I’m almost ashamed to put it to paper, since it’s rather like pronouncing that “water is wet.” But here goes... Believing that this is the only possible world is tantamount to claiming that nothing (that is in fact) false is possible (or possibly true). Wow, that’s nuts.

Regardless, I still love Spinoza and wish I had one-hundredth of his intellect.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Spinoza the mystic

Recently in class (and hopefully again this week), we talked about whether Spinoza should be considered a strange theist (e.g., a pantheist or panenthiest) or an atheist. Either is consistent with his monistic metaphysics.

Hard to say...

He’s got this great way of referring to his view of reality: “God, or in other words, Nature.”

Recall that Descartes was a substance-type dualist and a substance-token pluralist. Spinoza is a substance-type monist and a substance-token monist! There is only one kind of thing, and there is, in fact, only one thing.

This one thing is “God, or in other words, Nature.”

So... what is this God like? The Appendix to Ethics part I is a wonderful tirade against traditional notions of a personal God.

He gives an argument against taking God to be a personal agent. If God is perfect, then it follows that he lacks nothing. If something intervenes owing to intentional purposes, the reason that such intervention occurs is due to a lack in the something that intervenes. The idea is that one could only hold a view of an interventionist God if one gives up the view that such a God is perfect. So, Spinoza preserves perfection at the price of God having one of the marks of personhood — viz., intentional, purposive action. The real target obviously is any traditional notion of God that is drawn from religions.

What doesn’t appear very defined at the end of this argument is the notion of perfection that he attributes to God. And here is where it begins to become clearer why he says of reality that it is “God, or in other words, Nature.”

If God were to exist as religions proclaim, it would make impossible any type of explanatory rationalism, whereby all events that occur in the spacetime world could be explained by reference to a (hopefully) small class of deterministic laws. I think that the real awe-inspiring prospect of a completed explanatory rationalism is what Spinoza has in mind when he attributes perfection to God (or Nature). For us today, I imagine it’s the same sensation of awe and hints of viewing perfection when we think about the prospects of a completed physics.

It’s not really a coherent merging of the concepts of God and Nature, since the conceptual hangover of traditional religious notions of God (e.g., the inspiration of awe) begin to obscure the impersonal but also awe-inspiring, even terrifying, aspects of the Natural world. Something that seems correct gets transposed, but can you really transpose the thing you want without also dragging along some residue of the other thing you don’t want?

Still, there’s a tense resonance that Spinoza was onto, and I probably would be where Spinoza is if I did not hold onto some of my more traditional religiously-inspired beliefs about God being personal.

I asked the students why Spinoza’s treatise is called Ethics. Here again is another tense and incoherent resonance between two views that seem right in their own ways. If something happens according to the will of (a traditional religious) God, then it follows that, in some respect, the thing that happens is “good” (though maybe not “good” for the collection of things implicated in that one event). In the same way, if something occurs by the will of Nature (that is, according to laws of determinism... Spinoza would go further and argue fatalism), and if one conjoins this alleged fact with the view of Nature as being perfect, then it follows, in some sense, that this occurrence is “good” or “fitting” or “perfect.”

The lesson drawn for agents is the same in both cases: contentment is the correct response.

In the first case, it’s pious contentment as a way of surrendering to the will of God. In the second case, it’s rational contentment as a way of surrendering to the perfect, law-like, and inevitable workings of Nature. Thus it makes sense why Spinoza’s musings, though totally saturated with metaphysics, are actually for him an investigation into ethics. It amounts to Stoicism for the seventeenth-century.

In the end, his use of “God” and “nature” may be an incoherent juxtaposition of vocabularies that are too different in their semantic histories. It is nevertheless a gem of linguistic play that makes progress in the way a pinball makes progress through a series of bumpers. It’s almost never a straight line and it’s not clear that the ball is going anywhere but you’ll play every time.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Cartesian heresy

In Descartes’ philosophy, there is a thread that ties together his epistemic concerns in a way that is shockingly similar (in one respect) to the kinds of concerns of those ancient epistemologies adopted by Stoics and Pyrrhonians.

Those ancient philosophers were wildly obsessed with ethics and the good life. I say that with tongue-in-cheek, partly in the mode of satire and partly in the mode of (imagined) nostalgia. I qualify with “imagined” because I do not know what it must have been like to be always connecting one’s metaphysics and epistemology to concerns about the good life. There was a time, not too long ago even, when the very term “metaphysics” connoted also a treatment of philosophical cosmology wherein one would naturally discuss the place of humanity in the wider order of the structured cosmos. That conversation is largely dead, as far as I can tell. It was of course alive and well, for example, in a medieval philosopher such as Boethius who went so far in his Consolation to identify (well... maybe that’s too strong) or at any rate closely relate his own flourishing to that of the cosmos. What’s good for the cosmos must in some sense be good for him, and as such, his intense suffering must be justified. In his mind, a metaphysics that combined Stoic and Christian categories seemed right. (I suppose that I too would cling to almost anything that made sense of my impending death-by-bludgeoning.) But I digress...

Much as the Stoics (who pursued apathia) and Pyrrhonians (who pursued ataraxia) were concerned about a peaceful existence that comes from ordering one’s beliefs in the right way, Descartes also has designs on an epistemic system that will stay put. The possible heresy about which I am wondering: What if Descartes, unlike the ancient epistemologists, had truth in the backseat in his concerns? What if Descartes is really more interested in the calm, intellectual peace that comes with a stable system of beliefs that is psychologically unassailable, independent of the truth question?

If this is the case, then the Cartesian project is non-normative from an epistemic point of view. Descartes is actually like Quine.

An obvious rejoinder is to suggest that Descartes is after both: (i) an efficient, stable superstructure of beliefs that (ii) is actually true!

Granted that he could be after both... But I’m playing with an idea here...

Are there reasons to think that he could be after (i) by itself independent of any concern for (ii)? I think there is. When Descartes begins to deal with his modal notions of what is and is not possible, he adopts a shockingly blunt psychological criterion about the limits and constitution of human noetic structures. This is fascinating. It suggests that he thinks clear and distinct modal notions are brokered not so much by truth/falsity but by dubitability, where the latter is not a reliable indication of the former.

That’s dynamite.

Friday, January 30, 2009

interesting interview with Gwen Ifill

Gwen Ifill talks about her book on Obama on Minnesota Public Radio:

Descartes and Plato

In re-reading Descartes’ Meditation Two, I was struck again by how similar he is to Plato. The famous passage about the wax is a nice place where Descartes plays his Platonic hand.

Plato famously makes a distinction between the realm of the sensible (Becoming) and the intelligible (Being). The sensible realm is the one whose general determinable attribute is alteration. The intelligible realm is the one whose particular determinate attribute is an utter, mystical sameness. This latter realm is where Plato places Form (contentious view: not Forms), and this realm can only be accessed by a pure intellection that is supposed to transcend perceptions of the sensible alterations in the realm of Becoming.

Cue Descartes over a millennium later as he famously ruminates on the piece of wax...
“I now know that even bodies are not strictly perceived by the senses or the faculty of imagination but by the intellect alone, and that this perception derives not from their being touched or seen but from their being understood; and in view of this I know plainly that I can achieve an easier and more evident perception of my own mind than of anything else.” (Meditation Two)
According to Descartes, even though the sensible qualities of the wax may change when I heat it, I still judge that the same wax remains through all the alterations. My distinct conception of the wax as an enduring material substance is not based on its changeable sensible qualities.

Rational reflection moves me to judge that the wax as a material body is “merely something extended, flexible and changeable.” (Meditation Two)

Since the wax is potentially infinitely flexible and changeable, my adequate conception of the wax could not be a function of my sensory imagination but rather of my rational understanding.

It’s obvious that Descartes is shopping for a general definition that is aimed to be “essence-tracking” with respect to not only the wax but of material substance as such. He’s looking for the Form.

This is his way of articulating the Socratic/Platonic search for answers to the “What is X?” question (e.g., What is dikaiosune? What is arête? etc.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Buying Less

It's January, 2009, and the USA is in one of the worst recessions anyone can remember. Comparisons are made to the dot-com crash of the early 2000s, the awfulness of the early 1980s, and all the way back to the Great Depression itself in the 1930s.

This all leads to my question for the philosophers: Should you intentionally spend less money in a recession?

Of course, if you've lost your job or some of your income, you'll have to make tough choices. But I'm imagining a person who hasn't had their income affected at all. (Presumably their savings have dwindled, but let's say they don't live off that savings and can reasonably expect to wait out the recession before they plan to retire or otherwise draw on their savings. Let's also assume that have a high degree of job security.) If you are making exactly as much money as you were last year, why should you spend any less? Why should the fact that other people are buying fewer things lead you to buy fewer things?

There's one easy way to spend less without making any sacrifices. As retailers work to move their merchandise, they're having greater sales than past years. So if you buy a sweater for $40 that would have been $50 a year ago, you are spending less. So that's easy to do. But I take it that people have stopped buying sweaters (or cars or most non-necessities). But is this rational? If you are making just as much money as you were before, why would you spend less now? Perhaps you are a super-saver and think this is a good time to invest, but I don't think that's why most people are holding onto their money.

Besides the usual reasons to save money and be thrifty that apply at all times, and the ways one can easily spend less, and the greater need to be generous, should you buy less in a recession?

Monday, January 26, 2009

Locke and the idea of the void

In the seventeenth century, the two dominant forms of mechanistic philosophy were Cartesianism and corpuscularianism. The former denied the possibility and hence existence of the void, and the latter affirmed the existence of the void, since matter was ultimately discrete.

Locke, being much in favor of corpuscularianism over Cartesianism (though withholding belief about whether corpuscularianism delivers scientia about natural bodies), surely must have wondered how it is that one can have an idea of a void.

I’ve wondered whether this passage from the Essay could have been deployed by Locke to explain the idea of a void.

“If it were the design of my present undertaking to enquire into the natural causes and manner of perception, I should offer this as a reason why a privative cause might, in some cases at least, produce a positive idea, viz. that all sensation being produced in us only by different degrees and modes of motion in our animal spirits, variously agitated by external objects, the abatement of any former motion must as necessarily produce a new sensation, as the variation or increase of it; and so introduce a new idea, which depends only on a different motion of the animal spirits in that organ (II.viii.4).”