The Counsel of Trent

writing is thinking

Monday, August 28, 2006

SEP Gets Facelift

How 'bout the new look of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, eh?

Looks nice, but I'm not too fond of the presence of the sidebar on the left. But hey, it's free (for now), so who can complain.

With the notable exception of Ruse's deplorable "Creationism" rant that reads like a (low-level) New York Times editorial, all the entries I've read are scholarly and fair.

Long live the SEP!

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Practical Parenting Advice

As I was working on a paper refuting external world skepticism--good luck, eh?--my five-year-old comes in and says:

"Daddy, can I come get my baby doll to take outside, we're playing doctor and I'm having a baby."

I blinked, "What did you say?" I heard her right the first time.

I tell her to give me a few minutes to think about it (that's advice #1). I go back and forth in my mind between not wanting to be limiting, prudish, or puritanical and wanting to protect my kids and teach them to understand natural boundaries. Here's what I said.

"No Sweetie, doctors work on our bodies, and our bodies are special and private."

I will be sure and follow this up by buying a stethoscope and doing a school-time activity where they listen to each others hearts.

Faith, Evidence, and Certainty

An old correspondent recently avowed a sort of fideism. However, as far as I could tell he was no such thing. See what you think: here's my side of the conversation.
I suspect you’ve got an odd epistemology yourself or an odd way of saying your faith is irrevisable (or both).

Thesis 1: An odd epistemology.

The common sense epistemology is evidentialism which is summed up on the following two propositions.

EJ Doxastic attitude D toward proposition p is epistemically justified forS at t if and only if having D toward p fits the evidence S has at t.

ES The epistemic justification of anyone’s doxastic attitude toward any proposition at any time strongly supervenes on the evidence that the person has at the time.

Now the only way it could be rational to hold a proposition irrevisably would be to be 100% certain of it. But according to EJ, that means you’d have to hold that the evidence was maximally persuasive. Necessarily, either it is or it isn’t. If you think it is, then your no Wittgenstenian after all (side note, did you hear that DZ Philips died recently. A colleague of mine did is PhD with “Dewey” and spoke at the funeral), but rather just a *very* optimistic apologist. If it isn’t, then 100% certainty is irrational because it doesn’t fit the evidence. (This is a *different* point than being 100% committed which might be practically rational even if 100% certainty isn’t epistemically rational.)

Note that even if you think belief in God properly basic, not even Plantinga takes belief in Xnty to be PB. And there’s nothing in the extended A/C model to suggest 100% certainty. And if that’s the route, then still there’s nothing Wittgenstenian or Kierkegaardian about that. Besides, the two are quite different. I don’t think there’s much hope of making Christian claims out to be one of Wittgenstein’s hinge propositions and Kierkegaard is concerned about *commitment* not epistemic certainty. The Knight of Resolution goes on *in spite of* certainty. If he were certain then there’d hardly be room for a leap of faith.

Thesis 2: An odd way of characterizing irrevisability.

So as I understand it, you assent to the following two theses:

(MN1) If there were conclusive evidence against Xnty, then I would stop believing it.

(MN2) That there is conclusive evidence against Xnty is epistemically impossible for me.
Now, (MN2) doesn’t really make that strong a claim. What’s epistemically possible changes with the evidence so (MN2) could change upon reading a powerful essay and getting new information. Then (MN1) would kick in and *presto* we’ve got revision. So this “irrevisability” seems really, really weak. Too weak to deserve that name.

Side note. If you assent to (MN1) then I see no principled reason not to assent to

(MN1’) If there were sufficient evidence against Xnty, then I would stop believing it.
Now consider the following hypothesis.

(SH) There is evidence I’m not aware of or which has not yet been discovered which is sufficient to disprove Xnty.
I find it hard to believe it could be rational to hold that (SH) is false with a degree of certainty over .95 or .97. At any rate the only way it could be rational to have 100% certainty in it would be to *deduce* it, but that’s not even a relevant possibility in this case.

Again, none of this prevents one from seeing value in Kierkegaard’s view of faith (Wittgenstein is *quite* another matter). Pascal taught us that. You can be fully committed without being fully certain. I live this every time I climb a rock face or a frozen waterfall!


Keywords: faith, rationality, evidence, justification, epistemology, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

That's Absurd!

The word "absurd" is formed from the prefix "ab-" + root "surd". "ab" here is just an intisifier and surd is short for surdus which was used to translate the Greek alogos. You know that logos means "word" and that the prefix "a-" is a negation. Euclid (Book X, defs. 3 and 4) used alogos which we can translate as "irrational" and--by an extension too complex to explain--to numbers which do not "divide evenly" i.e. cannot be expressed as a fraction, but rather have an unending decimal expansion like pi (3.1415926535...).

This numerical sense of "irrational" gives rise to an intellectual sense of "irrational" in a surprising sort of way. The thing that is a-logos about numbers like pi is that you can never speak their expansion in words, for they are infinite. So sounds can be "surd" as in the 1773 Dictionary of English Grammar can use such a phrase as "All our modes of articulation, whether surd or vocal." So when someone says something that is absurd the idea, I gather, is that either they have really not said anything at all, or there is nothing that can be said in response, one is merely speechless.

I expect it's the former given the etymology of "stupid" to be "stupified"--unable to speak--or in a state of "stupor"--or shock. Actually, not that I think about it a bit more I like the other interpretation to say something absurd is to say something shocking, to leave me speechless. After all, in the original usage it was I the listener who was stupid when you said something bizarre. Only later did the appellation get transfered to you the speaker.

There is some evidence that a separate line went from absurdity to irrationality. If you take the 1617 statement that "A harpe maketh not an absurd sound." to mean a *discordant* sound then you'll take the following line from Hamlet...

"Fye, 'tis a fault to Heauen, A fault against the Dead, a fault to Nature, To reason most absurd." mean reasoning out of accordance with Reason. However, this need not be the case. It could well be that the harp maketh not a *muted* sound (compare the 1842 definition of linguistic tenues "otherwise surds, or whisper-letters" or the earlier nice turn of verse by Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwin's grandfather) "Weighs with nice ear the vowel, liquid, surd, And breaks in syllables the volant word."). Then we use our first treatment of surdus as the translation of alogos--which we know for sure--and then the line from Hamlet means to reason inexplicably. I'm no Shakespeare scholar, but I find him to be more Aristotelian than Platonistic and that would somewhat favor my interpretation.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

To Think or Not to Think?

Or rather, to think discursively or non-discursively. The two are not in inherent tension, but we can certainly focus too much on one kind or the other. For example, as a philosopher I definitely plead guilty of "overthinking" issues sometimes and ending up on "analysis paralysis" where I've thought myself into a corner and got stuck.

On the other hand... I've also had the following kind of experience so many times now it's scary (Grad school is valuable in part for bringing about these experiences quite regularly): some thesis is proposed and it seems exactly right, seems to address the problem in just the right way. I set down to defend this thesis in print and--adopting the standards of my profession--attempt to set out a short, clear, and precise logically valid argument for the thesis. In the process of doing this I discover--to my horror--that my intuitive line of reasoning was wholly fallacious. Indeed, I now see that the thesis *couldn't* be true. This always makes for a disrupting experience and a nice paper. It also teaches me the value of discursive thought as a check and balance on intuition.

There is a further related value to discursive thought. It's one thing to know and another to know that you know. Getting it right isn't always the whole point. One of the main things that separates humans from animals in the cognitive sphere is the ability to have what's called "higher-order" thoughts. That is, not only do we have beliefs, we have beliefs *about* our beliefs--for example the belief that my belief in God is justified.

This would be a "second-order" belief. The "first-order" belief is a belief about a "thing"--God can be a thing in this harmless sense of being an object of thought (think apprehension, not comprehention). The "second-order" belief is a belief about a belief about a thing (an n-order belief has n iterations of "belief"). Third-order beliefs are not that uncommon in philosophy: I believe that my belief that my belief in God is justified is not mere rationalization. Rather I believe that that belief is based upon reflection upon the standards of rationality.

Mere animals cannot have this experience. They don't think about their thoughts. And God and the angels don't *need* to. They know *everything* they know to the highest degree in a simple intuition. It is only we spiritual amphibians in the middle--ensoulded bodies, embodied souls--who can and need to think about out thoughts and how they match reality. It is our particularly human activity, part of what gives us our place in the Great Chain of Being.

These thoughts were occasioned by the recommendation of the book: Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less. For the record, I fully endorse the thesis that sometimes discursive thought gets in the way of what we know more directly. I endorse Aristotle's thesis that *all* knowledge starts in simple apprehensions of being and rational insight into first principles. I also endorse Polanyi's theory of Tacit Knowledge or Personal Knowledge and Maritain's concept of "knowledge by connaturality" (see James Taylor's book _Poetic Knowledge_). One just has to be very, very careful in how one applies them.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Home Sweet Home

I just got back from the Princeton Seminar on Thomism and Analytic Philosophy, and it was great!

I've posted some reflections on X-Catholics here. Now there are just a few weeks of Summer left and a great semester planned.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

On the Road Again...

Back from Alaska Just for a day. It was great. Now I'm heading to Princeton for a week for a seminar in Thomism and Analytic Philosophy. [Thomism is the philosophy inspired by Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Analytic Philosophy is philosophy which relies heavily on formal logic, especially "mathematical" logic.] That might sound like an odd combination, but it shouldn't.

When, in the 13th Century the Pope asked Albertus Magnus to find someone to deal with this new-fangled philosophy of Aristotle re-discovered by Greece-conquering Muslims, he tapped "The Dumb Ox" his favored student Thomas. Christian philosophy since Augustine had been decidedly Platonic. Plato's fun to read, but Aristotle makes all kinds of further distinctions and has a kind of subtlety and systematic apparently lacking in Plato. Aristotle relied heavily on logic and fine distinctions. In a way, Aristotelianism was the analytic philosophy of his day, so treating Aquinas own work in terms of it is quite natural.

Here are some pictures of my Alaska trip (more here):

See you when I get back.