Sunday, October 31, 2004

Fake Halloween Tombstones and the Brevity of Life

One bore the inscription:

Ashes to ashes
Dust to dust
Life is short
So party we must.

But why not:

Ashes to ashes
Dust to dust
Life is short
So work out your salvation with diligence.

These are two diametrically opposed responses to one and the same admitted fact, the brevity of life. The worldling, to give him a name, take the shortness of life as a reason to make the most of it, to "grab for all the gusto you can," in the words of a 1960's beer commercial since, in the words of the same commercial, "you only go around once in life." The idea is that since our days are few, our pleasures and experiences must be many, so that we may ‘get the most out of life.’

The seeker, however, rejects this merely quantitative solution to what strikes him as a qualitative problem. Fundamentally, the problem is not that our time is short, but that we are in time in the first place. Let me try to make this clear. For the person I am calling the seeker, the problem is not that our days are few in number, a problem that could be solved by having more of them, but that each day, each hour, each minute is defective in it mode of being, so that even an endless supply of days would not solve the problem. The problem is that the world of change is a scene of unreality. Desire seeks a satisfaction it cannot find in any transient object so that piling one finite satisfaction upon another does nothing to yield true satisfaction. Among the seekers we find:

Buddha: "Decay is inherent in all component things! Work out your salvation with diligence!" (Supposedly the Tathagata’s last words.)

Plato: "nothing which is subject to change...has any truth" (Phaedo St 83).

Augustine: "Things that are not immutable are not at all."

Should we take the side of the worldling and view impermanence as a reason to enter into this life more appreciatively and to live it more fully, without hope for anything beyond it, or should we take the fact of impermanence as a reason to seek salvation from this world? Should we seek the deepest and richest satisfaction of our earthly desires in the brief time allotted us, or should we curtail or perhaps even renounce these desires in the hope of satisfying a higher desire? Should we party more or meditate more?

The answer depends on the answer to this question: Does impermanence entail relative unreality?

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Aussie Philosopher David Stove

If this curmudgeon is right, then I'm wrong. Sooner or later I will have to take him on. See here for some disconcertingly delightful writing.

Two Master Level Blitz Miniatures

Dennis Monokroussos is a philosopher writing a dissertation at Notre Dame on explanatory exclusion. But fair Philosophia is only one of his mistresses. The other is Caissa, and a demanding bitch she is! A National Master, Dennis writes:

I see you’ve included a chess game in your blog; here’s something a bit more avant-garde for your entertainment, a game I played a few years ago on ICC against an IM [International Master, a FIDE title] whose handle at the time was “groucho.”

Groucho-DM:

1.g3 h5 2.Bg2 h4 3.b3 e5 4.Bb2 Nc6 5.c4 Bc5 6.e3 Nf6 7.Ne2 h3 8.Bf1 b5(!!) 9.cxb5 Nb4 10.d4 Bb7 11.Rg1 Ng4! 12.f4 Nxe3 13.Qd2 Nbc2+ 14.Kf2 Ng4#

More conventional but also nice is a game from December of 1998; we were both 2600 at the time. (This is against a different opponent whose name and handle I didn’t record for some reason.)

DM-NN:

1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nd5 3.Nc3 Nxc3 4.dxc3 d5 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.Bg5 Bg4 7.Be2 h6 8.Bh4 Qd7 9.Qd2 e6 10.O-O-O Bxf3 11.Bxf3 Nxe5 12.Bxd5 Ng6? 13.Bc6! 1-0

Even my opponent commented “Nice!” after the game. Hope you like them!


Tammy's Case for Bush

See here.

The Organizational Roots of the Democrat Party

David Horowitz, How to Beat the Democrats (Dallas: Spence Publishing, 2002), p. 68:

The Democrats’ left-wing orientation has deep organizational roots. The party apparatus feeds off the entitlement of the welfare state: social workers, university intellectuals, trial lawyers, government bureaucrats, and government unions are all clients of the Big Government programs the party promotes.

Horowitz then quotes from a WSJ article by Cleta Mitchell:

The fundamental motivation for Democrats is their understanding that winning control of government is tied to paychecks, jobs, government grants, public money for private groups and companies, government contracts, union bargaining advantages, rules by which trial lawyers bring lawsuits, and on and on. The use of government to feed friends and starve enemies is something Democrats know instinctively. Winning elections means getting or keeping a livelihood.

Say what you will about trial lawyers, but remember this: They get paid only if their clients win. Extending that principle to politics means that various Democratic constituencies are convinced that a Democratic victory means food on the table.

From the Journal of a Discarded Man

I love reading journals, both of the famous and of the obscure. Among the latter, I find my own especially intriguing for some reason. Here is an excerpt from Journal of a Discarded Man by one Walter Morris. He was in his mid-fifties at the time of this entry and has recently lost his job:

29 December 1962, Saturday. Five more makes sixty. This thing is moving right along. At twenty-one I thought I was going to be twenty-one forever.("The feeling of immortality in youth," as old Hazlitt put it.) A thirty, one is taken aback; at forty, startled; at fifty, incredulous and depressed. Midway between fifty and sixty, time’s fleet foot seems fully revealed and I see no logical reason for being taken by surprise from now on out – but who’s logical? Today is a day for homilies and platitudes, old saws and bitter-sweet droppings. "If I had to do it all over again. . ." "If I knew then what I know now. . ." These pious exercises are all right, though. They take us away from our close work and present a vista, and in this focus Everyman is a philosopher.


All right. If I had to do it over again, I’d learn a trade (for bread and butter) and for the high, orbital shot I’d concentrate on painting. The pip-squeak world of the white-collar employee I’d avoid like the plague. This is hindsight, pure, fatuous and futile. . . (From Michael Rubin, Men Without Masks: Writings from the Journals of Modern Men, Addison-Wesley, 1980, p. 194.)


Friday, October 29, 2004

From the Mail: The Incarnation

Jason Pratt writes:

While paging over your post of Victor's reply to Richard (to see if he had made any significant alterations from the version he sent out to us himself, a couple weeks back), I was intrigued by your article on Incarnation theory. Have you had any solid clues on the resolution of the dilemma yet (10ish years after first writing it, and 2ish years after publishing it in Philo)?

BV: I've had a couple of further ideas. One is to question the notion that the Incarnation is a case of numerical identity alongside other cases. Perhaps it is entirely sui generis. I'll be blogging on this further.

It's refreshing not to have to sort through yet _another_ round of the usual errors made on all sides of the aisle.

BV: What would you say are the typical errors and misunderstandings? It might be nice to have a taxonomy of them.

And, having read it twice now (once as a quick scan, once more carefully), I cannot yet find any serious flaw in the argument as it stands. But I can see a place or two where it seems significantly incomplete; and from my own experience, you may find it helpful for consideration. One minor correction, which won't help solve the dilemma: although your quote from Lewis is correct, and useful (as far as it goes) for illustrating the notion you were discussing; it isn't Lewis' own final position on the subject, even in MaPS. (Part of this is Lewis' fault for being slightly sloppy in his paragraph construction, but he does give a bit more discussion on the topic later.)The point to his comparison was not simply to present the Incarnation as being "a special case of the mind-body relation, the case in which the mind is self-existent spirit rather than created spirit"; though admittedly his language surrounding the immediate proximity of the quote you used could easily be read that way. He's thinking along the lines of the event being a_miracle_, with the problems that a _miracle_--supernatural action introducing effects into Nature--has for his intended audience. This is why he wrote (as you quoted), "the difficulty which we *felt* in the *mere idea* of the Supernatural descending into the Natural is apparently nonexistent, or is at least overcome in the person of every man." [myitalics] Lewis has already long since dealt with this particular problem (thus the first 13 chapters of preliminary study), but is conscientiously mentioning it again to help readers over a remaining _felt_ difficulty. But Lewis goes on to make the crucial distinction (bottom of p 110, top of p 111, same edition) that shows he _isn't_ in fact advocating theApollinarian defense. When he says (in the middle of p 110, where you quoted him), "In other men a supernatural _creature_ thus becomes, in union with the natural creature, one human being. In Jesus, it is held, theSupernatural Creator Himself did so," [his italics] he has a further significant difference in mind than whether the mind is self-existent rather than derivative:"We cannot conceive how the Divine Spirit dwelled within the created and human *spirit* of Jesus: but neither can we conceive how His human spirit, or that of any man, dwells within his *natural organism*." [my italics] The 'supernatural creature' mentioned in his previous quote, is thus _not_merely replaced in the Incarnation (Lewis is claiming) by the supernaturalCreator. Which is why he goes on (p 111 again, and afterward) to call our own composite existence "but a faint image of the Divine Incarnation itself--the same theme in a very minor key." He then specifically (and once again) describes God descending into a human spirit, and a human spirit into Nature, and our thoughts into our senses and passions. But he certainly does not mean by "descends into" a mere _replacement of-or-by_: for he would be going entirely against everything in his book up to now, to claim that a human spirit simply _replaces_, much less _becomes_, Nature. Our thoughts do not replace or become our senses and passions, but exist in unity with them. He is speaking of a 'multifarious and subtle harmony'; descending _into sympathy with_ (or perhaps it would be clearer to say into working in union with), as (again in his examples) the best adult minds descend into sympathy with children, and men into sympathy with beasts._This_ runs in synch with the rest of his book, which argues for the proper working of the supernatural within Nature not being a mere replacement, or even a mere invasion (it does not 'violate' Nature as our opponents are fond of putting it--the sexual analogy being otherwise quite apt, though), but a working with-and-through creation, empowering and raising it.

Lewis is saying, therefore, that the self-existent Creator spirit is descending to be in union with the created spirit, as well as the created body, of Jesus.He also links this (implicitly in his first appendix to MaPS, and perhaps explicitly in Mere Christianity, which I don't have in front of me at the moment, though I recall him doing it more clearly elsewhere) with "the_absolutely_ Supernatural life which no creature can be given simply by being created, but which every rational creature can have ['share' wouldperhaps be a better word] by voluntarily surrendering itself to the life ofChrist." [his italics, my note; p 170 of your edition of MaPS] If Lewis was only proposing Apollinarianism, then the consequential inference would be that our union in Christ would only involve God merely replacing our spirit with His own. (Which, to be fair, Lewis seems to tread awfully close to inMC, as I recall. Apparently this is a perrenial Christian temptation.) This would make nonsense of our creation as rational spirits in the first place. Working and living in a close interpersonal unity with God, though--a unity we can disrupt by our sin, and which can be repaired by reconciliation(conciliation and healing from God, repentence from us)--makes excellentsense, I think. It also fits the common Biblical analogy of such a relationship being a marriage between Groom and Bride.None of which may help resolve your dilemma, at least on the face of it. And you may have heard replies of this sort already from other Lewisian scholars. But just in case, I thought I'd send it.

It does lead, in a way, toward a hint I would give regarding a possible resolution to your dilemma itself. Throughout your whole discourse, as far as I remember, you _seem_ to be treating the topic entirely from the perspective of God the Son; as thoughHe operated separately from the other members of the Trinity, or as though the Son/Logos was simply another way of describing a monotheistic hypostasis (or Independent Fact as I like to call it). I think, to put it briefly, that your dilemma is coming from working at the topic somewhat backward, or perhaps more accurately in exclusion of (or irrelevance to) the character of God as an interPersonal relationship inHis own self-existent existence. Perhaps you should proceed first by considering God's character and characteristics, in the relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to themselves and in regard to Nature and humanity; before going on to consider the metaphysics of the Incarnation. (After all, even the Creeds don't _begin_ with the Incarnation as the central truth of the Christian proclamation.) At least, this is how I proceeded; and while I haven't yet run a direct comparison of my results with your discourse, my initial impression is that I won't be finding any insuperable problems--despite the high quality of your work, which I was most impressed with. Hoping this clue may be of some help! (I'll let you know the results of my own cross-analysis, once I do it.)

BV: Please do follow up on this. At the moment I don't have the time to fully respond to what you have said. But your suggestion of beginning from the Trinity and examining the Incarnation from that perspective is one I will have to consider. Clearly, Incarnation presupposes Trinity, though not vice versa. I haven't worked hard enough yet on the logical problems of the Trinity -- that might shed some additional light. In any case, I am very grateful for your remarks.

Silly Expression #2: 'The Government is Us'

Talk show host Thom Hartmann made this idiotic remark on a C-Span panel the other morning. I wonder if Hartman has ever had an encounter with an arrogant cop who has overstepped the bounds of his legitimate authority. Has he ever been audited by the IRS? I recommend the latter experience for its educational value. One quickly learns who the cat is and who the mouse.

There are two extremes to avoid, the libertarian and the liberal. Libertarians often say that the government can do nothing right, and that the solution is to privatize everything including the National Parks. Both halves of that assertion are patent nonsense. It is equal but opposite nonsense to think that Big Government will solve all our problems. Ronnie Reagan had it right: "A government big enough to give you everything you want is powerful enough to take everything you have." Or something like that.

The government is not us. It is an entity over against most of us run by a relatively small number of us. Among the latter are some decent people but also plenty of power-hungry scoundrels, for whom a government position is a hustle like any hustle. Government, like any entity, likes power and likes to expand its power, and can be counted on to come up with plenty of rationalizations for the extension of its power. It must be kept in check by us, just as big corporations need to be kept in check by government regulators.

From a logical point of view, the ‘Government is us’ nonsense appears to be a pars pro toto fallacy: one identifies a proper part (the government) with the whole of which it is a proper part (the governed).


Silly Expression #1: 'Junk Food'

There is no such thing as junk food. Food is food. When I go backpacking, I eat crud I would never eat at home, stuff loaded with fat, salt, and sugar. Dinner might consist of couscous with ‘Vienna’ sausages. If you are an American you know what the latter are: morsels of mystery meat laden with fat and sodium. But when you are schlepping 40-50 lb loads over 12,00 foot passes, all the while sweating like a pig, this is is exactly what you need. One needs fat, sodium, sugar, and strong coffee laced with more sugar. The frou-frou salad and green tea can wait for later.

Gates of Vienna

Bill Keezer has been assiduously surfing hither and yon in search of interesting weblogs. One of the ones he has turned up is Gates of Vienna. If you know your history, you'll catch the allusion. I plan to blogroll it and check in periodically.

On Event-Causation

Brandon at Siris writes:

Some of you philosophically-minded types who hold that event causation (understood as a relation between two distinct events) is the primary sort of causation can perhaps help me here. I'm currently working on a paper that touches on issues of event causation, and want to make sure I don't do anyone any injustice. I can understand someone thinking that causation is an event (I think so myself); but why would one think of causation as a relation obtaining between two distinct events? Such a view rules out any possibility of causation being something that is done, because events don't do anything - they just are, and come before and after and during each other. So causation can't be an act or action, even a relative one.

BV: Consider an example. A ball hits a window, and the window breaks. Is it the ball that is the cause of the window’s breaking, or is it the ball’s hitting the window that is the cause? If the former, the cause is a substance; if the latter, the cause is an event. Substances and events presumably belong to distinct ontological categories. Saying that the ball is the cause of the window’s breaking seems to leave something out since the ball at rest, or the ball moving in some region of space away from the window, cannot be the cause of the window’s breaking. Thus it is very plausible to say that it is the ball’s hitting the window that is the cause – in which case the relata of the causal relation would appear to be events.

Likewise, it is not the sun that causes the stone to become warm, but the sun’s shining on the stone. It is not the moon that causes the tides but the moon’s gravitational attraction. It is not sodium that is part of the etiology of hypertension, but the ingestion of sodium in certain amounts by sodium-sensitive people. The ingesting of sodium is an event.

If this is right, then causation is not an event but a dyadic relation between events. But now extend the example. Jack Jackovsky threw the ball that broke the window. The throwing -- an event -- caused the ball’s moving, but what caused the throwing? A whole series of events that lead back to the brain. And beyond that? Jack’s intention to throw, which is a mental event. One problem is how a mental event can hook onto a series of physical events. Put that on the back burner. Consider the mental intention to throw. What caused it? Jack the free agent caused it. For some this makes no sense. They reject agent-causation entirely.

Still, one naturally thinks that causing is a doing, and that doing requires a doer, an agent to substitute Latin for Anglo-Saxon. Brandon is right: events don’t do anything. But how can we make sense of the notion that substances like a ball or the sun do anything? Hume’s point was that causing is not empirically discernible. How meet Hume’s challenge?

Second, if causation were a relation obtaining between distinct events, what about the relation prevents it from obtaining between things other than events (e.g., substances, or numbers on a number line, and so forth)?

BV: Event-causation by definition relates events. It is not clear that there is a problem here. Consider a parallel question: what prevents the subset relation from obtaining between entities other than sets? Well, because it just makes no sense to say that a fetus, say, is a subset of its mother. Neither fetus nor mother are sets. The subset relation is defined over sets; the event-causation relation is defined over events.

Third, what reason do we have for thinking events can be distinct objective entities rather than just arbitrary intentional markings-out of regions of spacetime?

BV: One might say that an event is an individual’s having a property at a time, or through an interval of time. More generally, an event is an n-tuple of individuals’ exemplification of an n-adic relation at a time or over an interval of time. (Definition inspired by Jaegwon Kim.) We could then say that events are individuated by their constituent individuals (substances). Thus Socrates’ falling asleep is individuated by Socrates. Events would then be no more arbitrary than their constituent individuals.

I hope these rough remarks are of some help.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Is Bush Stupid?

It's not news that current political debate is becoming increasingly polarized. Blind opposition among theinterlocutors has come to displace communication, so much so that rarely will one side concede anything to the other. Thus when conservatives point out the liberal bias of the elite media outlets, liberals flatly deny the charge rather than doing what would make more sense, namely, conceding the bias but celebrating it, or else pointing out that conservatives have their own somewhat less elite outlets such as AM Talk Radio and Fox News Network to balance things out. But just try to get the N.Y. Times to admit reportorial (as opposed to editorial) bias!

Conservatives, however, make the same mistake. They blindly oppose when they ought to concede. Thus when a liberal says or implies that G. W. Bush is unintelligent, as Ralph Nader did on C-Span (5 January 2004), conservatives should simply concede the point. Isn’t it clear that Bush lacks the sort of verbal intelligence so prized by journalists, lawyers like Nader, and academicians? This is as clear to me, a conservative, as it is that the elite media outlets tilt to the Left. To flatly deny either of these propositions is to display a pigheaded partisanship that reflects poorly on one’s probity.

So there is a clear sense in which Bush is ‘stupid’: he is ‘stupid’ in the way that intellectuals are ‘smart.’ He lacks verbal facility, he doesn’t read (high-brow) books, his off-the-cuff analyses are painfully shallow and pedestrian: “Terrorists hate freedom.” Like most regular-guy types, his mind lacks subtlety. He is a bit like Reagan: he is rooted in sound principles and holds correct views, but he cannot defend them intellectually, at least not very well. Having made this concession, however, conservatives should go on to say that Bush displays attributes far more important to the job of president in an age of terrorism than verbal intelligence, namely, moral clarity, courage, perseverance, and decency, and perhaps most important, an unflinching grasp of present historical realities. He stands for something, and one knows what he stands for. Unlike his opponent, he doesn't adopt 'disjunctive' positions: I will either do X or not do X.

Conservatives could also point out that intelligence is not exhausted by the verbal variety. Sometimes what is needed is not an intellectual defense of views, but a physical defense of one’s very existence. Sometimes what is needed is a man of action rather than a thinker whose capacity for action is undermined by excessive reflection and subtle analysis.

After all, the job description includes Commander-in-chief, not Intellectual-in-chief.

PhOnline

Thanks to John Gallagher for drawing my attention to PhOnline, a searchable database of on-line philosophy papers. Contributors must be members of philosophy (or cognate) departments.

Keezer Komments

Bill Keezer writes:

Your comments were spot on concerning surviving graduate school. What you described fit what I did very well, and I had not thought of it as particularly noteworthy other than the speed (3.5 years with 15 credits out of 90 coming in from two years of med school) with which I managed to get my PhD and the shortness of the dissertation (43 pages total, title, contents, text, references). I happened to be married and a daughter was born while in school, but it didn't slow things down. Frugal living allowed my wife at that time to stay home with the child, and my grant paid just enough to survive on. The key word was indeed focus.

BV: The more I learn of Bill's career path, the more interesting it sounds. I hadn't heard the part about medical school. Check out his interesting weblog.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Imago Dei

Faciamus hominem ad imaginem et similitudinem nostram . . . (Gen 1, 26)
Let us make man in our image and likeness. . .


Et creavit Deus hominem ad imaginem suam. . . (Gen 1, 27)
And God created man in his image. . .


I used to play chess with an old man by the name of Joe B, one of the last of the WWII Flying Tigers. Although he had been a working man all his life, he had an intellectual bent and liked to read. But like many an old man, he thought he knew all sorts of things that he didn’t know, and was not bashful about sharing his ‘knowledge.’ One day the talk got on to religion and the notion that man was created in the image and likeness of God. Old Joe had a long-standing animus against the Christianity of his youth, an animus probably connected with his equally long-standing hatred for his long-dead father.

Recalling some preacher’s invocation of the’ image and likeness’ theme, old Joe snorted derisively, "So God has a digestive tract!?" In Joe’s mind this triumphal query was supposed to bear the force of a refutation. Joe’s ‘reasoning’ was along these lines:

1. Man is made in God’s image
2. Man is a physical being with a digestive tract, etc.
Therefore
3. God is a physical being with a digestive tract, etc.

But that’s like arguing:

1. This statue is made in Lincoln’s image
2. This statue is composed of marble
Therefore
3. Lincoln is composed of marble.

Joe’s mistake, one often repeated, is to take a spiritual saying in a materialistic way. The point is not that God must be physical because man is, but that man is a spiritual being just like God, potentially if not actually. The idea is not that God is a big man, the proverbial ‘man upstairs,’ but that man is a little god, a proto-god, a temporally and temporarily debased god who has open to him the possibility of a Higher Life with God, a possibility whose actualization requires both creaturely effort and divine grace.

In Feuerbachian terms, the point of imago dei is not that God is an anthropomorphic projection whereby man alienates his best attributes from himself and assigns them to an imaginary being external to himself, but that man is a theomorphic projection whereby God shares some of his attributes with real beings external to him though dependent on him.

Which is true? Does man project God, or does God project man? Note first the following asymmetry. If God is an anthropomorphic projection, then God does not exist. It would be absurd to say that God exists as an anthropomorphic projection when it is built into the very nature of God that he be a se, from himself, i.e., incapable of any kind of ontological dependency. But if man is a theomorphic projection, then man exists to a degree greater than he would exist if there were no God. For if man is a creature of God, and indeed one created in the image and likeness of God, then man has the possibility of a Higher Life, an eternal life.

The paradox is that when atheistic man tries to stand on his own two feet, declaring himself independent of God, at that moment he is next to nothing, a transient flash in the cosmic pan. But when man accepts his creaturely status as imago Dei, thereby accepting his radical dependence, at that moment he becomes more than a speck of cosmic dust slated for destruction. Thus Jean-Paul Sartre had it precisely backwards in thinking that if God exists then man is nothing; it is rather that man is something only if God exists.

Is "image and likeness" a redundant phrase, or does it mark a distinction? Arguably the latter. To be created in God’s image is to be granted the potentiality for sharing in the divine life, a potentiality that may or may not be actualized and is shared in equally by all human beings without their consent. Likeness, however, results from man’s free actualization of that potentiality. Whereas the image of God is imposed on man, likeness to God is not, but requires the free cooperation of the creature. (Cf. Harry Boosalis, Orthodox Spiritual Life, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1999), pp. 28-29.)

Well, does God exist or not? Before one can answer this question, one must understand it. In particular, one must understand that it cannot be dismissed as one the answer to which is obvious. To wax Continental for a moment, one must restore the question (die Frage) to its questionableness (Fragwuerdigkeit), where ‘questionable’ means not only able to be questioned, but, as the corresponding German term suggests, worthy of being questioned, of being raised as a question. And for that it is necessary not to take phrases like imago Dei in a crude materialistic way in the manner of old Joe and so many others.

One must see that there is nothing obvious in the Feuerbachian suggestion, even though the weight of our culture favors this obviousness; one must see that the opposite suggestion, according to which man is a theomorphic projection, is just as reasonable.

From the Mail: On Academic Philosophy

A reader writes:

As a senior undergraduate in philosophy filling out applications to graduate schools, I find your descriptions of the professional life in philosophy disheartening, to say the least. Do you ever feel like your assessments of departmental life are ever more cynical than necessary?

BV: Actually, there are more things wrong with professional life than I mentioned, one being professional envy, another political correctness. As for being cynical, I would rather describe myself as realistic. A cynic is one who is contemptuously distrustful of human nature and human motives, and I’m far too idealistic for that. Indeed it is largely my idealism that inspires my critique.

Nevertheless, bear in mind that what I said in that post is one man’s view based on a particular set of experiences interpreted through a particular set of attitudes and values. Your mileage may vary! Talk to other people; make your own observations; keep your own counsel.

Certainly there are some benefits of having a career teaching undergraduates, even if the vast number of them are attending your lectures purely for the credit hours and fulfillment of core requirements. Maybe I'm wrong, but I hope I'm not.

BV: There is no denying that some teaching is extremely rewarding. I once directed a dynamite combined graduate-undergraduate seminar consisting of about 10 highly motivated and intelligent people. It was a wonderful experience and I would have taught it for nothing. Members of another class nominated me for a teaching award. One of their number presented me with a chess book as a gift at the end of the semester inscribed thusly: "To Dr. V, for excellence in teaching." That book is a cherished possession, and I will never forget its donor.
I decided, however, that on balance teaching was not my path, and that writing philosophy full-time was a better use of my time and talents.


I do thoroughly enjoy reading your blog and professional publications (2 semesters ago I wrote a lower level paper responding to your negative assessment of the doctrine of the incarnation that appeared in Philo). Do you have any advice for a soon-to-be graduate student?

BV: If philosophy is your passion, then I say pursue it for its own sake and not for the sake of earning a living from it. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the latter if you can find a job. Good tenure-track jobs with a reasonable shot at tenure are hard to secure, however, and it may be necessary to re-tool somewhere down the line, unless you want to end up a permanent adjunct teaching numerous courses for subsistence wages. Graduate professors are not likely to give you the straight skinny on this since it is in their interest to have graduate students around: they can be put to work as assistants and go-fers, they tend to make better students, and it is more fun and prestigious to conduct small graduate seminars than teach large sections of logic and intro. They often have a perverse ‘production mentality’: they want to process as many students as possible, crank out advanced degrees to justify their existence, gain political clout vis-a-vis other departments, expand the scope of their operations with hirings and conferences, new journals, etc.ad nauseam.

If you do go to graduate school, here are some pointers. Of course, these are ceteris paribus rules to be consumed cum grano salis. Your mileage may vary. Know thyself!

Give yourself no more than five years to earn the Ph.D. Never, ever take an incomplete! (I never took one, but I observed how others were destroyed by them.) Don’t hang around with unserious people – those who are slated to end up grad student emeriti. Find a dissertation topic early. Focus it and focus it some more. Don’t try to write a magnum opus at the age of 28. You will be lucky if you can pull it of at 58. Think of the dissertation as a union card, a proof of competence in a specialized area. Give yourself a finite time to write the thing, say one year, then rigorously exclude all distractions and finish it. I wrote my dissertation while teaching two courses by arising at the stroke of midnight and working all night on it, then teaching my courses, going for a run, playing a game of chess with Quentin Smith, and then beddy-bye at 4:00 PM. Carpe noctem! Turned out to be one of the most productive and happy periods of my life. Be sure your dissertation is completed before you accept a job. Don’t get married until you have the Ph.D., a job, and money in the bank. As a general rule, no marriage before the age of thirty. And don’t sire up any kiddies until you are married.


In sum, I am not trying to encourage or discourage, but to present one man’s point of view. You should consider it critically in conjunction with other points of view, and realize that it may fit your situation only in part.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The Argument from Reason: Reppert Replies to Carrier

Victor Reppert sent me this paper to which I have added some corrections, some formatting, a few hyperlinks, and some comments of my own. It receives the Maverick's imprimatur and nihil obstat and should be carefully studied by all.

Reply to Carrier

Richard Carrier has written a very extensive critique of my book, C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason. So extensive, in fact, that when I printed it out it was 127 pages, compared to 128 pages of my book. Considering the fact that two of my chapters are not defenses of the primary argument of the book, this is rather remarkable. I am glad that he has put such an effort into responding to what I have written, although he obviously differs sharply with me on the merits of the arguments.

A quick note to begin with. A more careful reading of my book would demonstrate that I do not employ an argument from motive against naturalists, but only against those naturalists who insist, at all costs, that we cannot let a Divine Foot in the door. I realize that the quotation from Lewontin is sometimes generalized to be a statement about what all evolutionists or philosophical naturalists conduct themselves intellectually, but I have not made that kind of generalization. What I said was that when anyone, a naturalist or a non-naturalist, padlocks their belief system against even possibly considering an opposing view, then I suspect ulterior motives are work. How Carrier translates that into an Argument from Motive against naturalists is beyond me.

I should say that desires, either that God should exist or that God should not exist, unavoidably operate extensively in the minds of even those people who do their best to be rational about the matter. We should be conscious of the presence of ulterior motives on our own parts as well as those of our opponents, and should not presume that all ulterior motives are on one side of the question. But I would not accuse someone else of believing for ulterior motives unless I were convinced that their minds were padlocked against the possibility of accepting a contrary position.

The Scope and Limits of My Book

I must first raise some objections to what I consider to me a lack of regard for the scope and limits of my book. The book is relatively short, and written so as to be accessible to an audience of non-specialists. As such, it is not designed to be the final word on the arguments it presents. A lot more needs to be said than what I have said in the book. Those familiar with my original article on the Secular Web know that I originally wrote about one Argument from Reason. I could have simply developed one of the arguments from reason and left it at that, and if I thought my book would be the end of the discussion I probably would have done just that. But I see my own work as one link in a chain, going from Kant to Balfour to Lewis to Hasker to me and on forward to others. I have heard from a number of philosophy graduate students interested in pursuing these arguments. So the question one needs to ask in response to my book is not “Does Reppert conclusively refute naturalism?” Rather, one should ask “Has Reppert shown some promising ideas for criticizing naturalism that might give at least some reasonable people a good reason to reject it?” (Carrier seems to have made no mention of the discussion of Critical Rationalism in the chapter 2). But even by those standards, I am quite sure Carrier will say that, in light of the scientific and philosophical arguments he presents, the versions of the AFR that I defend are not very promising. I of course don’t agree, and that’s why I am writing this response.

Carrier’s disregard for the scope and limits of my book is further illustrated by his discussion of Pyrrhonian skepticism. I said, “If any thesis entails the conclusion that no belief is rationally inferred, then it should be rejected and its denial accepted.” Now it seems perfectly reasonable to me to rule out any world-view that renders rational inference (and therefore science) impossible, even if we have no idea of what world-view to put in its place. Carrier seems to be saying that if on all other counts my argument is persuasive, it might still be rational to reject some kind of anti-naturalist worldview by becoming a Pyrrhonian skeptic and adopting no worldview at all. I suppose, while I was at it, I should have refuted the Cartesian evil demon, or refuted the brain-in-a-vat scenario. Or maybe I should have thrown in a refutation of Parmenides and Zeno. If the only worldviews that permit rational inference are anti-naturalist ones, then either the discussion has to come to a screeching halt or anti-naturalism must be accepted. If Carrier were to tell me that he was going to stop arguing about atheism and instead seek enlightenment in a Zen monastery, I would probably not want to use the Argument from Reason to talk him out of it. This in no way undermines the task I have assigned to the Arguments from Reason, and that is to provide good reasons for preferring non-naturalistic worldviews to naturalistic ones.

But it gets even worse. Consider the claim
P) If any thesis entails the conclusion that no belief is rationally inferred, then it should be rejected and its denial accepted.
From this Carrier somehow thinks that this entails
P1) We should deny any premise that is not rationally inferred.
And he then argues that I must have a rational inference to support P, otherwise P is self-defeating. But this is preposterous. I never said you had to be able to rationally infer everything you believe; I said that we couldn’t accept a worldview that entailed that no one makes rational inferences. P1 in no way follows from P, nor does Carrier provide any argument to suggest that it does. This is symptomatic of a problem with Carrier’s review throughout: he puts such a heavy burden on someone advancing a case against naturalism that it can be no surprise that the case fails. But with more realistically calibrated requirements for success, perhaps my arguments will turn out a little more successful.

Carrier’s Three Underlying Problems

The first and most serious problem with my arguments is that I commit what he calls the Possibility Fallacy, that is, I assume that having no explanation is equivalent to not being able to have one. I mention this objection on p. 118, in the context of discussing Nicholas Tattersall’s critique of Lewis’s Miracles and Darek Barefoot’s response. I quote Barefoot’s reply in my book as follows:


Tattersall here confuses logical absurdity with phenomena incompletely known. To
learn why grass is green simply involves gathering more information. To learn how non-rational processes give rise to rational thought is like learning how a three-dimensional object can be created by arranging lines on a two-dimensional surface. We need not draw lines all day long in every geometric pattern imaginable to realize that the task is impossible. It is true that by means of perspective drawing we can usefully represent a three-dimensional shape, such as a cube, in two dimensions, just as human reason can be represented and communicated usefully by computer programs and even by humbler devices such as multiplication charts and slide rules. Nevertheless we can identify a set of lines in two dimensions as representing a cube only because we occupy three-dimensional space, and similarly we can appreciate that the blind functions of a computer have been so arranged as to accomplish a rational purpose only because, unlike the computer, we possess genuine rationality.

Carrier gives me two options for developing my argument. Either I prove conclusively that a naturalistic account of reasoning is impossible, or I conduct an exhaustive study of the finding of brain science and find that reasoning probably cannot be accounted for in terms of brain function. It seems to me that there is a third option available. I can show we are dealing with a conceptual chasm that cannot simply be overcome by straightforward problem-solving. An example would be the attempt to get an “ought” from an “is”. Moore argued that for any set of “is” statements concerning a situation, the question of whether this or that action ought to have been done is left open. To generate any confidence that you can get an “ought” from an "is," it simply won’t do to come up with one theory after another to show how you can get an "ought" from an "is." We need to be given some idea that these theories can surmount the conceptual problem Moore and others have posed.

Another way of putting my point is to say that reason presents a problem analogous to what David Chalmers called the hard problem of consciousness. When we consider seriously what reasoning is, when we reject all attempts at “bait and switch” in which reasoning is re-described in a way that makes it scientifically tractable but also unrecognizable in the final analysis as reasoning, we find something that looks for all the world to be radically resistant to physicalistic analysis.

So I maintain that there is a logico-conceptual chasm between the various elements of reason, and the material world as understood mechanistically. Bridging the chasm isn’t going to simply be a matter of exploring the territory on one side of the chasm.

BV: Very nice way of putting it, Victor.

Now someone might perceive the chasm and either think that some kind of paradigm shift in our thinking will bridge the chasm, or that it while it’s a mystery to us how all this is possible, that somehow there is a bridge over the chasm, even if we can’t see one that’s consistent with materialism. In pointing out the chasm, I do not necessarily claim that no possible considerations could persuade us to think that the chasm has been bridged. However, we have no reason to believe that the problem can be dissolved by doing just a little more science. Without necessarily demonstrating that the problem is insoluble, I can try to show that the problem is deep and intractable, and that an alternative to naturalism would resolve the problem.

BV: You seem to be distinguishing between insolubility and intractability. What's the difference? I see none.

And I should point out that lots and lots of naturalists, like Colin McGinn, think that there is a deep and intractable problem. The arguments from reason, in many cases, suggest that the descriptive discourse of physics cannot capture the normative discourse of reason. This presents a logico-conceptual gap, which is a very different kind of problem than pointing out something for which we don’t currently have a naturalistic explanation, and saying it must be supernatural because science can’t explain it now.

The second fallacy Carrier says I commit is the Causation Fallacy. He thinks that I, along with C. S. Lewis, endorse the argument that “the presence of a cause and effect account of belief is often used to show the absence or irrelevance of a ground and consequent relationship,” and that therefore all cause and effect accounts prove the absence or irrelevance of ground and consequent relationships. However, he claims in arguing thus I commit the fallacy of Affirming the Consequent, Hasty Generalization and Red Herring. (Quite a lot of fallacies to commit in one argument!) But while this type of argument was used in Lewis’s original chapter, in the revised edition this is not the primary reason for thinking that reason cannot be accounted for naturalistically. And I don’t argue that way either. The argument against the relevance of ground and consequent relationships has to do with the causal closure of the physical. If a physical account of the process is causally complete, and physics is mechanistic, how do reasons come into play? Remember, at the most basic level of analysis physics, in order to play the role of physics in the kind of physicalism that is under attack in my book, must be mechanistic. This being the case, if we apply the Principle of Explanatory Exclusion and the Principle of Causal Exclusion defended by Kim and others, a case can be made that a comprehensive physicalistic causal explanation excludes a mentalistic account of rational inference.

The third fallacy he thinks I commit is the Armchair Science fallacy. That, he says, is my failure to interact with the extensive philosophical literature and the findings of cognitive science. Here I would first like to reiterate that no book, especially a book that is supposed to be readable by non-specialists, can interact with every opposing thinker. Well, perhaps I should at least interact with the really important stuff. But what is that? I see no interaction in Carrier with John Searle, in spite of the fact that he is advocating positions that Searle has quite famously criticized. Nor do I see any discussion of Thomas Nagel, who maintains that an evolutionary account of our capacity to reason has always seemed to him to be laughably inadequate. Nor do I see any interaction with Lynne Rudder Baker’s and William Hasker’s critiques of eliminativism, which I explicitly reference in the book. Nor do I see any references to Jaegwon Kim’s work on mental causation and the Principle of Explanatory Exclusion. The literature is enormous on this subject, and a comprehensive treatment of the relevant issues would require a 12,800 page book with a 128 page bibliography. Carrier and I are bound to differ as to what is “really important.” Of course the argument needs to respond to what Hasker calls the “sensible naturalist.” But naturalists and anti-naturalists might very well disagree on exactly who the sensible naturalists are.

I do, in my book, say that naturalistic analyses of mind “invariably fail,” largely because they “sneak in” the very concepts they are trying to explain through the back door. They also tend to re-describe what they are trying to explain in terms that will make such things as consciousness and reasoning more tractable to naturalistic analysis, but this produces what I call a “subtle changing of the subject.” Instead of explaining their subject matter, they explain it away. Since I did say these things, it simply won’t do for Carrier to merely assert that there’s all this philosophical and scientific literature out there. He needs to show evidence that these analyses of mind don’t commit the two errors listed above. Carrier’s own treatment of intentionality is repeatedly guilty of the first defect, as we shall see.

Further, scientific work on cognition can be illuminating without actually solving the fundamental problems of the philosophy of mind that my book is concerned with. I never denied that the mind is not in many important ways dependent on the brain, it is just that the brain story cannot be comprehensive, if I am right. So I have no problem with the idea that scientists like Cattell can help us understand how different mental functions are linked with different areas of the brain. As I put it on pp. 114-115:


But again I would reiterate the claim that the arguments from reason require only that the account of mental functioning in terms of blind physical processes, operating in accordance with the laws of physics, rather than in accordance with the laws of logic, cannot be comprehensive. It seems to me to be perfectly compatible with an extensive dependence of the mind on the physical brain; it only says that if mechanistic accounts of rational inference are the only accounts you can get out of brain science, then a neurophysiological account cannot be complete.


Now I should make perfectly clear that the more defenders of AFR interact with naturalistic philosophical and scientific literature, the better. Here I would strongly recommend Angus Menuge’s recent analyses of the Churchlands and Dennett, along with the critiques of the Churchlands by Hasker, Baker, and myself that I endorse in my book. But if we have what David Chalmers would call a “hard” problem of intentionality, then simply knowing about correlations between intentional states and physical states will not solve the problem. What science would have to provide is a successful intertheoretic reduction, and this is something over and above what straightforward neuroscience provides. What we need are answers to questions that are fundamentally philosophical rather than scientific, questions that are perhaps better addressed in armchairs rather than in laboratories.

Here again I would just reiterate what I said earlier, that the problem with naturalistic analyses of reasoning has to do with a logico-conceptual gap between our ordinary conception of what goes on when we reason, as opposed to what has to be given in a properly mechanistic analysis of that same process. If you give an analysis of how the brain produces some output or other, that may not do the job if when we get does the thing that has been analyzed physicalistically cannot plausibly be described as reasoning. Further, many people in the philosophy of mind, even some who would be described as card-carrying physicalists, often maintain that we have no real understanding of how the mental and physical are related to one another. Physics describes things from a third-person, non-normative, mechanistic point of view, while we describe our own thought processes from a first-person, normative perspective. Hence, they maintain, mental events are irreducible to physical events, nevertheless they are either token-identical to physical events or supervene upon physical events. However, they also often say that they perceive the relation between the mental and the physical as being deeply mysterious.

Non-Reductivism and Beyond

One strategy in responding to the versions of the argument from reason that I have presented is to admit that these realities are profoundly mysterious in a naturalistic universe, but that providing a supernatural explanation for them is unacceptable. Keith Parsons sums it up when he says:

Physicalists may have to admit that some mental phenomena are mysteries and
likely to remain so. Consider consciousness. How consciousness can exist in the physical world remains the “world-knot,” as Schopenhauer called it, and the expressions of despair quoted by Reppert are apt. But the honest thing to do when we confront an insoluble mystery is to admit that we do not know. It is obscurantist to “explain” the mystery in ways that only deepen our ignorance.


In other words, yes, we can’t reduce reason to the non-rational activities of physical particles, but to accept a theistic account of these is obscurantist. His quarrel is going to be with chapter 6 of my book, entitled “The Inadequacy Objection.”

Now Carrier, to be sure, is not a non-reductive materialist. He thinks that mental-physical reductions are indeed possible. But I think his discussion of the relevant literature underestimates the sizable group of people in the philosophy of mind who are philosophical naturalists but who eschew reductionism. The “sensible naturalist” of Hasker’s reply to me is clearly a non-reductive materialist, who tries to stay within the naturalist fold while not holding out any promise for, for example, a causal analysis of mental states.

Then there are other people who think mind’s being what it is requires a change in metaphysics, such the mind is fundamental to the universe and is not an evolutionary by-product. However, these thinkers are reluctant to accept theism as the solution to the problems they pose. Such people include Daniel Hutto, who has proposed Bradleyan absolute idealism as the solution to the hard problem of consciousness, and of course Thomas Nagel. In fact Nagel’s The Last Word is pretty much a defense of the Argument from Reason, the difference being that he does not offer God as his solution of choice. Reason for Nagel, is fundamental to the universe, but not the reason of God. The general thrust of Nagel’s book is to show the importance of rejecting accounts of reason that make reason relative, but, once you do that, you end up having to accept a metaphysics that, as he puts it “makes us more at home in the universe than is secularly comfortable.” However, Nagel has traveled outside the realm of what people like Carrier would consider to be naturalistically acceptable and adopted what I call explanatory dualism, the idea that in addition to mechanistic explanations at the most basic level, we must have rational explanations as well.

Now Carrier’s strategy is very different. He spends little energy trying to show that even if naturalistic explanations of reason are unsuccessful, offering a theistic account of the phenomenon of reason does nothing to alleviate our ignorance. He instead maintains, not that I have overestimated the power of theistic explanations, but that I have underestimated that power of naturalistic explanations. (Of course one can argue both that naturalistic explanations are adequate and that theistic explanations are inadequate, but neither Carrier nor Parsons actually do both.) He thinks I have failed to pay sufficient attention to analyses of mind that are on offer.

Intentionality

Consider his treatment of intentionality. Carrier’s task is to show that you can build and intentional brick wall out of non-intentional bricks. Just as a brick wall can be six feet tall even though none of the bricks are, a state can be intentional even though the fundamental, underlying states are non-intentional, as is required by the understanding of naturalism that both of us accept.

But what does Carrier say about intentionality? He says that a material state A is about material state B just in case “this system contains a pattern corresponding to a pattern in that system, in such a way that computations performed on this system are believed to match and predict behavior in that system.”

Unfortunately, this analysis of intentionality is simply loaded with intentional concepts, so if we didn’t know what intentionality was before we heard from Carrier, we wouldn’t know now.

BV: This is a very important point, muchachos; meditate on it carefully.

Moreover, on its face, it doesn’t even come close to being a physicalistically acceptable concept of intentionality that analyzes intentionality in non-intentional, physical, terms. The problem that should jump out of the page at you when you read this is that the definition is literally loaded with concepts that make sense only if you understand what it is for something to be about something else, in short, if you know what intentionality is. Consider the term “corresponds.” What does “corresponds” mean in this context? If I’m eating a pancake, and the piece of pancake on my plate resembles slightly the shape of the state of Missouri on the map, can we say that it corresponds to the state of Missouri; that it is a map of Missouri? I’m looking at bottle trees right now. Is each of the bottle trees about the other bottle trees because there is a “correspondence” of leaves, branches, bark and roots, one to the other? In order for “correspondences” to be of significance, doesn’t it have to be a “correspondence” recognized by somebody’s conscious mind as being “about” the thing in question? And if that’s the case, then are we anywhere in the vicinity of a naturalistic account of intentionality?

BV: I think it helps to distinguish between original and derivative intentionality. A map is about a chunk of terrain. Its intentionality or aboutness is derivative from original acts of intentionality whereby I assign certain marks on the map to certain geographical features. Thus I or we assign to contour lines that are close together on a topographical map the meaning: steep terrain. The map by itself cannot mean or intend or be about anything. The same goes for extremely complex systems like this Pentium IV sitting in front of me. It is not thinking in any serious sense at all.

What the naturalist cannot account for is original intentionality.

And then there’s more to the definition than that. The intentional state has to be believed to correspond. But how could we define belief if we didn’t have any idea what it was for a mental state to be about something? If I have to believe that brain state X is about object Y only if I believe it to correspond to Y, then how do we analyze my belief that there is a correspondence without throwing us into an infinite regress? Presumably this is explained by a “choice,’ though this doesn’t have to be a conscious choice. Decisions, presumably can be done by computers, even without intentionality. But do decisions generate beliefs? “The core engine of intentionality derives from the attentional centers of the brain. That’s why cats can keep track of their prey, for example—by the same means, we can track the image or thought of, say, our uncle, by attending to it cognitively, a process well understood in neurophysiological terms.” But surely one can “track” something without thinking “about” it. A heat-seeking missile tracks its object, but surely we don’t want to say that it’s activities are in any way intentional. Does a thermostat make decisions about what number to show? In dealing with questions of mind you have to be awfully careful to make sure that the words people are using really do mean what you think they mean, or whether they have been subtly re-defined to make them tractable to a physicalistic account.

BV: Reppert is right. It is easy to be misled by language. A thermostat can be described as a sensor. But obviously it is not sentient strictu dictu. It cannot feel anything. Clinton can feel your pain, but no thermostat feels the heat or the cold. Both intentionality and qualia are beyond the reach of naturalistic explanations.

Another highly ambiguous term, though quite popular in the philosophy of mind, which Carrier uses in his account of intentionality, is the term “computation.” But what does that mean? Chris Eliasmith suggest that there are serious problems with all definitions of intentionality currently on offer. He writes:

There are numerous competing definitions of computation. Along with the initial definition provided here, the following three definitions are often encountered:
Rule governed state transitions
Discrete rule governed state transitions
Rule governed state transitions between interpretable states
The difficulties with these definitions can be summarized as follows:
Admits all physical systems into the class of computational systems, making the
definition somewhat vacuous
Excludes all forms of analog computation, perhaps including the sorts of
processing taking place in the brain.
Necessitates accepting all computational systems as representational systems. In
other words, there is no computation without representation on this definition.

So how does Carrier want to define computation in his account of intentionality?

In short, I just don’t see it. C. S. Lewis wrote an essay in which he delineated the difference between “looking at” and “looking along.” When you look at something, you view it from a third-person, outside perspective. When you look along something, you view it from within. An attempt to come up with a physicalistic view of the mind invariably ends up looking “at” mental events, and always fails to capture what is going on when you look “along” those same events, as the thinking subject. But these are not merely the musings of a popular Christian apologist of the last century. Philosophers of the stature of Thomas Nagel, Frank Jackson, and John Searle have, in essence, said the same thing.








J. P. Moreland Reviews My Book

Note: I consider myself very fortunate in having had my book reviewed by three outstanding and fair-minded philosophers thus far: Hugh McCann, Panayot Butchvarov, and J. P. Moreland. But I am especially grateful to Moreland for digging the deepest into the book's inner workings.

A Paradigm Theory of Existence: Onto-Theology Vindicated
By William F. Vallicella. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002. 281 pages. $91. Philosophia Christi, vol. 6, no. 1 (2004), pp. 149-155.

While reading Vallicella’s excellent book, I was constantly reminded of why I went into philosophy. It addresses an important perennial issue, it is deep, well informed and broad, and it is full of precise, careful arguments. This work is one of the best books I have ever read on topics in analytic ontology. Because of space limitations and the importance of getting Vallicella’s ideas on the table for a wide audience, I will limit this review to providing a précis of his position.
In chapter one, Vallicella distinguishes two questions about (especially contingent) existence--the nature question(s) (What is it for a contingent individual to exist? What is existence itself?) and the ground question (Why does any contingent individual exist?)--and proffers a sketch of his paradigm theory of existence. In chapters two though five, Vallicella tells the reader what existence is not [chapters two and three: it is not a property of or being identical to individuals; chapter four: it is not a property of properties; chapter five: it is not belonging to a world or domain). In chapters six and seven, he offers his own account of what it is for a contingent individual to exist and what existence itself is, respectively. In chapter eight, he describes the nature of the Paradigm Existent.

In chapter one, Vallicella seeks a theory of contingent existence that steers a middle ground between being neutral (one that specifies a feature that all and only existent individuals have while remaining neutral as to what or whether anything satisfies it) and being circular (one that employs actually existent contingent individuals to formulate what it is for those actually existent individuals to exist). According to Vallicella, the only way to spit these horns is to reject the assumption that there is only one mode of existence in favor of the following: (S) Necessarily, x exists (in mode 1) iff there is a y (which exists in mode 2) such that y stands in R to x. His paradigm theory of existence is a substitution instance of S: (PT) Necessarily, for any contingent individual x, x exists iff (i) there is a necessary y such that y is a paradigm existent and (ii) y is the unifier of x’s ontological constituents, directly producing the unity/existence of y. Vallicella argues that PT provides a non-trivial unified account of the nature and ground questions about existence.

Along the way, Vallicella defends a realist view of existence against those like Panayot Butchvarov who claim that existence is a transcendental concept. The chapter closes with a very helpful taxonomy of theories about three issues that must be addressed by such theories: (1) actually existing individuals themselves; (2) the having of existence by those individuals; (3) existence itself. Vallicella distinguishes three types of theories along a spectrum: No Difference or Identitarian Theories which accept (1), reject (2) and (3) and assert that existence is identical to individuals, Extreme Difference or Eliminativist Views which accept (1) and (3) but deny (2), and Moderate Difference Views which accept all three and try to reconcile them. Vallicella’s paradigm theory is an example of a Moderate View.

In chapter two, Vallicella argues against the view that existence is a first-level property of individuals—an individual exists just in case it instantiates the property of existing. His strategy is to show that either on a constituent ontology (universals enter into the being of their instances) or a non-constituent ontology (universals are “tied-to” but do not enter their instances), existence cannot be a first-level property of individuals. Assuming a non-constituent ontology, among his arguments is the claim that an individual cannot exist in virtue of instantiating a property because something must exist ontologically prior to being tied to something, in this case, a universal. Vallicella makes the important point that “in virtue of” is not the same as “if and only if” nor it is efficient causality. Rather, the locution is equivalent to “is ontologically dependent on”, e.g., a proposition is true in virtue of its truth-maker.
One implication of Vallicella’s discussion of this locution is important for philosophical method: stating the truth conditions for some philosophical phenomenon is not the same as providing an assay or analysis of the phenomenon. Returning to Vallicella’s dialectic, he argues that the holism of existence is sufficient to refute the theory of existence under consideration (on the assumption of a constituent ontology) because the existence of a is that in virtue of which a together with all its properties exist, so the existence of a cannot be only one among many of its constituents. Vallicella closes the chapter by stating and rejecting a major reason why some think that existence is a first-order property of individuals in that “exists” can be treated as a first-level predicate in first-order logic [x exists =df (Ey)(x=y)].

In chapter three, Vallicella examines the No-Difference Theory: There is no difference between an individual and existence per se or between an individual and its existence. Existence “reduces” to existents, to existing individuals. Vallicella makes a nice distinction, parallel to one in philosophy of mind, between Identitarian (the existence of x is real and identical to x) and Eliminativist (“exists” is not a first-level predicate and cannot be attributed to individuals) versions of the theory. Against the former, Vallicella argues that on this view, a’s essence is identical to a’s existence and, thus, everything becomes a necessary being which is absurd. The argument assumes that the essence of a, which Vallicella analyzes as “all of what a is”, is a itself in abstraction from a’s existence.

Vallicella identifies three versions of Eliminativism—Brentano’s, D. C. Williams’ and a Non-Constituent Ontology version—and criticizes each. His main argument is that the eliminitivist wants to drive a wedge between existence and individuals and assign existence to a realm distinct from that of worldly individuals (e.g., the realm of judgment/falling under a concept). If so, then individuals neither exist nor non-exist, but this is absurd. Moreover, a knob is sense perceptible and not a fact, but the existence of a knob is not sense perceptible and is a fact, and facts are needed as truth-makers. Especially interesting in my view was Vallicella’s claim that an NC Ontology--the view that individuals do not have constituents--must be eliminitivist since there can be no such thing as the existence of a that a possesses as a constituent. For the NC ontologist, individuals are blobs, not layer cakes, and existence cannot be possessed by individuals.

In chapter four, Vallicella takes on the view that existence is a property of properties—the property of being instantiated. Again, he draws a nice distinction between Identitarian (there is such a thing as singular existence of an individual and it is identical to the instantiation of some property) and Eliminativist versions (the existence/non-existence contrast does not apply to individuals, but is kicked upstairs and becomes the instantiation/uninstantiation distinction and, thus, individuals neither exist nor non-exist) versions of the view and offers a critique of each. Regarding Identitarianism, Vallicella argues that it is intrinsically problematic and the only sorts of properties that could do what the theory requires do not exist.

Among his arguments for the intrinsic difficulties in this view of existence, one stands out: Assuming (which I grant) that properties and the nexus of exemplification are universals, then, e.g., the existence of cat a is identical to the exemplification of catness and, by transitivity, all cats are identical which is absurd. This may be avoided by saying that the existence of cat a is the exemplification of catness by a and similarly for other cats. But this is circular. Cat a must be ontologically prior to its exemplification of some property P.

This is a powerful argument and Vallicella employs it against many of the accounts of existence within the book’s purview. I have more thinking to do on this argument, but as an initial response, it may be that Vallicella conflates the nature and ground questions. Clearly, the ground of a contingent individual’s existence must exist ontologically prior to that individual. The fact that an individual exists is not identical to the entity that constitutes the nature of its existence. The grounding relation is asymmetrical, irreflexive and transitive. But it is not clear that a contingent individual must exist ontologically prior to the entity that constitutes what it is for the individual to exist in the first place. Indeed, the claim itself seems circular. All that seems to be required is that there is more to the contingent individual than the entity that constitutes the nature of its existence.

Next, Vallicella claims that the only properties that could do the work this view of existence requires do not exist. Included in his crosshairs are, depending on your point of view, those treasured or dreaded non-constituent properties called Leibnizian essences, e.g., being-identical-to-Socrates. Vallicella argues that it is unclear how such properties “involve” their corresponding concrete particulars, and it difficult to see how such a property could remain abstract and chorismos in another realm while “involving” a concrete particular.
The chapter closes with a very nice critique of Eliminitivist versions of the view that existence is a property of properties. Particularly interesting is his rebuttal of “Plato’s Beard,” a general argument against `exist’ being a genuine property of individuals on the grounds that if it were, singular existentials are necessarily true and singular existential denials necessarily false. Vallicella rejoins that such an argument is guilty of a modal fallacy: Just because `necessarily, every sentence of the form “a exists” expresses a truth’ it does not follow that every sentence of this form expresses a necessariy truth. Problems with singular existentials are deep, indeed, and their solutions involve taking a stand on such things as reference and intentionality. However, regardless of where one stands on such matters, Vallicella’s treatment of Plato’s Beard is delightful and insightful.

Chapter five takes up mondial attribute theories of existence where existence is a property of a world, where a world cannot be taken to be a mere collection but, rather, must be understood in a monistic sense as an individual in its own right. “X exists in w” is the claim that w has the property of containing x. A major part of the chapter involves breaking this view into three alternatives and attacking each one. On view one a world is a collection, a mereological sum dependent on its members for existence. This option, Vallicella argues, is circular since it claims that some individual exists x in virtue of belonging to world w, but w exists in virtue of its members, including x.

View two involves a world as a non-collective dependent individual (one’s visual field is an example of a dependent individual). But the existence of some individual x cannot be analyzed without remainder in terms of belonging to w construed as a dependent individual for in this case w’s existence itself is not accounted for. This leaves view three: some x exists in virtue of belonging to w taken as an independent individual. This will work only if w is understood as a maximal individual (one that is the totality of everything that actually exists in w). However, this view drifts towards Spinozism, says Vallicella, such that w is a necessary, self-existent being and individuals in w are modes or mere abstractions of w, a view that will be a hard sell to many.
In chapter six, Vallicella turns to a development of his own view and addresses the ontology of the contingent individual. It is impossible to do justice to this and the next chapter is a short review, but briefly, the focus of chapter six is to answer two closely related questions: (1) How does existence belong to an individual? (2) What is the nature of the existence that so belongs? Vallicella’s approach involves two claims. First, contingent concrete individuals are states of affairs with ontological constituents arranged in a proposition-like way. Second, the existence of an individual is the contingent unity of its constituents, the unity in virtue of which they constitute it.

Along the way, he rejects, correctly in my view, Ostrich Realism (universals and particulars exist but there are no states of affairs consisting of a particular instantiating a universal) and non-constituent ontologies (universals are not constituents in the things that have them) and he adopts constituent realism. Given constituent realism, the nasty problem of individuating particulars raises it ugly head, and Vallicella embraces a unique Aristotelian-style version of bare particulars to solve the problem. More specifically, he says that what individuates states of affairs A and B are not bare particulars a and b simpliciter, but a-instantiating-properties and b-instantiating-properties.

This move seems troublesome, however, since it would seem that a and b individuate the entities to which the hyphenated locutions refer, and not conversely. But Vallicella needs to make this move because, while he denies that numerical difference is an unanalyzable, brute fact, he wants to say that the numerical difference between A and B does not consist in a constituent in each, but rather in the unity of each. He also accepts the existence of uninstantiated universals and denies that bare particulars, or anything else for that matter, can exist without instantiating a property. Granting a constituent view of instantiation and the Paradigm Existence as a simple, constituentless entity, it seems difficult to avoid equivocation regarding the two modes of existence. Difficulties with religious language are well-known, and Vallicella does address the problem of equivocation, albeit quite briefly. I simply register my complaint that Vallicella’s ontology does not seem to have the resources to keep analogous talk of the Paradigm Existence from sliding into equivocation.

Given that the existence of a concrete individual is identical to the unity of its constituents, the question arises as to what accounts for, what grounds this unity, and chapter seven tackles this topic. Defending and wielding Bradley’s regress argument against relations, he claims that the ground cannot be a brute fact or a constituent within a fact, e.g., the relation of exemplification, a non-relational nexus of exemplification, a certain subclass of universals. A recurring argument against constituent grounds amount to the claim that there is a difference between a’s being F and the set or mereological sum a +Fness+? (a relation, a nexus, some other constituent), and that difference cannot be accounted for by a further constituent within the state of affairs without a vicious regress or some other problem following. Thus, the unifier of a contingent individual must be an external unifier, one that is not a constituent of that individual.
In the final chapter, Vallicella’s task is to inquire into the attributes of the external unifier with respect to those features relevant to the nature of existence. He argues that the external unifier must be one and not many on the grounds that since all facts have facthood in common, the ground must be common. This seems to be a weak argument. It works in contexts that argue for an internal unifier such as a universal, but not for an external unifier. This can be seen by focusing on one Vallicella’s examples of an external unifier, viz., a hand that unifies a fistful of pencils into an actual unity (pp. 242-243). If we take a fistful of pennies unified by a hand such that both unities have facthood in common, this is insufficient to argue that it must be the same hand that unifies both facts. Still, I suppose simplicity considerations could fill the gap here.
In any case, Vallicella goes on to argue that the external unifier avoids Bradley’s regress, it cannot be inert but active and, thus, must be a mind to be able actually to hold contingent constituents into a unity, and that it must be a necessary mind, one that has a different mode of existence from that of contingent unities. He also offers a nice cosmological argument for a de re necessarily existent unifier from the mere possibility of the existence of contingent beings (since such a possibility P exists in every possible world, it is actualizable in all worlds, and this can be so only if the unifier exists in all worlds).

Vallicella’s book is incredibly rich, learned and rewarding. Even in areas where I disagree with him, I usually feel a great deal of pressure to re-examine my own views in light of his careful and hard-hitting defense of alternatives. And reading this book would be a good antidote to anyone like David Papineau or the Churchlands who claim that advocates of first-philosophy are plagued with Cartesian anxiety and the quest for incorrigible foundations to knowledge. Vallicella has no such anxiety, but those who eschew first-philosophy may have some of their own if they read this book.

J. P. Moreland
Talbot School of Theology, Biola University (word count 2750)

On Being an Independent Philosopher

A software engineer with an interest in philosophy inquires:

1. Why did you leave a tenured position? Too much emphasis on teaching? Bureaucratic nightmares? Departmental politics?

Why did I quit? The main reason was in order to have time to write philosophy and pursue my wide-ranging studies free of teaching duties. I was lucky to have a Tuesday-Thursday teaching schedule; but even so, that meant that two twelve-hour days were consumed by teaching and lecture preparation. I would also come in on Wednesday afternoons for office hours. Grading, administrative tasks, and attendance at various meetings took time, and a long-distance relationship with my wife who taught at a university 220 miles away added to the hassle.

Philosophy is a magnificent thing and my reason for living. Unfortunately, many if not most philosophy professors don’t see it that way: they are time-servers who went into the teaching business because of the long summers, a relaxed schedule, and the lack of heavy lifting. It’s a job to them, and as one erstwhile colleague remarked, "It beats working for a living." Some of them play the game quite well; the bottom line, however, is that they live from philosophy, not for it, and if they became unable to live from it they would drop it like a hot potato and go into real estate or something.

I felt alienated from them and their mentality and I wanted to be free of them. That was part of my reason for resigning. I thought about it for a long time before finally taking the leap. The catalyst was my wife’s being offered an excellent position at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, near Phoenix. That was during my two-year visiting associate professorship at Case Western Reserve University. After that stint, I could have returned to my tenured position, but I advised my wife to take the Arizona job. The lure of beautiful Arizona was just too much for this outdoorsman to resist, and I saw that I had reached a critical juncture: would I have the courage to take the next step in my life and become a real philosopher rather than a mere paid professor of it, or would attachment to security keep me stuck in a rut? Somehow I found the courage to make the right decision, one that was right at the time and has turned out to be right in the sequel. It may be doubted whether philosophy has made progress in me, but there can be no doubt that I have made progress in philosophy, and had I stayed in the university rut the progress would have been less than it is.

It’s like this. All your life you set and attain goals: getting into a competitive high school, a university, graduate school, then attaining the advanced degree, landing a tenure-track position (which is really hard and involves luck as well), and then tenure (dicey!) followed by associate rank. Now you’ve got it made in the shade, a life time ride with all the amenities. So you enjoy your tenured status for a spell. I enjoyed it for seven years. But then the seven-year itch sets in and it gets old; it’s a been there done that situation. What’s the next goal? Well, there was the visiting appointment for a couple of years, which was extremely stimulating, but then the prospect of returning to the tenured grind started to look grim indeed. I suppose any job can turn into a living death. I’m going to spend the rest of my life with these people, in Dayton, Ohio, teaching logic and intro, intro and logic to bored and boring undergraduates in an institution that has lost its moorings and is drifting to the prevailing winds of political correctness in a decadent society whose culture is growing ever more toxic? Hell no. Time to hit the road, Jack.

Into the desert, like the questers of late antiquity.

Perhaps I should add that I do not see philosophy as a merely theoretical, let alone academic, activity, but as one that is indissolubly both theoretical and spiritual, as a quest for the Absolute, along the lines of a Plato or Plotinus or Augustine or Spinoza, to name four classical thinkers high on my list. Philosophy so conceived involves not just ratiocination but also contemplation and meditation -- which take time, peace of mind, seclusion perhaps to the point of Bradleyan reclusivity, and a generous distance from academic hustlers.

2. How are you able to, financially speaking? I work full-time as an engineer, allocating most of my free time to shifting into philosophy. While I'm able to make some time to do my own research, I am repeatedly and frequently reminded of just how much time for research & writing I lose as a result of my day job. Are you independently wealthy? Or ascetic, the way Quentin Smith was for a number of years when he chose to be an independent philosopher?

No, I am not independently wealthy, but I am frugal, and some might say ascetic, married, have no children, and am fortunate to live in a country in which it is very easy to accumulate wealth if you work hard, have the old-fashioned virtues, know how to defer gratification, and live well below your means, saving and investing what one doesn’t spend. It is essential to give oneself a financial education and to avoid the traps into which most Americans fall. One is the credit trap. It astonishes me that the average American household runs something like $8,000 of credit card debt and has something like 15 credit cards. I use credit cards for almost everything, enjoy the float, gladly take the 1-5% rebate, never go near my credit limit on even one card, and have never paid a cent of interest. I drive an old Jeep Cherokee that I have had going on 17 years. It’s a base model 4WD, with roll-up windows, no air conditioning, and a five-speed manual tranny. The only upgrades are big tires, off-road shocks, and a cheap tapedeck. I intend to keep it another ten years or so. Why not? It costs practically nothing to operate, insure, and register.

3. Isn't the loss of professional colleagues to bounce ideas off of a somewhat significant loss? Or is it not an issue due to e-mail correspondence with other philosophers, discussions at conferences (if you attend such), or some other factor?

That is a problem one can face even with an academic position. Only a handful of people get jobs in top departments with plenty of bright and committed people available for stimulating conversation and mutual criticism. It is easy to end up in a department with no one to talk to. That was my situation at the institution where I had tenure. Many of my colleagues were decent people, but they were of no use to me philosophically. Some lacked intelligence, others were lazy and/or unserious about philosophy, and still others were disqualified by such other attributes as excessive narrowness or personal repugnance. But I suppose the main thing was their unseriousness and lack of intellectual/spiritual eros. I would give a paper to a colleague and get little or nothing back in the way of comments. Or I would comment in great detail on a colleague’s paper, and the person wouldn’t care enough to respond. It was just something he wrote so that he could get on the program at a conference in some exotic place he wanted to visit using departmental funds. Or else his motive for writing was to earn a merit increase in salary.

I resigned in 1991, but didn’t go on-line until 1994. Those three years were ones of isolation, but of course that is what one expects in a self-imposed spiritual desert. But with e-mail, the WWW, and in particular, the blogosphere, everything changed for independent scholars. In cyberspace, especially in blogspace, one can find community that is simply impossible to find in physical space.

I have also found that I can satisfy my residual urge to teach with my weblog. Part of my purpose is to provide free philosophy lessons to any one who wants them. The beauty of it is that I can lecture when I want about what I want and say anything I want, and the ‘students’ are free to come and go as they please. There is none of the unreality of the university classroom where one teaches for pay and one learns for credits and neither party takes any of it very seriously.

At The Crossroads

First-rate analysis by Victor Davis Hanson.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Derrida on 9/11

You decide whether this is obscurantist rubbish:

"Something" took place, we have the feeling of not having seen it coming, and certain consequences undeniably follow upon the "thing." But this very thing, the place and meaning of this "event," remains ineffable, like an intuition without concept, like a unicity with no generality on the horizon or with no horizon at all, out of range for a language that admits its powerlessness and so is reduced to pronouncing mechanically a date, repeating it endlessly, as a kind of ritual incantation, a conjuring poem, a journalistic litany or rhetorical refrain that admits to not knowing what it's talking about. We do not in fact know what we are saying or naming in this way: September 11, le 11 septembre, September 11. The brevity of the appellation (September 11, 9/11) stems not only from an economic or rhetorical necessity. The telegram of this metonymy—a name, a number—points out the unqualifiable by recognizing that we do not recognize or even cognize that we do not yet know how to qualify, that we do not know what we are talking about.

For the entire piece, go here.

Judith Butler on Derrida

An excerpt with comments by BV. Entire piece available here.

It is surely uncontroversial to say that Jacques Derrida was one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, that his international reputation far exceeds any French intellectual of his generation. More than that, his work fundamentally changed the way in which we think about language, philosophy, aesthetics, painting, literature, communication, ethics and politics. His early work criticized the structuralist presumption that language could be described as a static set of rules, and he showed how those rules admitted of contingency and were dependent on a temporality that could undermine their efficacy. He wrote against philosophical positions that uncritically subscribed to "totality" or "systematicity" as values, without first considering the alternatives that were ruled out by that preemptive valorization. He insisted that the act of reading extends from literary texts to films, to works of art, to popular culture, to political scenarios, and to philosophy itself. The practice of "reading" insists that our ability to understand relies on our capacity to interpret signs.

BV: Is this something that needs to be "insisted" on? Who would deny it?

It also presupposes that signs come to signify in ways that no particular author or speaker can constrain in advance through intention. This does not mean that our language always confounds our intentions, but only that our intentions do not fully govern everything we end up meaning by what we say and write (see Limited Inc., 1977).

BV: Suppose I write something. A reader can derive a meaning from it that I do not intend. That is trivially true. But it is false to say my intentions "do not fully govern everything" I end up meaning by my writing. What I mean is exactly what I intend to mean. I am the authority as to what I mean by a particular inscription or utterance and no one else.

Derrida’s work moved from a criticism of philosophical presumptions in groundbreaking books such as On Grammatology (1967), Writing and Difference (1967), Dissemination (1972), The Post Card (1980), and Spurs (1978), to the question of how to theorize the problem of "difference." This term he wrote as "differance," not only to mark the way that signification works, with one term referring to another, always relying on a deferral of meaning between signifier and signified, but also to characterize an ethical relation, the relation of sexual difference, and the relation to the Other.

BV: The notion that signification "always relies on a deferral of meaning between signifier and signified" is ably criticized by John M. Ellis, Against Deconstruction (Princeton 1989), p. 54 ff. Review here.

Ellis’ point is that Derrida confuses signification with the analysis of signification. From the premise that the meaning of a word involves a play of contrasts with other words, it does not follow that all the possible contrasts of a given word with other words must be understood for a user of the word to mean something definite on a particular occasion. Unpacking all those possible contrasts is a perhaps endless task of analysis; but one need not engage in any such analysis to use a word meaningfully.


And of course to bring into the mix sex, ethics, and the Other only muddies these troubled waters even more.

If some readers thought that Derrida was a linguistic constructivist, they missed the fact that the name we have for something, for ourselves, for an other, is precisely what fails to capture the referent (as opposed to making or constructing that referent). He clearly drew critically on the work of Emmanuel Levinas in order to insist upon the "Other" as one to whom an incalculable responsibility is owed, one who could never fully be "captured" through social categories or designative names, one to whom a certain response is owed. This framework became the basis of his strenuous critique of apartheid in South Africa, his vigilant opposition to totalitarian regimes and forms of intellectual censorship, his theorization of the nation-state beyond the hold of territoriality, his opposition to European racism, and his critical relation to the discourse of "terror" as it worked to fortify governmental powers that undermine basic human rights . . . .

BV: Typical. It is the "discourse of ‘terror’" that worries Derrida, not terror itself.

Derrida made clear in his small book on Walter Benjamin, The Force of Law (1994), that justice was a concept that was yet to come.

BV: So we don’t have the concept of justice yet, but have to wait for it to arrive? What a sloppy way to write! If we don’t have this concept yet, how will we know when it does arrive? What Butler wants to say is that the concept of justice has yet to be realized. But even that is not true: the concept – assuming for the nonce that there is only one such concept – is partially realized on a daily basis. And why should we assume that there is something which is the concept of justice? John Rawls famously articulated a concept of justice as fairness, a concept that is opposed by other concepts of justice.

This does not mean that we cannot expect instances of justice in this life, and it does not mean that justice will arrive for us only in another life. He was clear that there was no other life.

BV: Derrida was CLEAR that there is no other life? No one can be CLEAR about such a thing, any more than one can be CLEAR that there is a life to come. Anyone who says that it is clear that there is a God and/or an afterlife is a bullshitter, and anyone who says the opposite is an equal, but opposite, bullshitter.

What is offensive here, and what must be opposed, is the obliteration of classical, indeed perennial, philosophical problems of enduring human concern by the arbitrary adoption of a ‘discourse’ that does not allow them to be framed.

It means only that, as an ideal, it is that toward which we strive, without end. Not to strive for justice because it cannot be fully realized would be as mistaken as believing that one has already arrived at justice and that the only task is to arm oneself adequately to fortify its regime. The first is a form of nihilism (which he opposed) and the second is dogmatism (which he opposed). Derrida kept us alive to the practice of criticism, understanding that social and political transformation was an incessant project, one that could not be relinquished, one that was coextensive with the becoming of life itself, and with a reading of the rules through which a polity constitutes itself through exclusion or effacement.

BV: It is just nonsense to say or imply that social and political transformation are coextensive with the becoming of life itself. This rules out by terminological fiat the very possibility of a stable political order.

Note the high-flown verbiage about a polity constituting itself. Where is this polity itself? People form a polity by their individual political actions.

How is justice done? What justice do we owe others? And what does it mean to act in the name of justice? These were questions that had to be asked regardless of the consequences, and this meant that they were often questions asked when established authorities wished that they were not.

BV: Was Derrida the first to ask these questions? I seem to remember one Socrates of Athens who asked these questions and who faced consequences far worse than any Derrida faced. Note also the typical leftist move of assuming that the "established authorities" (a pleonastic expression) cannot possibly have justice and right on their side. Of course, Butler doesn’t say this in so many words, but this is part of the game these people play. By never saying anything definite, they avoid having their claims evaluated. One cannot evaluate an indeterminate thesis. And the propounder of such a thesis can always claim he has been misunderstood thereby avoiding critique.

If his critics worried that, with Derrida, there are no foundations upon which one could rely, they doubtless were mistaken in that view. Derrida relies perhaps most assiduously on Socrates, on a mode of philosophical inquiry that took the question as the most honest and arduous form for thought.

BV: There is no doubt that Derrida borrows from Heidegger what I call a fetishization of the question. I hope to devote a separate post to this topic. Here too Derrida attempts to out-Heidegger Heidegger. The notion that endless questioning, the questioning of questioning itself, the questioning of the presuppositions of the very posing of the question about questioning itself, the endless preparing to be in a position where one can finally, perhaps, authentically pose a question about something – what is this if not the fetishization of questioning for its own sake, when questioning by its very sense is oriented toward answers? But we can never arrive at any answers or conclusions because that would involve "exclusion" of other answers as incorrect. And we can’t have that, can we?

Meanwhile the uncritical presuppositions of this deconstructionist stuff themselves go unquestioned.


It would interesting to investigate how far this fetishization of questioning, of "incessant criticism," go hand in glove with the Left’s fetishization of dissent – as if dissent were an end in itself rather than what it is, a means to an end.