Monday, February 28, 2005

Short Views, Long Views, and the Feel for the Real

Dennis Mangan, responding to a post of mine, writes:

In my own life, I prefer not to think about the "senselessness" of the universe; it's too depressing. Just because something is depressing does not of course make it untrue, as many orthodox religious believers seem to think. The truth may set you free, but it may also imprison you. In life, as the Rev. Sidney Smith said, it is best to take short views.

Is it best to take short views? Sometimes it is. When the going gets tough, it is best to pull in one’s horns, hunker down, and just try to get through the next week, the next day, the next hour. One can always meet the challenge of the next hour. Be here now and deal with what is on your plate at the moment. Most likely you will find a way forward.

But, speaking for myself, a life without long views would not be worth living. I thrill at the passage in Plato’s Republic, Book Six (486a) where the philosopher is described as a "spectator of all time and existence." And then there is this beautiful formulation by our very own William James:

The absolute things, the last things, the overlapping things, are the truly philosophic concerns; all superior minds feel seriously about them, and the mind with the shortest views is simply the mind of the more shallow man. (Pragmatism, Harvard UP, 1975, p. 56)

I wrote above, "speaking for myself." The expression was not used redundantly inasmuch as it conveys that my philosopher’s preference for the long view is not one that I would want to or try to urge on anyone else. In my experience, one cannot argue with another man’s sensibility. And much of life comes down to precisely that -- sensibility. If people share a sensibility, then argument is useful for its articulation and refinement. But I am none too sanguine about the possibility of arguing someone into, or out of, a sensibility. How argue the atheist out of his abiding sense that the univere is godless, or the radical out of his conviction of human perfectibility? If the passages I cited from Plato and James leave you cold, how could I change your mind? If you sneer at my being thrilled, what then? Argument comes too late. Or if you prefer, sensibility comes too early.

One might also speak of a person’s sense of life, view of what is important, or ‘feel for the real.’ James’ phrase, "feel seriously," is apt. To the superior mind, ultimate questions "feel real," whereas to the shallow mind they appear pointless, unimportant, silly. It is equally true that the superior mind is made such by its wrestling with these questions:

Maximae res, cum parvis quaeruntur, magnos eos solent efficere.

Matters of the greatest importance, when they are investigated by little men, tend to make those men great. (Augustine, Contra Academicos 1. 2. 6.)

Of course, with his talk of the superior and the shallow, James is making a value judgment. I myself have no problem making value judgments, and in particular this one. And I am sure Mangan doesn’t in general either, as witness his thoughts on Brahms.

Although prospects are dim for arguing the other out of his sensibility, civil discussion is not pointless. One comes to understand one’s own view by contrast with another. One learns to respect the sources of the other’s view. That may lead to toleration, which is good within limits. (Osama and the others who do not respect the principle of toleration must not be tolerated, but killed.) For someone with a theoretical bent, the sheer diversity of approaches to life is fascinating and provides endless grist for the theoretical mill.

Anti-Naturalism Links

Sloan Lee has compiled a page of anti-naturalism links to papers by some very good philosophers. (Via Max Goss) Being a 'fair and balanced' kind of guy, I draw your attention to a link at the bottom of the aforementioned page, a link to a pro-naturalism page. I report, you decide.

Gypsy Scholar Wanders into the 'Sphere

Let's all extend a friendly welcome to Jeff Hodges who has overcome his initial fear of the 'sphere to join us in the great conversation. I see that he ripped off 'my' template, however; my revenge may consist of changing my colors to his. Here is how Jeff describes his weblog's title:

My blog title, Gypsy Scholar, probably violates political correctness, but intellectual travel has taken me around the world. I grew up in Arkansas and have lived in Texas, California, Switzerland, Germany, Australia, Israel, and Korea. I've also visited Mexico, Belgium, France, England, Scotland, Italy, Austria, Czechoslovakia (before the split), East Germany (before the union), Denmark, Russia, Singapore, and Japan. Since my scholarly career has brought me through all of these places to the outskirts of Seoul, where I now live, the terms "Gypsy" and "Scholar" both fit. Thus: "Gypsy Scholar."

Now that I've plugged you, Jeff, you have to produce in accordance with the rule: Nulla dies sine blogposta. But however much Jeff posts, one can be assured that it will be well written.

I am confident that Jeff will be among those who help the blogosphere achieve its true potential as a noosphere (Teilhard de Chardin).

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Desire, Satisfaction, and Intrinsic Goods

Some desires are satisfied by being sated, or eliminated. Suppose I am thirsty. It would not be accurate to say that I desire water; what I desire is a drink of water. To be exact, it is the drinking of water by me that I desire. For that, water is of course required; but it is not the water itself but the drinking of the water that I desire. What this physical desire aims at is its own cessation. I desire that my thirst shall cease. I drink until my thirst (my desire for water) is quenched (eliminated). It is the same with hunger. It is not food that I desire, but the eating of food by me so that my hunger will cease. An even clearer case is heroin addiction. The junkie desires his fix not to attain a positive state of pleasure, but to get rid of the pain of the withdrawal symptoms. If he could eliminate the pain without injecting heroin, he would do so. Here then is a pure case in which desire is a desire for its own cessation. The desire does not aim at a good external to itself: it aims solely at its own elimination. In the case of a desire for shot of heroin on the part of an addict (as opposed to someone just beginning to use the stuff), there cannot be a good external to the satisfaction, by elimination, of the desire. The only good in this case is a good definable in terms of the satisfaction of desire. The water itself is good, of course, but only instrumentally in that it is a means to the end of thirst-quenching.

Some desires, then, aim at their own cessation. In such cases, a desire satisfied is a desire eliminated. There are other desires, however, that are satisfied by being fulfilled or completed rather than by being sated or eliminated. The addict simply wants to get rid of his craving by any means possible. For that he doesn’t need heroin – a total blood transfusion would do just as well. But the desire for understanding – e.g., my desire to understand the nature of desire and solve the attendant philosophical problems that are ‘tormenting’ me -- is not a desire for its own cessation. I don’t simply want to get rid of the desire – something I could achieve Hunter Thompson style by blowing my brains out – I want the fulfillment of the desire, its completion. A desire completed is not the same as a desire eliminated. A desire is fulfilled or completed when it attains a good external to the desire.

Or consider someone’s desire that a wrong be righted. (An innocent man has been convicted of a capital crime and sits on death row, and his attorney desires that this wrong be righted.) A desire for justice cannot be satisfied by the mere cessation of the desire; what is required is that the external good aimed at by the desire be attained. If the external good is attained, then two things are attained: the external good and the internal good of desire-satisfaction.

Now in the cases in which a desire is fulfilled rather than simply eliminated, what fulfills the desire is a good the goodness of which cannot be identified with its satisfying the desire. Consider again the desire for understanding. Although the satisfying of the desire to understand is itself good, understanding is good not merely because it satisfies a desire for understanding, but because it satisfies the desire in a certain way, namely, by bringing the desirer into contact with something intrinsically good. And in the case of the attorney seeking justice for his client, the righting of the wrong is not good merely because it satisfies a desire on the part of the attorney for the righting of a wrong, but because righting the wrong is an intrinsic good.

Understanding is intrinsically good. It is good in itself, and not in virtue of its relation to a desirer whose desire it satisfies. The desire for understanding is not just a desire for the satisfaction of this desire, but also a desire for something whose goodness is intrinsic to it.

If this is right, then the good cannot be reduced to the satisfaction of desire. And if the good cannot be reduced to the satisfaction of desire, then the good cannot be reduced, pace Jim Ryan, to the rationally desirable. For whether or not a thing is rationally desirable, it is desirable. And if X is not desirable because it it is intrinsically good, then X is desirable only because it can satisfy desire. But what I have shown above is that there are intrinsic goods such as understanding and justice, goods that cannot be reduced to what people desire, can desire, or would desire were they to know all the relevant facts surrouinding their desiring. These goods are good whether we desire them or not.

Note that I am not denying the truth of the biconditional, ‘X is good iff X is rationally desirable,’ for it can be interpreted in such a way that it comes out trivially true. For if the desirer is en rapport with every fact relevant to himself, his situation, and the object of this desire, then what could count as a counterexample to the biconditional? What I am saying is that the trivial truth of Ryan’s biconditional does not sanction the reduction of the good to the rationally desirable. The reduction would follow logically only in the presence of some additional premises. What could those be? And given that there are intrinsic goods, as I have argued, the reduction must fail.

Note also that if the truth (or the necessary truth) of a biconditional sanctions a reduction, why must the reduction move from right to left rather than from left to right? Why not argue that the truth of the above biconditional sanctions the reduction of the rationally desirable to the good?

Indeed, that is exactly what I would argue. The rationally desirable is rationally desirable because it is good, and not good because it is rationally desirable. Similarly with truth: what is true is warrantedly assertible (rationally justifiable at the ideal limit of inquiry, etc., pick your epistemic/doxastic catchphrase) because it is true; it is not true because it is warrantedly assertible.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Two Nuns Discuss Teaching

An eager young nun and a wise old nun were discussing teaching over lunch. The young nun was waxing enthusiastic over the privilege, but also the responsibility, of forming young minds. The old nun took a glass of water, inserted her forefinger, and agitated the water. Suddenly she removed her finger and the water immediately returned to its quiescent state.

That, said the old nun, is what teaching is like.

A Memory of Teaching

I am enjoying teaching quite a bit now that I no longer do it. With some things it is not the doing of it that we like so much as the having done it. Climbing K2, for instance.

One day in class I carefully explained the abbreviation ‘iff’ often employed by philosophers and mathematicians to avoid writing ‘if and only if.’ I explained the logical differences among ‘if,’ ‘only if,’ and ‘if and only if.’ I gave examples. I brought in necessary and sufficient conditions. The whole shot. But I wasn’t all that surprised when I later read a student comment to the effect that Dr. V can’t spell ‘if.’

Friday, February 25, 2005

Does Polemic Have A Place in Philosophy?

I tend to think that polemic is out of place in philosophy except in response to philosophical polemicists. But Ed Feser's excellent discussion gives me pause.

However things may stand with philosophy, polemic has a role to play in political debate because of what a I call the Converse Clausewitz principle: Politics is war conducted by other means. Everything the Left does shows that they understand and act on this principle. So if we conservatives ignore it, we put ourselves at a disadvantage.

Another Round With Ryan on the Reducibility of the Good

Jim Ryan maintains that the good is identifiable with the rationally desirable, where ‘rational’ means coherent and fully informed as to the facts. I presented the following as a possible counterexample. Suppose Jack is 18 yrs old and is such that his largest coherent set of desires at the time would be best fulfilled by marrying Jill. Suppose Jack has done his level best to inform himself of all relevant facts. Still, it may be that there are facts about himself, about Jill, and about the world at large that Jack’s father knows, but Jack is incapable of knowing due to immaturity, love-blindness, etc. I would not conclude that what 18 year old Jack rationally desires, or is rationally able to desire, is identical to the good for Jack. He may not know his true good!

Ryan responds: Now, your Jack is too immature to know that there are unknown unknowns that he needs to come to know. But he wants to be happy. The fact, due to his nature, is that he will not be happy if he marries Jill. Because it denies this important fact, Jack's formation of a preference to marry Jill is therefore ill-informed, and the definition survives your test. But your test is precisely where the game is played, unless you have a different theory of meaning from mine.

BV: We can leave meaning for later. For now I am pleased that Jim thinks that my kind of "test is precisely where the game is played. . . ." Jim made the kind of clarification I expected. It is not enough that Jack’s desires be (i) maximally coherent, (ii) such that they would be best satisfied by marrying Jill, and (iii) based on all the relevant facts available to Jack given the limitations of Jack’s situation and his level of intelligence and maturity, but ALSO (iv) based on what an ideal observer in Jack’s shoes would come to know about his situation. In other words, for Jack’s desire to be rational (in a sense that allows the identification of the good with the rationally desirable), the desire has to be based on ALL the facts pertaining to his happiness. Jack would have to know what his happiness would consist in, and what courses of action would lead to his realizing it.

It now looks as if Jim’s theory is that:

(JR) X is good for a person P =df X is what P would desire if (i) P desires to be happy, (ii) knows what his happiness consists in, and (iii) knows all the facts relevant to its attainment.

This can be rewritten as:

(JR*) X is good for a person P =df If P were to desire to be happy, know what his happiness consists in, and know all the facts relevant to its attianment, then P would desire X.

Note that the right-hand side is a counterfactual conditional. In my example, Jack does not know all the facts about himself, Jill, and the world at large. So the antecedent of the conditional is not true. How can the fact of X’s being good for P be identical to a counterfactual state of affairs?

Jim wants to say that the good is the rationally desirable. But then it turns out that the rationally desirable is what an ideal ‘desirer’ would desire, a desirer who knows all the facts. But Jack is not an ideal desirer. The actual fact of what is good for him cannot be identified with a mere possibility. How could that count as a naturalistic reduction of goodness?

Similar puzzle: How could the truth-maker of an actually true proposition be identified with its rational acceptability at the (Peircean) ideal limit of inquiry?

Of Eating and Being

Ludwig Feuerbach is the source of the pun, man ist was man isst, the punniness of which is lost in the English translation: One is what one eats. ‘Ist’ is translated by is, ‘isst’ by eats. ‘Isst’ is from the infinitive essen, to eat. A nice feature of German is that it marks the distinction between human and animal eating. Essen is what we do; fressen is what the animals do. But if a man pigs out, then he can be called a Fresser. My cat Caissa, old and spoiled, prefers my food to her own. I have so 'humanized' her that she is now an Esser rather than a Fresser. Indeed, she is on the way to becoming a Delikatesser, indeed, a Feinschmecker.

I once ate in a Jewish delicatessen on the east side of Cleveland in which one of the sandwiches on the menu was entitled ‘The Fresser.’ Of course, that is what I ordered. Ein Fresser ist was er frisst.

The English distinction between the nouns ‘food’ and ‘feed’ parallels the distinction between essen and fressen. Feed is what animals, typically farm animals, get; food is for humans and their pets. I heard of a woman who, suspecting her man of engaging in an extramural liaison, remarked that her evidence was that he was "off his feed." The animal!

There is a restaurant in Apache Junction, Arizona called The Feedbag. No restaurant in Scottsdale (or at least the tonier precincts thereof) would ever bear such a name. There is also an eating establishment in AJ called the Dirtwater Café. One morning my wife wanted to go out for breakfast. (I prefer to eat at home where I am master of my domain, fork in one hand, remote control in the other.) Confusing the two establishments, she said, "Let’s go out to the Dirtbag Café."

I’ll end on a serious note. I used the expression ‘pig out’ above. It is philosophically unacceptable because it involves the dubious ascription of gluttony to pigs. It is arguable, however, that only a man, but no animal, can be a glutton. Similarly, a man, but no animal, can be bestial. A man, but no animal, can sink below his nature. This naturally leads us into normative ethics and the concept of perversion. But these are topics too tough to tangle with at the moment.

Anarchists and Libertarians

I asked Tony Flood how he saw the distinction between anarchists and libertarians. Here is what he said:

Some As, not all, are Ls; some Ls, not all, are As.

An anarchist finds no moral justification for a State. From that fact alone, however, we cannot predict his view of the right of private acquisition of scarce resources. That is, we cannot tell whether he is an anarchocapitalist (e.g., Murray Rothbard) or an anarchocommunist (e.g., Murray Bookchin).

The libertarian champions the right of private acquisition of scarce resources. He might not, however deduce anarchism from that right. He might believe that free markets can provide all socially necessary functions that the State now monopolizes better (i.e., more cheaply and at higher quality) and ought to (that State monopolization is intrinsically rights-violating); or he might make an exception for police and defense services just so that property rights may be best defended. That is, he might be a "minarchist" libertarian.

Godspeed to Kevin's Ass. . .

. . . as it wends its way to Pusan. May it successfully negotiate the pons asinorum.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Man Invented Time, Seiko Perfected It

I often awake with several blog topics on my mind. (Am I descending into blogomania?) One of today’s was the above advertising jingle from the 1980's. The stupidity of it invites philoso-kvetching.

Miguel de Unamuno liked to say that there is no Man, only men. So which man invented time? And when did he do it? Was it before his coffee break, or after? How long did it take him to invent it? An hour? What was he doing before he invented it? Was he thinking about inventing it?

Perhaps no one person invented time; perhaps it was a committee effort. That might explain some its unpleasant aspects such as the celerity with which it passes, or the way it consigns the past to a kind of nonexistence. Were the committee members civil, or did they all talk simultaneously?

If the good folks at Seiko Watch Co. perfected time, then time was imperfect before they got to work on it. But as far as I can tell, the ontological deficiency of all temporal items remains with us.

The Good and the Rationally Desirable

Jim Ryan, in a comment to a previous post, argues:

1.) There is nothing that would count as evidence that both(a.) X is not good for you; and (b.) X is most fulfilling to the largest and most coherent set of your desires, all the relevant non-normative facts being taken into account.

2.) If 1, then good is reducible to desire, namely rational desirability (where "rational" means coherent and fully informed as to the facts).

Therefore, the good is reducible to desire.

Some Comments/ Requests for Clarification

As I understand it (and maybe I don’t), Jim’s thesis is not merely that X is good iff X is rationally desirable, but that X’s being good is reducible to X’s being rationally desirable. Thus he is taking the biconditional to sanction a reduction: the good is nothing other than the rationally desirable. Jim holds this because he thinks that in every case in which X maximally fulfills a person P’s largest and most coherent set of desires, X is good for P, and vice versa.

I may be missing something, but this looks circular. The argument appears to boil down to this: the good = the rationally desirable because all and only good things are rationally desirable things.

(It is worth pointing out that every circular argument is valid, and some are even sound. It is just that a circular argument gives us no reason (independent of the argument’s conclusion) for accepting its conclusion. )

Another problem is this. The desirable is not the same as the desire-worthy. I am able to desire things that are not worthy of my desire. Suppose a man desires sex with a different woman every night. (That is, a woman different from the woman of every previous night, as opposed to alternating between or among n women, where n is a small number like 2 or 3 or 4) It follows that he is able to desire sex with a different woman every night. It does not follow, however, that enjoying such a sexual feast is desirable in the normative sense, i.e., that it is desire-worthy. I am sure Jim is aware of the equivocity of ‘desirable.’ The great J. S. Mill, however, was bamboozled by a close cousin of it. See here.

Of course, Jim spoke of the rationally desirable, not of the desirable simpliciter. I concede that it might not be rationally desirable for a given person to have sex every night with a different woman because then the coherence condition might not be met. (If I desire a long-term close relation, then fidelity to one partner may be required.)

Can rationality bring us from the nonnormatively desirable to the normatively desire-worthy? I don’t see that it can, and I don’t think Jim is asserting that it can. He is simply identifying the good with the rationally desirable. But then doesn’t Jim face G. E. Moore’s Open Question argument? Suppose someone says that pleasure is the good. Surely that is not an analytic proposition. So the connection between pleasure and the good is synthetic. But then can’t we reasonably ask: Is pleasure the good? Doesn’t this remain an open question?

Identifying goodness with rational desirability is like identifying truth with rational acceptability. In both cases, relativism results. Both rational desirability and rational acceptability vary from person to person, place to place, and time to time. If anyone needs examples, I can supply them. But truth is surely absolute. I would say the same for what is genuinely desire-worthy for human beings. Of course, I need to argue this out in great detail.

Let me end this set of comments by giving a possible example of something rationally desirable by a person that is not good for a person. Suppose Jack is 18 yrs old and is such that his largest coherent set of desires at the time would be best fulfilled by marrying Jill. Suppose Jack has done his level best to inform himself of all relevant facts. Still, it may be that there are facts about himself, about Jill, and about the world at large that Jack’s father knows, but Jack is incapable of knowing due to immaturity, love-blindness, etc. I would not conclude that what 18 year old Jack rationally desires, or is rationally able to desire, is identical to the good for Jack. He may not know his true good!

Jim will understand that this is not intended as a refutation, but as an invitation to clarification and further discussion.

Another Look at a Reppertian Argument

Victor Reppert gives the following argument in Philosophia Christi, vol. 3, no. 1 (2003), p. 16:

1. If naturalism is true, then no states of the person can be either true or false.
2. Some states of the person can be either true or false.
3. Naturalism is false.

Before reexamining this argument, let me say that Victor and I are 'on the same team': we are both resolute anti-naturalists. Thus our disagreement, if disagreement it is, is intramural: within the walls of the anti-naturalistic encampment.

My criticism is simply that a sophisticated naturalist will not feel compelled to accept the premises. But first a very minor logical quibble. Strictly speaking, (3) does not follow from (1) and (2). What follows is: Naturalism is not true. The assumption of Bivalence -- which of course I grant -- is necessary to arrive validly at (3) by Modus Tollens.

That quibble aside, why should a sophisticated naturalist feel compelled to accept (1)?

A necessary condition of being a naturalist is the insistence that mind is ontologically dependent (dependent in its existence) upon the natural world. The dependence can be spelled out in a variety of ways giving rise to a variety of naturalisms. Some naturalists say that mind is epiphenomenal, others that it is emergent, still others that it is supervenient, while the most extreme of all say that it is reductively identifiable with brain processes ( Identity Theory) or with overt behavior and behavioral dispositions (Behaviorism). The naturalists’ main point, however, is that mind cannot exist without a material substratum of a certain complexity and organization: there are no disembodied minds, hence no God as classically conceived, no souls capable of pre-existing or post-existing their embodiment, no angels or demons.

Suppose minds or persons are supervenient. Why, given naturalism, couldn't some states of persons be either true or false? Reppert's (1) may be true for a naturalist who is an identity theorist, but not for one who is a supervenientist.

But suppose our naturalist is an identity theorist. Premise (2) appears to beg the question against him. For if mental states are brain states, then they cannot be true or false. The identity theorist could still find a place for truth in his world by identifying truth-bearers not with states of mind/person, but with some species of abstract object like Fregean propositions.

My view is a that a viable naturalism must admit nonphysical truth-bearers. Here is an argument.

Surely there are truths that hold at times when there are no minds. The thesis of naturalism itself, if true, is such a truth. At the time of the Big Bang, and for a good long time thereafter, natural conditions were not such as to permit the existence of any minds; yet naturalism, if true, was true during this period. It was true during this period that nothing could be a mind unless it were based in matter of the right organization and complexity. Naturalism did not first become true when minds first emerged. As a truth about minds, it is true, if it is true, independently of any and all minds. And the same goes for infinities of other truths that do not depend on the existence of minds. Among these are truths about the physical universe and its parts.

Thus it was true before any minds evolved on earth that the earth was a spheroid with one moon, possessed an atmosphere of such-and-such a composition, etc. There are also necessary truths to contend with: they are true in every possible world, including worlds in which minds do not exist. Thus it is quite clear that the existence of truths in general cannot depend on the existence of the sorts of minds that naturalists will allow into their ontologies, namely, minds whose very existence depends on the existence of highly organized configurations of matter. (The special case of truths about minds is consistent with this general point.)

It follows that a sophisticated naturalist will not grant that some mental states are primary truth-bearers. The reason, again, is that there must be primary truth-bearers at times and in possible worlds in which minds do not exist. Such a naturalist will not grant the classical thesis of Thomas Aquinas et al. according to which truths reside only in minds to the extent that they correspond to external reality, as in the scholastic dictum, Veritas est adaequatio intellectus et rei. If truth consists in a correspondence between mind and reality, then mind must exist if truth is to exist. Theists such as Augustine and Aquinas will use this point to argue for the existence of a necessarily existent infinite mind. The sophisticated naturalist will hold instead that primary truth-bearers are some species of abstract object such as Fregean propositions that exist in sublime independence of any and all minds. This does not imply that the sophisticated naturalist cannot say of beliefs that they are true or false; it implies merely that he cannot attach these predicates to beliefs in the primary sense.

No sophisticated naturalist should lose any sleep over Reppert’s argument. A convincing argument from truth against naturalism must therefore show that the primary truth-bearers cannot be abstract objects. What I would argue is that primary truth-bearers cannot be abstract objects any more than they can be physical objects; they must be states of mind. Since this cannot be allowed by any naturalist who understands that some truths are independent of matter-based minds, naturalism is false. And since there are truths that outrun our states of mind, there must be an absolute mind.

But I can't ignore VR's question about how truth, if situated at the level of abstract objects, is relevant to the concrete occurrence of beliefs. This is a large topic, but why couldn't a naturalist who is a supervenientist say that some supervenient mental states inherit their truth-values from Fregean propositions? Of course, there is the problem of how a supervenient state can have any causal impact on physical states. Isn't Monokroussos working on that problem?

From the Mail: The Philosophy of Money

Steve Castellano writes:

Hilarious posts . . .

Btw, don't feel obligated to link to my website Reflections on Equity Research just because I'm a fan. I think equity research is a bit off topic for your readers. Keep up the great work. it really is refreshing to read your stuff.

Thanks, Steve. Great to have you onboard. Actually, you (or rather a link to your site) have been on my sidebar for a few days. I booked you under POLITICS AND ECONOMICS. It was my pleasure to do so.

Money and investing are important topics, and I have posted on them before, no doubt going out on limbs that you are qualified to saw off. I see blogging as a learning tool, and not just as a vehicle for pontificating. Feel free to criticize the following money posts:

'Socially Conscious' Investing
Gambling Versus Investing
Money and Meaning
Philosophers and 'Cash'

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

On the Ground with G. E. Moore

‘On the ground’ is getting a bit too much use for my taste. What the hell does it mean? "Coming up, a live report from Geraldo Rivera, on the ground in Fallujah." Where else would he be if not on the ground? Hovering in mid-air? Burrowing underground? Why not just say that he is in Fallujah? Or does it mean that he is literally on the ground?

Of course, very few civilized mortals spend any appreciable time literally on the ground, i.e., in direct contact with the surface of the earth. I don’t reckon that Geraldo, tough guy that he is, has ever walked barefoot over the Iraqi sand. I am now sitting with my pants and underpants on in a chair which rests on a rug and a pad beneath which is a concrete slab. Thus my gluteal contact with the earth is subject to a six-fold mediation. And when I go backpacking and sleep in the wild, my contact with the ground is subject to a similar manifold mediation: clothes, sleeping bag, self-inflating ThermaRest mattress, tent floor, groundcloth. And yet that could be called sleeping on the ground as opposed to sleeping in a warm bed.

Thoughts such as these may have been at the back of G. E. Moore’s mind when he penned a passage in "A Defence of Common Sense" (1925) that some have found puzzling. Speaking of his body, he writes,

Ever since it was born, it has either been in contact with or not far from the surface of the earth . . .

What did Moore have in mind with "not far from the surface of the earth"? Did he do much jumping? Go up in planes or balloons? Or was he thinking that while sitting in his study, he was not in contact with the surface of the earth but also not far from it either?

Would Naturalism Make Life Easier?

If only naturalism were unmistakably and irrefutably true! A burden would be lifted: no God, no soul, no personal survival of death, an assured exit from the wheel of becoming, no fear of being judged for one’s actions. One could have a good time with a good conscience, Hefner-style. (Or one could have a murderous time like a Saddam or a Stalin.) There would be no nagging sense that one’s self-indulgent behavior might exclude one from a greater good and a higher life. If this is all there is, one could rest easy like Nietzsche’s Last Man who has "his little pleasure for the day and his little pleasure for the night."

If one knew that one were just a complex physical system, one could blow one’s brains out, as Hunter S. Thompson recently did, fully assured that that would be the end, thus implementing an idiosyncratic understanding of "When the going gets tough, the tough get going."

Some atheists psychologize theists thusly: "You believe out of a need for comforting illusions, illusions that pander to your petty ego by promising its perpetuation." But that table can be turned: "You atheists believe as you do so as to rest easy in this life with no demands upon you except the ones that you yourself impose." Psychologizers can be psychologized just as bullshitters can be bullshat – whence it follows that not much is to be expected from either procedure.

Am I perhaps falsely assuming that a naturalist must be a moral slacker, beholden to no moral demand? Does it follow that the naturalist cannot be an idealist, cannot live and sacrifice for high and choice-worthy ideals? Well, he can try to be an idealist, and many naturalists are idealists, and as a matter of plain fact many naturalists are morally decent people, and indeed are morally better people than some anti-naturalists (theists, for example) -- but what justification could these naturalists have for maintaining the ideals and holding the values that they do maintain and hold? Where do these ideals come from if, at ontological bottom, it is all just "atoms in the void"? And why ought we live up to them? Where does the oughtness, the deontic pull, if you will, come from? If ideals are mere projections, whether individually or collectively, then they have precisely no ontological backing that we are bound to take seriously.

The truth may be this. People who hold a naturalistic view and deny any purpose beyond the purposes that we individually and collectively project, and yet experience their lives as meaningful and purposeful, may simply not appreciate the practical consequences of their own theory. It may be that they have not existentially appropriated or properly internalized their theory. Their theory contradicts their practice, but since they either do not fully understand their theory, or do not try to live it, the contradiction remains hidden from them.

Of Blood and Blog

In a comment to this post, Mike Gilleland lends aid and comfort to my hypothesis that our blood relatives tend not to give a hoot about our blogging activities. They say blood is thicker than water, but it sure doesn't seem to translate into any spiritual affinity. The community that we can't find by blood, we'll find by blog.

Apples and Sparkplugs

Yesterday’s language rant deserves a follow-up. All too frequently people say, ‘You’re comparing apples and oranges’ in order to convey the idea that two things are so dissimilar as to to disallow any significant comparison. Can’t they do better than this? Apples and oranges are highly comparable in respects too numerous to mention. Both are fruits, both are edible, both grow on trees, both are good sources of fiber, both contain Vitamin C, etc.

Why not say, ‘You are comparing apples and sparkplugs’? Apples are naturally occurrent and edible while sparkplugs are inedible artifacts. That’s a serious difference.

This reminds me of a story I read as a boy in my hometown newspaper. A man once ate an entire car, sparkplugs and all. A feat of automotive asceticism to rival the pillar antics of Simon Stylites. He did it by cutting the car and its parts into small pieces that he then washed down with generous libations of buttermilk. But a car is not just solid parts, but various fluids. You’ve got your gasoline, your crankcase oil, your tranny fluid, not to mention coolant, windshield wiper liquid, and what all else. How did he negotiate that stuff? Well, I suppose anything can be passed throught the gastrointestinal system if sufficiently watered down. So if a man gets it into his head to eat an entire car, he can do it. As my 4th grade teacher Sr Elizabeth (Lizard) Marie used to say, "Where there’s a will there’s a way."

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Bloggers and Their Relatives

As far as I know, no relative of mine has ever taken a gander at either of my websites, one of which is this weblog. Not a word of encouragement, or the opposite, have I received. I suspect this is not unusual. The people we know we take for granted. Is it not written that "no prophet is welcome in his hometown"? (Luke 4, 24: nemo propheta acceptus est in patria sua.)

One could call it the injustice of propinquity. We often underestimate those nearby, whether by blood or space, while overestimating those afar.

What say you, fellow bloggers?

Issues and Problems

Perhaps you have noticed how, in American English at least, ‘issue’ is coming to supplant ‘problem.’ Being a conservative, I don’t confuse change with improvement. And being a linguistic conservative, I am none too pleased with this recent development. So I would like to be able to say that a mistake is being made, or a distinction is being obliterated, by those who use ‘issue’ when, not long ago, one would have used ‘problem.’ I would like to say what I say to those who confuse ‘infer’ and ‘imply,’ namely, that there is an extralinguistic distinction that their linguistic confusion renders invisible. In the case of ‘infer’ and ‘imply’ it is the distinction between a subjective mental process and an objective relation between propositions.

Trouble is, I am having a hard time finding any mistake of a logical or conceptual nature such as would justify my displeasure. Are ‘issue’ and ‘problem’ interchangeable? Am I just a cranky curmudgeon opposed to change as such? Let’s consider some examples.

No one is about to start referring to chess problems and math problems as chess and math issues. At least I hope not. But what if they did? Would I have a principled reason to object? If you run out of gas in the middle of nowhere, then you’ve got a problem. And if your wife is about to give birth when you run out of gas, then you really have a problem. The use of ‘issue’ here offends my linguistic sensibilities, but what exactly is wrong with it? More examples:

There is an issue with the starter solenoid.

You got an issue with that, buddy?

There are serious issues with the formatting of the March issue of Chess Life.

Thank you Carmelita, for putting me on your blogroll. Carmelita: No issue!

One issue that arises for a married couple is whether or not to have children. But if the man is impotent, then that is a problem. It is even more of a problem if the two find each other physically repellent.

In the sentence, ‘He died without issue,’ one cannot substitute ‘problem’ for ‘issue’ salva significatione. But that is not the relevant use of ‘issue.’ We certainly don't want to make an issue, or a problem, out of that use of 'issue.'

I end with two questions. First, is there any distinction that we need to observe when we use ‘problem’ and ‘issue’? Second, why is ‘issue’ coming to supplant ‘problem’? Is it just because people are suggestible lemmings rather than the independent thinkers and speakers that they ought to be?

Can we blame this one on liberals too?

Monday, February 21, 2005

Yet Again on Composition and Identity

I am finding this debate with Joseph Jedwab fascinating, but I can easily appreciate how others would find it hopelessly boring and pointless. Ontology is not everyone’s cup of tea. Is it conducive unto salvation? The very question smacks of an anti-intellectualism that needs to be addressed in a separate post. But now, back to work.

We are discussing how a whole is related to its parts. Our examples are of the simplest sort since if we cannot get clear about these simple cases, then it is highly unlikely that we will be able to get clear about more complex ones. Joseph Jedwab (JJ) maintains that in a case in which a whole W is composed of exactly two nonoverlapping proper parts P1 and P2, there are exactly three entities: P1, P2, and W. I find this unacceptable. (See here, here, here, and here.) Now back to the thread.

JJ: Let's consider your

3. ExEyEz[x is a proper part of z & y is a proper part of z].

This could indeed be true in a domain of two entities for it could well be that [a is a proper part of c & b is a proper part of c] but a=b. But this is not to the point.

BV: Right, that would not be to the point. But your example implies that you do concede my point that if a quantified formula contains n variables, it does not follow that there must be n entities in the domain of quantification. Therefore, if someone infers that P1, P2, and W make three entities because of the truth of (3), then that person commits a non sequitur.

JJ: If some things, the xs, compose something y, then the xs do not overlap each other, each of the xs is a proper part of y and every proper part of y overlaps at least one of the xs.

BV: Right.

JJ: So a better example is this. If two simples compose a whole, the simples are distinct from each other and each is distinct from the whole and so there are at least three things in the domain.

BV: You are arguing as follows:

a. Two distinct simples compose a whole
b. Each simple is distinct from the whole
c. There are at least three things.

Trouble is, (c) does not follow from (a) and (b). To arrive at (c), you need some such supplementary premise as

d. If n distinct entities, each distinct from a whole, compose that whole, then there are n + 1 entities.

But (d) will be rejected by someone who holds that composition is identity. Therefore, you are begging the question against the composition-as-identity theorist. Why should anyone accept (d)?

You are quite sure that the whole W is a third thing, a thing in addition to its sole proper parts P1 and P2. But if W is composed of these parts but not exhausted by them, then what is the further ontological ingredient that distinguishes W from the two parts? Please tell me what that is. Please tell me what must be added to P1 and P2 to get W. And please don’t tell me that W must be added to P1 and P2 to get W. That would make no sense: W is not ‘over and above’ P1, P2. After all, W is composed of P1 and P2: P1 and P2 are the ‘building blocks’ out of which W is ‘built.’ If there is nothing which, when added to P1 and P2, yields W, then what makes W numerically distinct from (P1, P2)? Will you say that nothing makes them distinct, that their distinctness is a brute fact?

NOTE: if you simply help yourself to W as a third thing, if you simply assume that it is a third thing, then I say you have begged the question against the composition-as-identity theorist.

Here is another way to look at it. (P1, P2) is a complex. W is a complex. How can two complexes differ without differing in a constituent? Two sets differ numerically iff they differ in an element, i.e., iff one has a member (element) the other doesn’t have. That is a consequence of the Zermelo-Fraenkel Axiom of Extensionality. Now (P1, P2) is not a set, but it is some kind of complex. W is a still different kind of complex. There is more to W than (P1 P2). What is that more?

JJ: The simples are distinct from each other for they do not overlap each other. And each simple is distinct from the whole for each simple is a proper part of the whole.

BV: Yes to both of these sentences. But it does not follow that the whole is a third thing in addition to the two proper parts. Again, if the whole is composed of the two parts (and of nothing besides) and the whole is a third thing distinct from the two parts, then please tell me what distinguishes the whole from the two parts.

What justifies your positing of a tertium quid? How can you convince me that you are not illictly inferring three values from three variables? It seems to me that you are not entitled to assume that the whole is a third thing. That must be proven. You may assume that there is a whole, but not that it is a third thing.

To help convey my point, allow me to introduce a distinction between an entity and an object. An entity (thing) is something that exists in reality apart from our consideration. An object may or may not exist in reality apart from our consideration. A mere object exists only as an accusative of our consideration. Given that W is composed of P1 and P2, there must be some sense in which W exists. Well, suppose that W exists merely as an object of our consideration. Then it will be the case that there are two entities but three objects. In this way I avoid your conclusion that there are three entities, while accommodating your intuition that W is a third item.

JJ: Of course, we could easily define a function 'x+y=z', which takes as argument a pair of parts that compose something and gives as value the whole they compose. But this does not show that the parts are identical to the whole.

BV: Right. But the onus probandi is on you to show that the whole is distinct from the parts, and to explain exactly what this means given that the whole is composed of the parts.

JJ: I don't understand how your

4. B is a proper part of (B + C) & C is a proper part of (B + C)

is true in a domain of only two entities. 'x is a proper part of y' is a two-place predicate that expresses an irreflexive and asymmetric relation. Your point works if 'B+C' is not a singular term that refers to one entity in the domain, but is a plural term that refers to two entities in the domain. In that case, you do not use the two-place predicate 'x is a proper part of y' but the multigrade predicate 'x is a proper part of the ys' which holds if and only if x is one of the ys. But this can hold even if x is not a proper part of any of the ys or the composite of the ys. And it also looks like what is really going on is that mereological talk is being construed as plural quantification talk.

BV: You say in effect that ‘x is a proper part of the ys’ can hold even if x is not a proper part of the composite of the ys. Can you give an example of this? If x is a proper part, then x is a proper part of some whole. (Isn’t that analytic?) But every whole of parts is a composite. So if x is a proper part of the ys, then there is a whole of ys, a composite of ys, such that x is a proper part of it. For example, if Mungojerrie is a proper part of the cats in the neighborhood, then there is a whole composed of these cats and Mungojerrie is a proper part of this whole.

Perhaps you are building into the notion of ‘composite’ something I am not building into it.
Could you please explain the exact difference, as you understand it, between plural quantification talk and mereological talk? ‘The’ connotes uniqueness in this context; so ‘the ys’ is not purely plural. Thus, ‘the cats’ refers to a grouping together of cats. There is a difference between ‘the cats’ and ‘cats.’

JJ: Does this beg the question against Baxter? My argument that if two simples compose a composite, there are at least three entities at no point uses the premise that composition as identity is false. That, rather, follows from the conclusion. Look again. Suppose B and C compose A. By the definition of 'composition', B and C do not overlap each other and each of them is a proper part of A. By the definition of 'overlap', B and C are distinct from each other. By standard predicate logic, they are two. By the definition of 'proper part', B and A are distinct from each other and C and A are distinct from each other. Again, by standard predicate logic, they are three. No worries!

BV. You are a marvelously clear-headed fellow, Joseph, but I persist in my claim that you are begging the question. You do so when, from "B and A are distinct from each other and C and A are distinct from each other" you infer that "they are three." Three what? Three objects of consideration, say I, but not three entities.

JJ: Why isn't the connectedness detectable? Can't one tell the difference between some things that are properly connected and some things that are not properly connected? Why doesn't that count as detecting connectedness?

BV: Yes I can tell the difference between my pipe taken apart for cleaning and the same pipe assembled and ready for use. In the first case, the parts are not spatially contiguous; in the second case they are. But that is not the question. The question concerns the pipe with pipe stem properly inserted into pipe bowl. I can see (visually) that the two parts are in a certain spatial relationship. But that does not count as seeing the connectedness. Compare Hume on causation. One can see that event e1 is spatiotemporally contiguous with event e2, and that e1 precedes e2. But that does not amount to seeing e1's causing of e2. Causing is empirically undetectable.

JJ: What Bradleyan regress results? You ask what makes A distinct from B and C? Let me ask in turn: what makes anything distinct from anything?

BV: It is perhaps acceptable to say of two simples that they are just numerically distinct, that their being numerically distinct is a brute fact. But as explained above, A is a complex and (B, C) is a complex, and it is difficult to understand how two complexes could differ without differing in a constituent.

The Bradleyan regress comes into the picture if an entity is introduced to connect B and C. What connects this connector to B and C? Etc.

JJ: Finally, what did you think of my gloss of your claim that A is not a third thing in addition to B and C properly connected as what makes it true that B and C are properly connected makes it true that A exists and so that A exists is not a further fact in addition to the fact that B and C are properly connected?

BV: I’ll leave this for later.

Trinity and Set Theory

Let S and T be sets. Now consider the following two propositions:

1. S is a proper subset of T.

2. S and T have the same number of elements.

Are (1) and (2) consistent? That is, can they both be true? If yes, explain how.

If you think (1) and (2) are consistent, then consider whether there is anything to the following analogy. If there is, explain the analogy. There is a set G. G has three disjoint proper subsets, F, S, H. All four sets agree in cardinality: they have the same number of elements.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Bibliomaniacal Expansionism

My expansionist library is committing territorial aggression against my wife's bookshelves. My tomes are coming to occupy her empty spaces thereby establishing facts 'on the ground.'

But it is not yet an 'issue.'

How We Drag the Past Along with Us

There are habits, both mental and physical. There are memories. There are memories of failed attempts at the purgation of memory. There are old friends and relations who keep us chained to the past: they won't let us escape their old views of us. "Still play the guitar?" "Still put pepper on everything?" There are familiar environments. And then there are property and possessions and the products of our past creativity.

Reputation, whether for good or ill, is another burden from the past. Bill Clinton will never be free of his past. He will schlep through the decades with the albatross of Monica Lewinsky irremovable from his neck. "Strike another match, go start anew"? It is impossible thoroughly to start anew, and it would perhaps not even be a good thing if we could.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Is Connectedness Supplied by the Mind?

Kevin Kim of X-rated BigHominid fame comments on my last Composition/Identity post thusly:

Question: if connectedness is empirically undetectable, is it simply inferred? If true, this might imply that "connectedness" is a subjective human notion and not an objective reality. Is connectedness discovered or invented by the mind?

Let's say we're talking about a trailer truck, its parts all properly connected so that it's recognizably a truck. Its "truckness" (for lack of a better term) arises from the antecedent connectedness of the truck parts, right?But what is the truck from the point of view of, say, a rabbit*? Does the connectedness of the truck parts mean anything in lagomorphic phenomenology?

What if connectedness is simply a function of how a mind parses the things it perceives and conceives of?I don't mean to be flip, and far be it from me to presume to read a rabbit's mind (such as it is), but I think it's a legitimate question: what makes us think that "connectedness"-- whether we're talking about trucks or any other phenomena-- holds any objective reality? . . .

BV: Kevin raises a good question. What is the status of connectedness? Is it mind-independently real or is it a mental projection or mental addition to what is mind-independently real? Here is an excerpt from a paper in progress, "Against Buddhist Reductionism," that addresses this very question:

7. Can Mental Construction Account for Connectedness?

It is self-evident that a contingent whole such as a chariot is a connectedness of parts, and not a mere collection of (disconnected) parts. But we have just see that the ground of this connectedness cannot be internal to a whole either as a further part or as a set of monadic properties of its parts. Call the ground of connectedness the connector. If the connector is a special part in addition to the primary parts, then the problem arises as to what connects the connector to what it connects. That way lies Bradley’s regress. If, on the other hand, we think of the connector R as reducing to monadic properties of the primary parts, then, as we saw in section 5, no genuine reduction is achieved. I conclude from this that the reductionist, to remain a reductionist and thus to avoid saying that a whole and its parts are equally real, must appeal to something external to a contingent whole to account for the connectedness of parts that makes it a whole. There is need for an external unifier. Only with an external unifier or connector can a reductionist remain a reductionist in the teeth of the arguments I have presented. It is clear that a reductionist cannot say that a whole unifies itself – in the sense that it is a unity distinct from its parts – for the simple reason that this amounts to abandoning reductionism.

Siderits appears to provide two competing accounts of the difference between a chariot and the corresponding collection of unassembled chariot parts. One of them -- the foundationist account -- we have just criticized. The other appeals to the notion that "all aggregation involves mental construction." (Personal Identity and Buddhist Philosophy, Ashgate 2003, p. 7) Could mental aggregation be the ontological ground of connectedness? I submit that this notion of mental construction as the ground of connectedness is untenable.

Ask a simple question: Whose mind is doing the aggregating? Does the chariot-driver assemble his chariot by ‘thinking together’ its parts, starting at ontological rock-bottom with impartite parts? Must he continuously ‘think them together’ to maintain the chariot’s functionality? That would be absurd. The unity of parts that bestows upon them chariot-functionality is logically and ontologically antecedent to any act of mental constructing or aggregating by any individual. This is painfully obvious in the case of very small parts such as molecular and atomic parts. The charioteer can drive his chariot only because it is already (logically speaking) a full-fledged unity of parts. Furthermore, the mind that does the aggregating is itself a partite entity, and therefore one that cannot be ultimately real if Buddhist reductionism is true. If so, the aggregating mind M is itself in need of an aggregator to account for the difference between M and its parts. The appeal to partite minds as aggregators pretty clearly leads nowhere.

Is there another option? If it cannot be individual minds that do the aggregating, is it language that does it, or language together with social practices? Siderits points out that we have the name ‘chariot,’ but no name for the corresponding collection of disassembled parts. (7) He says that this is because we have an institutionalized use – as a means of transportation – for the assembled parts, but no such use for the parts in their disassembled state. Siderits claims that it is our "institutionally arranged interests" (8) that bring it about that we view the chariot parts as a "single entity" when in ultimate reality there is no single entity. The suggestion is that what makes the chariot a single entity, a unity of parts having chariot functionality, is something social or institutional or linguistic.

I would say, however, that this puts the cart (or the chariot!) before the horse. It is because the chariot is a "single entity" that we can ride it and to name it ‘chariot.’ Granted, it has a name because of its human usefulness, but it is humanly useful because of the functionality that derives from the antecedent connectedness of its parts. The connectedness, therefore, cannot derive from our applying of ‘chariot’ to a bunch of otherwise disconnected chariot parts. The connectedness whereby it is a single substantial entity is logically and ontologically prior to any mental act of constructing or any linguistic act of naming. This is not to say that the chariot is ultimately real; it is to say that the reality of the chariot is not a merely linguistically or mentally created reality. The chariot may not be ultimately real, but its reality is greater than that of any mentally constructed object.

Daniel Dennett on the Trinity

wilfrid, adj. Said of a theory one presumes to be true but finds incomprehensible; "You physicists all seem to agree, but it's wilfrid to me." "I'm sorry, your Holiness, but every time you explain the Trinity to me it goes all wilfrid in my mind." Also, said of a person, bewilfrid.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Fragmenta Philosophica

It's an amazing Web. To verify my understanding of 'lagomorphic,' I put the Google bot to work. It brought me to a rabbit post on the weblog, Fragmenta Philosophica: The Cogitations of Paul Craddick. This is an excerpt from his wonderful statement:

Philosophy is one of the central passions in my life. I was fortunate to major in it at college - “useless” though it is – and I continue to revere it, as a serious avocation. For me, like so many others, the apotheosis of philosophy is exhibited in Plato's portrayal of Socrates.

“Socrates' way of life is the consequence of his recognition that we can know what it is that we do not know about the most important things and that we are by nature obliged to seek that knowledge. We must remain faithful to the bit of light which pierces our circumambient darkness.” (Allan Bloom).

I remember being deeply impressed that Evelyn Waugh prefaced his Robbery Under Law with a warning to readers of the underlying views and possible biases which animated the book. It still seems to me that that is a noble thing to do. In that spirit ...

The world is mysterious in a way which is very difficult to articulate -- both truly terrible and incomprehensibly wonderful. Death is a surd.

We know too much to be skeptics and too little to be dogmatists (Pascal). Hence, in regards to the intensity of most of our convictions (our willingness to revisit and reconsider them), I would argue that “provisional certainty” is what we ought to strive for – a mean between the defective state, wishy-washyness, and the excessive one, fanaticism.

“The life of reason” is an ideal that many pay lip service to, few genuinely esteem, and most fall short of. Though of course there are degrees, there is no fully rational society – rhetoric and coercion are the perennial givens of social life, along with their complements, “bread and circuses.” The last 150 years have shown that the withering away of custom and religion hasn't – to say the least - elevated the average reasonableness of humanity. It seems to me that scientists and specialists are our new priests, and I'm not keen to recite the confession.

Politically, I'm registered as an Independent, and consider myself a libertarian-with-a-lower-case-l. I don't believe that a greater sphere of personal liberty would by any means be a painless or perfect curative for various societal ills, but I am strongly drawn to a system which weds maximal rights to responsibilities (consequences), and creates a protected sphere for the culturally antinomian individual. I am not a conservative -- although in my dissent I do respect certain strains of old-style conservatism – and would be glad to call myself a “liberal,” when/if the current users of the term give it back.

I am an atheist – but something of a hopeful one. I don't hate institutional religion per se, and I certainly don't believe that all religions are created equal. Were I a believer, I'd likely either be a Jew or a Roman Catholic. To me, the only thing (slightly) more absurd than an atheistic cosmos is a theistic one. Still, I believe that the religious impulse in many ways signifies the highest of human aspiration.

The 'Two Cows' Introduction to Political Terminology

Get it here.

Philosophical Lexicon

Thanks to Tony Flood for pointing out that Daniel Dennett's Philosophical Lexicon is online. To be booked under HUMOR on my sidebar.


alvinize, v. To stimulate protracted discussion by making a bizarre claim. "His contention that natural evil is due to Satanic agency alvinized his listeners."

anscombe, v. (1) To gather for safe-keeping. "She anscombed with all the notes and letters." (2) To go over carefully, with a fine-tooth comb, in an oblique direction.

armstrong unit, n. Measure of the wavelength of belief (= 10 micro-smarts).

a rortiori, adj. For even more obscure and fashionable Continental reasons.

arthurdantist, n. One who straightens the teeth of exotic dogmas. "Little Friedrich used to say the most wonderful things before we took him to the arthurdantist!" - Frau Nietzsche

assearltion, n. A speech act whose illocutionary force is identical with the speaker. "He assearled himself across the room."

austintatious, adj. Displaying in a fine sense the niceties of the language. "I'm not sure what his point was, but his presentation was certainly austintatious."

ayer, v. (from Spanish, ayer, meaning yesterday) To oversimplify elegantly in the direction of a past generation. "Russell, in the Analysis of Mind, ayers a behaviorist account of belief."

bahm, v. To devastate with reprints. "He bahmed the country with his latest piece."

bergson, n. A mountain of sound, a "buzzing, blooming confusion".

blanshard, v. To turn deathly pale at the sight of an external relation.

TRIVIA QUESTION FROM BV: One of these 'daffynitions' is based on the name of a philosopher who was the teacher of Edward 'Cactus Ed' Abbey when the latter was an M.A. student of philosophy. Who was the name of that philosopher?


Here is an excellent essay on patriotism. The author, Robert C. Koons, explains the commonly misunderstood phrase, "My country right or wrong!" It derives from an 1872 speech by U. S. Senator Carl Schurz in which he said: "Our country right or wrong! When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right." Koons is correct, as I verified for myself. See Robert Hendrickson, QPB Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, p. 538.

Van Inwagen and Lewis on Composition and Identity

Modifying an example employed by Donald Baxter and David Lewis, suppose I own a parcel of land A consisting of exactly two adjoining lots B and C. It would be an insane boast were I to claim to own three parcels of land, B, C, and A. That would be ‘double-counting’: I count B, C, and A, and give three as the number of parcels I own. Lewis, rejecting ‘double-counting,’ will say that A = (B + C). Thus A is identical to what composes it.

Peter van Inwagen, who opposes composition as identity, argues against it as follows:

Suppose that there exists nothing but my big parcel of land and such parts as it may have. And suppose it has no proper parts but the six small parcels. . . . Suppose that we have a bunch of sentences containing quantifiers, and that we want to determine their truth-values: ‘ExEyEz(y is a part of x & z is a part of x & y is not the same size as z)’; that sort of thing. How many items in our domain of quantification? Seven, right? That is, there are seven objects, and not six objects or one object, that are possible values of our variables, and that we must take account of when we are determining the truth-value of our sentences. ("Composition as Identity," Philosophical Perspectives 8 (1994), p. 213)

In terms of my original example, Lewis is saying that A is identical to what composes it. Van Inwagen is denying this and saying that A is not identical to what composes it. His reason is that there must be at least three entities in the domain of quantification to make the relevant quantified sentences true. A is therefore a third entity in addition to B and C.

Van Inwagen’s argument strikes me as a non sequitur. Consider this sentence:

1. For any x, there is a y such that x = y.

(1) features two distinct bound variables, ‘x’ and ‘y.’ But it does not follow that there must be two entities in the domain of quantification for (1) to be true. It might be that the domain consists of exactly one individual a. Applying Existential Instantiation to (1), we get

2. a = a.

Relative to a domain consisting of a alone, (1) and (2) are logically equivalent. From the fact that there are two variables in (1), it does not follow that there are two entities in the domain relative to which (1) is evaluated. Now consider

3. There is an x, y and z such that x is a proper part of z & y is a proper part of z.

(3) contains three distinct variables, but it does not follow that the domain of quantification must contain three distinct entities for (3) to be true. Suppose that Lewis is right, and that A = (B + C). It will then be possible to existentially instantiate (3) using only two entities, thus:

4. B is a proper part of (B + C) & C is a proper part of (B + C).

If van Inwagen thinks that a quantified sentence in n variables can be evaluated only relative to a domain containing n entities (or values), then I refute him using (1) above. If van Inwagen holds that (3) requires three entities for its evaluation, then I say he has simply begged the question against Lewis by assuming that (B+C) is not identical to A.

It is important not to confuse the level of representation with the level of reality. That there are two different names for a thing does not imply that there are really two things. (‘Hesperus’ and ‘Phosphorus’ both name the same planet, Venus, to coin an example.) Likewise, the fact that there are two distinct bound variables at the level of linguistic representation does not entail that at the level of reality there are two distinct values. There might be or there might not be.

Here is the problem. ‘A = (B + C)’ is the logical contradictory of ‘~ (A = (B + C)).’ Thus one will be tempted to plump for one or the other limb of the contradiction. But there are reasons to reject both limbs. Surely A is more than the mere sum of B and C. This is because A involves a further ontological ingredient, namely, the connectedness of A and B. To put it another way, A is a unity of its parts, not a pure manifold. The Lewis approach leaves out unity.

The connectedness, however, which makes for the unity, is not a third entity, and this for two reasons. First, it is empirically undetectable, and second, if there were a third entity, we would be involved in a Bradleyan regress. To simple announce that A is a third entity in addition to B and C is to fail to see the problem. It is obvious that A is not wholly distinct from B and C inasmuch as A is composed of B and C as its sole proper parts. Analysis of A discloses nothing other than B and C. That’s all she wrote.

Therefore, if A is distinct from (B + C), then there must be something that makes them distinct. There must be something which, when added to (B + C), results in A. But what could that be? To simply announce that A is distinct from B + C is to help oneself to the very thing whose existence in reality is in question.

In short, both limbs of the contradiction are unacceptable. How then are we to avoid it? Or should we accept it? And then what?

FURTHER READING: Composition as Identity Resource Page

The Penultimate Explanation-Seeking Why-Question

In a previous post, I distinguished and discussed the following two questions:

Q1. Why does anything at all exist rather than nothing?

Q2. Why does anything at all exist?

I proved to my satisfaction that these are distinct questions resting on distinct presuppositions, and that Q1 (but not Q2) ought to be rejected on the ground that it entails its own unanswerability. But there are other questions in the vicinity, for example:

Q3. Why does this totality of things exist rather than some other possible totality?

Q4. Why (for what purpose) do human beings exist?

Q5. Why (for what purpose) do I exist?

Commenter Peter wants an answer to Q5. I hope to address Q4 and Q5, but first let’s consider Q3 which could be called the penultimate explanation-seeking why-question.

Q3 could be put this way: Why is the actual world actual? "It is actual because it would not have been the actual world had it not been actual." To say that is to miss the sense of the question. The question asks: Why is this world, our world, actual rather than some other merely possible world? Let ‘A’ denote (rigidly designate) our world, the world that happens to be actual. The question is: Why is A actual rather than some merely possible world X?

So formulated, Q3 presupposes that there are other possible worlds. Suppose there is only one possible world, the actual world. Then the actual world would be the necessary world. For if there is only one possible world, then the world that is actual does not merely happen to be actual, but could not have failed to have been actual. The view that there is exactly one possible world may be called modal Spinozism, or to leave Spinoza out of it, modal monism. On modal monism, ‘possible,’ ‘actual,’ and ‘necessary’ become logically equivalent expressions. Q3 therefore presupposes that modal monism is false and that some version of modal pluralism is true. The modal pluralist holds that there is a plurality of possible worlds.

What is a possible world? A merely possible world is a total way things might have been. The actual world is the total way things are. A possible world, therefore, is either a total way things are or might have been.

Q3 therefore presupposes that there is a plurality of possible worlds. But Q3, being contrastive, also presupposes that only one of these worlds is actual. For if each were actual (by being actual at itself, relative to itself, from its own point of view, etc.), then all the worlds would be on an ontological par, and there would be nothing to explain.

In other words, Q3 presupposes not only that (i) there is a plurality of possible worlds, but also that (ii) actuality is absolute as opposed to world-relative.

Q3 also presupposes that (iii) things exist, and that (iv) there is an explanation as to why things exist. As far as I can see, Q3 is a legitimate question. It cannot be dismissed in the way I dismissed Q1. The four presuppositions on which it rests are reasonably held.

A theist could answer both Q2 and Q3 as follows. Contingent things exist because God created them. God exists because it is his nature to exist. This totality of things exists rather than some other merely possible totality because God freely chose this totality over the other possible totalities.

But what could an atheist do with Q2 or Q3? He could ‘pull a Spinoza’ and say that it is necessary that things exist and that this precise totality of things exist. He could ‘pull a David Lewis’ and maintain that there is a plurality of possible worlds all equally real. Our atheist could say that it is a brute fact that things and this precise totality of things exists. Finally, our atheist could try to explain what actually but contingently exists in terms of earlier phases of what actually but contingently exists. Any other possibilities?

My judgement is that each of these four atheistic moves can be countered, and that each is worse than theism, so that theism emerges as the best answer to Q2 and Q3. Subsequent posts will address these alternatives.

Blogging is Here to Stay

Blogging, like Rock and Roll, is here to say. But blogging is better. Read Peggy Noonan on blogging. (Hat tip: Keith Burgess-Jackson)

Thursday, February 17, 2005

More on Rules and Exceptions

In a previous post, I raised a question about the expression, 'The exception proves the rule.' How can an exception prove a rule? Let the rule be that all bloggers are less than 90 years of age. This rule is not proven, but refuted, by Geriatric Jerry who blogs his reminiscences of times past. All it takes to refute a universal generalization is one counterexample. Now suppose that the rule is that most bloggers are white males. This rule is not refuted by blogging females, but it is not supported by them either, let alone proven by them.

So I suggested that the expression means that the exception to a rule 'proves' the rule in the sense that it throws the rule into a relief, making it stand out as a rule.

Craig Howard of BuffaloG fame then suggested that 'prove' in this context means 'test.'

Commenter Alan then directed us to this page where Michael Quinion writes:

It has often been suggested in reference works that prove here is really being used in the sense of “test” (as it does in terms like “proving ground” or “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”, or in the printer’s proof, which is a test page run off to see that all is correct with the typesetting). It is said that the real idea behind the saying is that the presence of what looks like an exception tests whether a rule is really valid or not. If you can’t reconcile the supposed exception with the rule, there must indeed be something wrong with the rule. The expression is indeed used in this sense, but that’s not where it comes from or what it strictly means.

BV: Origin and meaning are distinct and may diverge. Meaning is tied to usage, so that one may wonder what sense there is in claiming that an expression "strictly means" such-and-such when it is not used to mean such-and-such.

The problem with that attempted explanation is that those putting it forward have picked on the wrong word to challenge. It’s not a false sense of proof that causes the problem, but exception. We think of it as meaning some case that doesn’t follow the rule, but the original sense was of someone or something that is granted permission not to follow a rule that otherwise applies. The true origin of the phrase lies in a medieval Latin legal principle: exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis, which may be translated as “the exception confirms the rule in the cases not excepted”.

Let us say that you drive down a street somewhere and find a notice which says “Parking prohibited on Sundays”. You may reasonably infer from this that parking is allowed on the other six days of the week. A sign on a museum door which says “Entry free today” leads to the implication that entry is not free on other days (unless it’s a marketing ploy like the never-ending sales that some stores have, but let’s not get sidetracked). H W Fowler gave an example from his wartime experience: “Special leave is given for men to be out of barracks tonight until 11pm”, which implies a rule that in other cases men must be in barracks before that time. So, in its strict sense, the principle is arguing that the existence of an allowed exception to a rule reaffirms the existence of the rule.

Despite the number of reference books which carefully explain the origin and true meaning of the expression, it is unlikely that it will ever be restored to strict correctness. The usual rule in lexicography is that sayings progress towards corruption and decay, never the reverse. Unless this one proves to be an exception ...

BV: I would put Quinion's point as follows. There are two senses of 'rule.' In the first sense, a rule is an observed regularity, e.g., women are better than men in personal relationships. A rule in this sense is descriptive rather than prescriptive or proscriptive. In the second sense, a rule is prescriptive/proscriptive: it specifies something that ought to be done or ought to be left undone. To say that the exception proves the rule in the second sense of 'rule' is to say that the existence of an exception reaffirms the bindingness of the rule in the ordinary run of cases.

Question for a classicist: can the Latin regula, regulae be used in both senses lately distinguished, or only in one? I know it is used in the second sense by Descartes. But what about the first sense?

I think Quinion is basically right. Where he goes wrong, however, is in thinking that there is a "true meaning of an expression." There are original meanings, but why should these be the "true meanings"? And note that an original meaning of an expression came to be such because the expression was used in a certain way in a certain context. An expression does not have a meaning the way a rock has hardness. It is more like the way a rock can have different functions in different contexts: to conk someone on the head with, to serve as a paperweight, etc.

And note that Quinion's rule that "sayings progress toward corruption and decay, and not the reverse" the exception to which may be the saying in question, rests on an equivocation on 'rule' that I have just exposed with his help. That is, Quinion is himself not using 'The exception proves the rule' in its "true meaning"!

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2005. All rights reserved. Contact the author for reproduction requests.Comments and feedback are always welcome.Page created 14 September 2002.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The Ivory Closet

On the masthead of this new weblog: "Life as a Closet Conservative Inside Liberal Academia."

From a recent post:

My dissertation, which I'm still working on, focuses on a contemporary French philosopher who is known in academia primarily as a radical Leftist. Generally speaking, academics seem to just assume that you agree with and share the same views as the figure you focus on in your dissertation. So, everyone just assumes that since I'm writing on a radical Leftist that I must be a radical Leftist. I keep my mouth shut about my conservativism. Often I have to bite my tongue when I hear disparaging remarks about conservatives. But, so long as I manage to do that the liberal bias of academia makes it all too easy to stay in the closet. Everyone just assumes your [you're] a liberal.

BV: The author points out something verified in my own experience. Since I had written a dissertation on Kant, some former colleagues assumed that I must be a Kantian. One of these people was an old Thomist who had published a grand total of one article in his career and needed a reason to dislike a young upstart. So he assumed I was a damned Kantian opposed to the old-time metaphysics that he learned out of scholastic manuals. Another colleague, who didn't get tenure, was a libertarian who hated Kant for Randian reasons. He pegged me as a metaphysician who was a Kantian and who therefore held that the sense world is illusory!

Another bonehead of a former colleague under the sway of Heidegger and Gadamer assumed that I must be a Thomist since I had published articles critical of Heidegger in such journals as The Thomist, New Scholasticism, and International Philosophical Quarterly.

A libertarian, chess-playing, mailman friend of mine was once shocked to hear that I was teaching a seminar on Nietzsche at a Catholic university.

Paul Edwards once accused me of being a "semi-shepherd" because I had argued that Heidegger's Being question was immune to
objections he had raised. I was not a full-fledged "shepherd of Being," but a "semi-shepherd," a species of varmint that Edwards found just as objectionable as the full-fledged variety.

In each of these five cases, there was a failure to grasp an important truth: Philosophy is not ideology. Philosophy aims at truth, not at ideas useful for the end of gaining and acquiring power. We do not study Kant and Nietzsche and Heidegger to refute them or to agree with them, or to satisfy a need to have something to believe in, or a need to belong to a movement. Philosophy is inquiry: an attempt at arriving at the sober impersonal truth to the extent that this is possible for such limited beings as we are.

Ayn Rand, Stamp Collector

Ayn Rand explains her hobby here.

Why Roger Kimball is a Conservative

Thanks to Jeff Hodges for bringing my attention to "Conservative and Libertarian Intellectual Philosophy and Politics." (One wonders about the force of 'intellectual' in this description.) The current issue features an interview with Roger Kimball in which, among other things, he explains why he is a conservative. The blue highlighting is my addition.

RK: I am a conservative because I am a liberal. That sounds glib, but it is true. (I take the formulation from Russell Kirk.) What is a conservative? A believer in freedom who understands that civilization, the precondition for liberty, is a fragile achievement won at great cost and preserved only at the expense of unceasing vigilance. A “liberal” in the contemporary sense is often someone who is willing to barter freedom for the sake of some utopian dream, someone who discounts the reality of human imperfection and the constant temptation to evil and chaos, someone who trusts in “planning,” “rational solutions,” and “education.” I ended my book Tenured Radicals with this passage from Evelyn Waugh; it sums up one important reason I am a conservative: “Barbarism,” Waugh wrote in 1938,

is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly will commit every conceivable atrocity. The danger does not come merely from habitual hooligans; we are all potential recruits for anarchy. Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace; there is only a margin of energy left over for experiment however beneficent. Once the prisons of the mind have been opened, the orgy is on. There is no more agreeable position than that of dissident from a stable society. Theirs are all the solid advantages of other people's creation and preservation, and all the fun of detecting hypocrisies and inconsistencies. There are times when dissidents are not only enviable but valuable. The work of preserving society is sometimes onerous, sometimes almost effortless. The more elaborate the society, the more vulnerable it is to attack, and the more complete its collapse in case of defeat. At a time like the present it is notably precarious. If it falls we shall see not merely the dissolution of a few joint-stock corporations, but of the spiritual and material achievements of our history.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Still trying to figure out how to upload images.

Ayn Rand Addresses Comrade Spassky

See here.

This is a test.

Shakespearean Insult Engine

Get thee hence, thou dankish, rump-fed dewberry! Hat tip: Ed Babinski.

Horowitz on O'Reilly Factor Tonight

David Horowitz will be on the O’Reilly Factor tonight at 8 and 11 PM Eastern Standard Time on FOX News network.

Want to bet that Ward Churchhill will be the topic?

The Gadfly's Buzz

I am happy to have discovered this weblog run by Alan Cook. I have placed a link to it on my blogroll. Cook, ABD in philosophy (UT, Austin), takes my side against the irrepressible Kevin Kim in our debate about permanence and impermanence. Cook's take on this debate is here. Cook cites Kalupahana in my favor, which is ironic, since I found myself mostly disagreeing with him during the summer I spent at the Institute for Comparative Philosophy at the University of Hawaii. It seemed to me that he was relying too heavily on Hume to make sense of the Buddhist texts.

Amazing what's out there, floating around in the 'sphere. I agree with this sentiment e-mailed to me this morning by the New Victorian:

My view of the blogsphere is reflected in a quotation from Proverbs: "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." The 'sphere has enormously accelerated the sharpening.

Yes indeed. If Leibniz could only see us now.

Commie Honored Twice By USPS

On the philatelic front, Tony Flood informs me that the United States Postal Service honored a card-carrying member of the Communist Party USA, W. E. B. Du Bois, twice, first in 1992 and again in 1998.

I wonder, was the Russian-born Ayn Rand similarly honored in the Soviet Union?

Two Forms of the Ultimate Explanation-Seeking Why-Question

Why does anything at all exist? Someone could utter this interrogative form of words merely to express astonishment that anything should exist at all. But it is more natural to take the question as a request for an explanation: Why, for what reason or cause, does anything at all exist? What explains the sheer existence of things? Suppose we call this the ultimate explanation-seeking why-question.

Before attempting to answer this question, one ought to examine it carefully. One ought to question the question. If we do so, we soon realize that the question why anything at all exists can be formulated in two ways. One formulation is contrastive, the other non-contrastive:

Q1. Why does anything at all exist, rather than nothing?

Q2. Why does anything at all exist?

What this post argues is that Q1 suffers from a defect that makes it unanswerable, but that Q2 does not suffer from this defect. Failure to distinguish Q1 and Q2 may lead one to reject both questions as unanswerable. It appears that Paul Edwards makes this mistake in his entry "Why?" in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Anthony Flood may be repeating it here.

That these are distinct questions becomes apparent when we note that the questions rest on different presuppositions. Both questions presuppose that something exists. If that were not the case, there would be nothing to explain. But Q1 also presupposes that it is possible that nothing at all exist. Call this further presupposition P. P is no part of Q2, as I will explain in a moment.

Let us first think about P and what it entails. P may be expressed in several logically equivalent ways:

There might have been nothing at all
It is possible that nothing exist
Possibly, nothing exists
There is a possible world in which nothing exists

where ‘possible’ and cognates pick out broadly logical possibility.

No matter how P is formulated, it entails that everything that exists is contingent, equivalently, that nothing that exists is a necessary being. For if there might have been nothing at all, then any thing X that exists is such that it might not have existed. That is just to say that X is a contingent being. So given that Q1 presupposes P, and that P entails that nothing is a necessary being, it follows that Q1 presupposes that nothing is a necessary being. But this seems to imply that the question Q1 cannot be answered.

For if Q1 – or the asking of Q1 – presupposes that nothing is a necessary being, then the asking of Q1 presupposes that there is nothing in terms of which an ultimate explanation could be couched. This is because an ultimate explanation of why anything at all exists cannot be in terms of a contingent entity. A contingent explainer would need explanation just as much as any other entity. An ultimate explanation, if one is to be had, must invoke a noncontingent, but possible, entity: one that either explains itself or at least is not in need of an explanation by another. (I am assuming that there cannot be an actually infinite regress of contingent explainers. This assumption is quite easy to defend, but I won’t address that task here, having addressed one form of it elsewhere.)

The upshot is that Q1 entails its own unanswerability. This is not because we are unable to know the answer, but because the question itself by its very structure rules out an answer. In other words, Q1 is self-defeating in that it rests on a presupposition that rules out an answer. The proper procedure with respect to Q1, then, is to reject it, not try to answer it.

But the situation is different with Q2. Q2 does not presuppose that every being is contingent. It does not presuppose the opposite (some being is noncontingent) either. Q2 is neutral on the question whether every being is contingent. This is why Q2 is not just a truncated form of Q1. It is not as if ‘rather than nothing’ is implied but not stated in Q2. Q2, resting as it does on different presuppositions than Q1, is a different question. Q2 does not presuppose the possibility of there being nothing, hence, does not presuppose that only what is contingent can exist.

Thus Q2 allows the possibility of a necessary being. Nothing about Q2 entails its own unanswerability. Q2 allows the following answer: things exist because one of the things that exist is a necessary being whose existence is self-explanatory, while everything else is explained in terms of this necessary being.

I am making three assumptions about explanation.

A. One cannot explain what is not the case.

B. It is not necessary to an explanation that the explanandum (that which is to be explained) and the explanans (the entity or entities invoked in the explanation) be distinct.

C. It is not obvious that everything has an explanation: it is epistemically possible that there be brute facts.

(A) is self-evident and needs no support. (B) may be supported by citing examples of self-explanatory propositions. The proposition expressed by ‘Everything is self-identical’ is a necessary truth. As such, it is self-explanatory: explanandum and explanans are one. Note that there is no reason to assume that an explanation of why things exist must be a causal explanation.

(C) is a large topic requiring a separate discussion. But suppose that there are brute facts, facts that contingently obtain but have no explanation. It doesn’t follow that the existence of that-which-exists is a brute fact, but suppose that that is nonethless the case. Then there is perhaps a sense in which Q2 is unanswerable: it is unanswerable in that it rests on a false presupposition, namely, that the existence of that-which-exists is not a brute fact.

Even if that is so, it remains that case that Q2 is free of the defect that renders Q1 unanswerable. Q1 is self-defeating by its very structure. Q2, however, is not self-defeating by its very structure. If Q2 does rest on a false presupposition, this can only be established by a complicated set of considerations, and not by simply explicating the content of Q2.

The upshot is that Q2 cannot be easily dismissed. It remains a question worthy of serious consideration.