Friday, January 29, 2010

Quote of the Day

§3. Theoretical reason and its presupposition.
At this point the argument takes a surprising turn. Kant bases his case, not merely on the nature of practical reason, but on the nature of theoretical reason.

'We cannot possibly conceive of a reason as being consciously directed from outside in regard to its judgements.' If a rational being were conscious of any such external influence, he would regard his judgements as determined, not by reason, but by impulse. Reason must -- if it is to be reason at all -- regard itself as the author of its own principles independently of external influences.

This is a strong argument, though it is seldom used in discussions about freedom. It applies most obviously to a judgement which is the conclusion of an argument. If every judgement is determined solely by previous mental events and not by rational insight into a nexus between premises and conclusion independent of temporal succession, there can be no difference between valid and invalid inference, between reasoning and mere association, and ultimately there can be no truth. In that case determinism itself could not be accepted as true, nor could the arguments in its defence be accepted as valid.

Kant seems to be correct in saying that any reason which is conscious of itself as reason must regard itself as reasoning (or as forming its own conclusion) in accordance with its own rational and objective laws or principles, and not by the influence of any external cause or bias. This remains true even although it may be reasoning about something given it from without, as, for example, so-called sense-data. That is to say, reason must regard itself as the author of its own principles and as capable of functioning according to these principles independently of external influences. This means, in Kant's terminology that reason must regard itself as free, both negatively and positively, in the act of reasoning.

§4. Practical reason and its presupposition.
If Kant's argument holds of theoretical reason, it holds equally of practical reason - that is, of a rational will or of reason as exercising causality. Here too a rational agent as such must in action presuppose his rational will to be the source of its own principles of action and to be capable of functioning in accordance with these principles. In other words he must in action presuppose his rational will to be free both negatively and positive -- that is, to be free from determination by desire and free to obey its own rational principles. To say this is to say that a rational agent can act only on the presupposition that he is free: he must act under the Idea of freedom. This is the doctrine which we set out to establish and from which the principle of autonomy is said to follow analytically.

This doctrine need not be based merely on an inference from theoretical to practical reason -- though Kant may think that it is. It may rest also on the same kind of rational self-consciousness as does the previous argument. We may perhaps say that our insight into theoretical reason is also an insight into reason as such and consequently must cover practical reason as well; but the same insight into reason as such is surely found again in our insight into practical reason, and indeed must be found again if our conclusion is to be justified.

I do not want to make too much of this, but I believe Kant to be saying more than that in acting we necessarily conceive ourselves to be free. Action is not a blind something which is preceded and succeeded, or even accompanied, by thought. Action is as intelligent and as rational as thinking. What distinguishes human action from animal behaviour, and still more from physiological functioning or physical movement, is that we will in accordance with principles. I take Kant to be saying that a rational agent can act, just as he can think, only on the presupposition of freedom: he must think and act as if he were free. The presupposition of freedom is as implicit in his acting as in his thinking; and unless we can act on this presupposition there is no such thing as action, and there is no such thing as will. As Kant himself puts it, 'The will of a rational being cannot be a will of his own except under the Idea of freedom'. Human action cannot differ from animal behaviour merely in being accompanied by a conception of freedom: if it differs at all, it must differ by being itself rational. A rational agent must will his actions under the Idea of freedom, just as he must will his actions as instances of a particular principle or maxim.

No doubt there are many today who will be content to deny that there is any such thing as action or as will, if by this is meant rational action and rational will. This view can be reasonably held, as Kant recognises, if we take up the standpoint of observers. But if we regard thinking from the same external point of view -- and it is arbitrary not to do so -- we shall equally be compelled to deny that there is any such thing as thinking. There are some who are willing to accept even this conclusion; but if they do, it seems foolish to try to convince others of it by argument.

H. J. Paton
The Categorical Imperative: A Study in Kant's Moral Philosophy, 6th ed.
(footnotes omitted)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


I gave a caveat on my political views before, but I now think it was incomplete, so let me restate it more fully. Please bear these in mind when reading political rants on this blog.

1. I'm not a political thinker by any stretch of the imagination.

2. I've seen my political views change enough in the past to render me suspicious of the ones I currently hold.

3. I see in my son certain personality traits that he obviously got from me. Many of my political beliefs are expressions of these innate traits. That means they do not stem from following the logic of an argument to its conclusion. In other words, some of my political inclinations appear to be held for non-rational reasons. (I see some of these traits in my sister's politics as well, but don't tell her. It'd make her head explode if she found out that we agree.)

4. I find politics offensive. I feel dirty for having to participate in the body politic by voting. I still vote because I think it's a civic and moral obligation, but I feel unclean for doing it. Thus I disagree with Aquinas that had the Fall of humankind never taken place, we would still need government. Rather I agree with Augustine that government is a necessary evil, necessitated by the Fall. As such, I tend to be very cynical about politics and politicians. Indeed, if there was a cynic political party, I'd join it -- although, I suspect that if you wanted to join, you wouldn't meet the membership requirements.

Update (6 Feb): 5. Here's another point I forgot. I don't really vote for candidates or political parties. I vote against them. When someone asks me if I voted for X or Y for President, my answer is, "Neither. I voted against Y."

Update (19 June): 6. The Dennis Moore Paradox.

This is disappointing

Obama aims to ax moon mission. Via Glenn Reynolds.

Update (1 Feb): Rand Simburg argues that this is a good thing for space enthusiasts.

Update (7 Feb): Alan Boyle rounds up the reactions among astronauts and others. I read somewhere online recently (I can't find it now) something to the effect of, "It shouldn't be NASA's job to send people to Mars. It should be NASA's job to make it possible for the National Geographic Society to send people to Mars."

Monday, January 25, 2010


...kind of freaks me out.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Format change

I've just changed the blog's format because there were a few things about it that were bugging me. So in case you were wondering if you came to the right place, you have, it's just been redecorated.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Chesterton, Lewis, and the Argument from Reason

G. K. Chesterton had a strong influence on C. S. Lewis. In his autobiography Surprised by Joy, Lewis praised Chesterton as having "more sense than all the other moderns put together", and he wrote in a letter that Chesterton's The Everlasting Man played a role in his conversion to Christianity. One way this influence expressed itself -- although I've never seen anyone make the connection -- is in Lewis's Argument from Reason. This is the idea that any form of naturalism invalidates the veracity of thought; and since naturalism is itself the product of thought, it is hoist with its own petard.

Chesterton wrote a short essay entitled, "The Wind and the Trees" which makes a point very similar to the Argument from Reason. Looking at the trees blowing in the wind one day, he recalled something from his youth.

As I look at these top-heavy giants tortured by an invisible and violent witchcraft, a phrase comes back into my mind. I remember a little boy of my acquaintance who was once walking in Battersea Park under just such torn skies and tossing trees. He did not like the wind at all; it blew in his face too much; it made him shut his eyes; and it blew off his hat, of which he was very proud. He was, as far as I remember, about four. After complaining repeatedly of the atmospheric unrest, he said at last to his mother: 'Well, why don't you take away the trees, and then it wouldn't wind?'

Nothing could be more intelligent or natural than this mistake. Any one looking for the first time at the trees might fancy that they were indeed vast and titanic fans, which by their mere waving agitated the air around them for miles. Nothing, I say, could be more human and excusable than the belief that it is the trees which make the wind. Indeed, the belief is so human and excusable that it is, as a matter of fact, the belief of about ninety-nine out of a hundred of the philosophers, reformers, sociologists, and politicians of the great age in which we live. My small friend was, in fact, very like the principal modern thinkers; only much nicer.

Chesterton's point is that we don't see the wind; we only see its effects on the trees and infer from this the wind's existence. But if you are faced with two entities -- one invisible, and only known inferentially; the other directly perceived, physically imposing, even daunting -- wouldn't it be reasonable to think the latter is the cause of the former rather than the other way round? Shouldn't we say that the obvious imposing reality has produced the ephemeral evanescent one? Doesn't it seem absurd to say that the less substantial has produced the more substantial?

Nevertheless, this intuition is false. It is the wind that blows the trees, not the trees that make the wind. And this applies further than the particular example Chesterton has given.

In the little apologue or parable which he has thus the honour of inventing, the trees stand for all visible things and the wind for the invisible. The wind is the spirit which bloweth where it listeth; the trees are the material things of the world which are blown where the spirit lists. The wind is philosophy, religion, revolution; the trees are cities and civilizations. We only know that there is a wind because the trees on some distant hill suddenly go mad. We only know that there is a real revolution because all the chimney-pots go mad on the whole skyline of the city.

Just as the ragged outline of a tree grows suddenly more ragged and rises into fantastic crests or tattered tails, so the human city rises under the wind of the spirit into toppling temples or sudden spires. No man has ever seen a revolution. Mobs pouring through the palaces, blood pouring down the gutters, the guillotine lifted higher than the throne, a prison in ruins, a people in arms -- these things are not revolution, but the results of revolution.

You cannot see a wind; you can only see that there is a wind. So, also, you cannot see a revolution; you can only see that there is a revolution. ... The wind is up above the world before a twig on the tree has moved. So there must always be a battle in the sky before there is a battle on the earth.

Thus, an interesting paradox. That which appears less substantial is prior to that which appears more substantial. The physically imposing bends to the will of the unseen reality.

So why does Chesterton claim that most of the "philosophers, reformers, sociologists, and politicians" of the day deny this? And what does this have to do with the Argument from Reason?

The great human dogma, then, is that the wind moves the trees. The great human heresy is that the trees move the wind. When people begin to say that the material circumstances have alone created the moral circumstances, then they have prevented all possibility of serious change. For if my circumstances have made me wholly stupid, how can I be certain even that I am right in altering those circumstances?

The man who represents all thought as an accident of environment is simply smashing and discrediting all his own thoughts -- including that one. To treat the human mind as having an ultimate authority is necessary to any kind of thinking, even free thinking.

This last paragraph is a clear statement of the Argument from Reason. If our thoughts and thought-patterns are accidental by-products of our brains' biochemistry or our personal psychologies then it becomes difficult to place any confidence in them. But obviously, this would apply to the thoughts that led us to believe that our thoughts and thought-patterns are accidental by-products. Thus, this position is self-defeating.

So since Lewis knew Chesterton's work well, it stands to reason that he read this essay in particular, and therefore that it may have influenced his development of this argument. On the other hand, it could just be an interesting parallel. However, I think a stronger case can be made. Lewis wrote an excellent essay entitled "Is Theology Poetry?" (in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses) in which he defends Christianity against the charge that it is accepted for purely aesthetic reasons. In response he writes, "if Theology is Poetry, it is not very good poetry. ... If Christianity is only a mythology, then I find the mythology I believe in is not the one I like best. I like Greek mythology much better, Irish better still, Norse best of all."

Lewis further argues that his rejection of Scientism (not science) is at least partially based on the Argument from Reason.

The picture so often painted of Christians huddling together on an ever narrower strip of beach while the incoming tide of "Science" mounts higher and higher corresponds to nothing in my own experience. That grand myth which I asked you to admire a few minutes ago is not for me a hostile novelty breaking in on my traditional beliefs. On the contrary, that cosmology is what I started from. Deepening distrust and final abandonment of it long preceded my conversion to Christianity. Long before I believed Theology to be true I had already decided that the popular scientific picture at any rate was false. One absolutely central inconsistency ruins it; it is the one we touched on a fortnight ago. The whole picture professes to depend on inferences from observed facts. Unless inference is valid, the whole picture disappears. Unless we can be sure that reality in the remotest nebula or the remotest part obeys the thought laws of the human scientist here and now in his laboratory -- in other words, unless Reason is an absolute -- all is in ruins. Yet those who ask me to believe this world picture also ask me to believe that Reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of mindless matter at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming. Here is flat contradiction. They ask me at the same moment to accept a conclusion and to discredit the only testimony on which that conclusion can be based.

Here is a statement of the argument similar to Chesterton's. Not only do we see the problem of relegating reason to the status of a "by-product" (Lewis) or "accident of environment" (Chesterton); we also have the positive statement that "Reason is an absolute" (Lewis) or the human mind must have "an ultimate authority" (Chesterton) if thinking is to be valid.

But again, this doesn't necessarily bespeak of a direct influence of Chesterton's argument on Lewis's, it could still be just an interesting parallel. However, Lewis returns to the subject in the final paragraph of his essay.

Granted that Reason is prior to matter and that the light of that primal Reason illuminates finite minds, I can understand how men should come, by observation and inference, to know a lot about the universe they live in. If, on the other hand, I swallow the scientific cosmology as a whole, then not only can I not fit in Christianity, but I cannot even fit in science. If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.

Wind ... trees. Where have I heard that before?

I get up from under the trees, for the wind and the slight rain have ceased. The trees stand up like golden pillars in a clear sunlight. The tossing of the trees and the blowing of the wind have ceased simultaneously. So I suppose there are still modern philosophers who will maintain that the trees make the wind.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Monday, January 18, 2010

Some Issues in NT Historiography, part 4

Many people argue that the NT documents were written too long after the events they describe, and that whatever eyewitnesses there may have been to the actual events couldn’t have remembered them in their old age, and so couldn’t have reliably related what happened to the NT authors. But we have every reason to believe that they were perfectly capable of retaining the information between the time of the events and the time the NT documents were written, and that the information could be reliably transferred to the gospel authors. First century Palestine was not a literary culture but was based instead on oral tradition. As McDowell and Wilson write in He Walked Among Us:

What happens in a culture of this kind, is that certain means of expression become standardized in the process of story telling. In a literary culture such as our own, whenever we do communicate a story orally rather than in written form, we tend to tell the story a little differently every time we tell it in order to make it more interesting. This is taboo in an oral culture. You grow up knowing that the only way your children are going to understand their past is by hearing from you the exact story in the exact wording in which it was conveyed to you. It is difficult for us to imagine such a culture, but such cultures have been common since the beginning of human history. The culture into which Jesus was born did use literary documents, but it was primarily an oral-tradition-based culture.

The individuals in such a culture are in the position of being dependent on their memory. We are not; since information is usually recorded, we know that if we forget something we can re-obtain our knowledge by going back to the records. Members of an oral-tradition-based society have no such assurance. Since their memories are exercised to a much greater degree than ours, our memory capacities are atrophied by comparison.

There is plenty of evidence that members of societies based on oral tradition were capable of memorizing extraordinary amounts of information. Moreover, the ancient Jews were experts in maintaining oral tradition, and had extraordinary memory capacities, many of them memorizing the Pentateuch, and rabbis memorizing the entire Old Testament. They eventually wrote the Mishnah about AD 200, the Jerusalem Talmud between AD 350 and 400, and the Babylonian Talmud about AD 500. These documents record volumes of oral tradition, some of which dated back centuries before Christ. Because of the reliability of their oral tradition the Jews considered it more reliable than written records.

With this in mind, let me make several points (some of which I've mentioned before).

1) Since the gospel authors translated Jesus’ sayings from Aramaic into Greek (or at least most of them -- he may have spoken Greek and Hebrew as well), when we translate them back into Aramaic, we find that most of them have a clear mnemonic form. In other words, Jesus taught in ways that could be memorized easily. He used contrasts, parallels, parables, even poetry to get the message across. For example, Jesus’ statement that the Pharisees and teachers of the law "strain out a gnat and swallow a camel" (Matthew 23:24) makes more sense when translated back into Aramaic, since the words "gnat" and "camel" are almost identical (galma and glama). In Greek and English, it’s a metaphor. In Aramaic, it’s also a pun. Whether Jesus’ status as a punster conflicts with his claim to deity is something I leave to the reader.

2) The attitude of Jesus’ disciples towards him was like that of students to a rabbi. This is significant since the teachings of rabbis was frequently considered sacred tradition which was to be memorized.

3) It’s at least probable that Jesus would have repeated his most effective sayings many times.

4) Even the longest discourses of Jesus in the gospels only take a few minutes to read through. But he taught for hours and days at a time (Mark 8:1-3).

5) First century Judaism was not a myth-friendly environment. Any claim of legendary development of the gospels or of an "inventive early Christian community" completely ignores the culture, society, and belief system it supposedly happened in.

6) The sayings of Jesus and the events in the gospels were not only discussed daily among friendly eyewitnesses, who wanted to preserve Jesus’ original sayings and the events of his life, but was preached daily to hostile eyewitnesses who had every motive to point out discrepancies and errors.

7) The gospels aren’t very long. Each one records a few dozen pages of information about a three year period in the recent past. This would be equivalent to someone in their 40s or 50s writing a few dozen pages about their experiences in high school. That’s not a problem for those of us who don’t live in an oral-tradition-based culture.

8) The NT is remarkably consistent. As Kreeft and Tacelli write in Handbook of Christian Apologetics, "The only inconsistencies are in chronology (only Luke’s gospel claims to be in order) and accidentals like numbers (e.g., did the women see one angel or two at the empty tomb?)." But, whatever inconsistencies there may be in some of the details, the gospels all agree on the central events. Thus, to use the inconsistencies to call the main events into question is as irrational as saying that since the eyewitnesses to a hit-and-run accident disagree on the color of the car that drove off, no car accident took place. Moreover, many of the inconsistencies can be resolved. The first harmonization of the four gospels, the Diatessaron, was written circa AD 160-175 by Tatian. Many others have been written since.

9) On the heels of this, since there are four gospels, "a lot of cross-checking is possible. By a textual trigonometry or triangulation, we can fix the facts with far greater assurance here than with any other ancient personage or series of events" (Kreeft and Tacelli).

10) The gospels weren’t the first records written. The letters of the apostle Paul were being written by AD 50 or earlier. These are all consistent with the gospels’ portrait of Jesus. Even those who are fanatically opposed to Christianity are forced to concede this. Joseph McCabe, for example, writes in The Myth of the Resurrection and Other Essays:

God, a purely spiritual being, takes human shape in Jesus, and sheds his blood on a cross, is buried, and then, in human shape, comes to life again. I do not see how anybody not obsessed by a theory can fail to recognize that, less than ten years after the alleged crucifixion of Jesus, Paul fully accepted that part of his story. "Being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even to death on the cross." With infinite variations of expression, that formula is found in every Epistle, and it is Paul’s fundamental belief about Jesus. ... No one has ever suggested that Paul had any doubt about the divinity of Jesus. ... there are a hundred passages in which he says that Jesus was crucified, and by the Jews, and there are a thousand references to his physical resurrection.

11) Paul, and other NT authors, quote creeds and hymns which preceded their writings. Most scholars date them to between AD 33 and 48. They are distinct from the surrounding material in five significant ways: (a) they are frequently referred to as pre-existent material of which the original audiences were already aware; (b) they are uncharacteristic of the general style in which the authors in question wrote; (c) they use language and phrases which were completely out of use by the time the NT began to be written; (d) like Jesus’ sayings, they translate back into Aramaic easily; and (e) as Moreland writes in Scaling the Secular City, "they show features of Hebrew poetry and thought-forms. This means that they came into existence while the church was heavily Jewish and that they became standard, recognized creeds and hymns well before their incorporation into Paul’s letters." For example, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is dated by most scholars to AD 38 at the latest. This creed cites that Jesus died for our sins, was buried, and came back to life a few days later, appearing to individuals and groups of up to 500 people. Paul adds that most of the 500 who saw Jesus at one time were still alive to be questioned. Since Jesus was crucified in AD 30 or 33, that gives us eight years at most to explain how such a belief could have arisen, and most scholars would put it at five years or less. Similarly, Philippians 2:5-11 contains a creed which refers to Jesus as being "in very nature God", and Colossians 1:15-18 contains a creed which refers to Jesus as the "image of the invisible God" and the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.

12) Early source material used by Mark in his gospel has been dated by most scholars to the AD 30s as well. Many scholars also speculate that a collection of Jesus’ sayings, dubbed "Q", was written in the 40s.

13) There is no remnant of any story about Jesus other than the one recorded in the NT. As Craig writes in Reasonable Faith,

The letters of Barnabus and Clement refer to Jesus’ miracles and resurrection. Polycarp mentions the resurrection of Christ, and Irenaeus relates that he had heard Polycarp tell of Jesus’ miracles. Ignatius speaks of the resurrection. Quadratus reports that persons were still living who had been healed by Jesus. Justin Martyr mentions the miracles of Christ. No relic of a nonmiraculous story exists. That the original story should be lost and replaced by another goes beyond any known example of corruption of even oral tradition, not to speak of the experience of written transmissions. These facts show that the story in the Gospels was in substance the same story that Christians had at the beginning. (emphasis mine)

Even if the first records about Jesus’ life weren’t written until the end of the first century by unknown authors, they would still be considered generally reliable by common historical standards. Of course, there are scholars who claim that the NT documents are not historically reliable. The problem is that they start their investigations by presupposing that supernatural events have never occurred. As such, any evidence which leads to the conclusion that they have occurred can be justifiably dismissed. Thus, their arguments are completely circular: they assume that miracles cannot happen, they examine the NT documents, and conclude that the miracles recorded in it didn’t happen. In other words, their conclusions about the historical validity of the NT are not a product of the evidence but of their presuppositions. They would have reached the same conclusion regardless, since it’s simply a re-statement of their starting point. But if we begin by allowing the possibility of miracles, we come to significantly different conclusions.

Update (15 Feb): See also part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 5.

Things Never to Say to a Pregnant Woman

"Wanna watch Alien?"

Saturday, January 16, 2010

On tear gas and water-boarding

A recent poll indicated that 58% of people were in favor of water-boarding the terrorist who tried to bomb an airplane on Christmas day in order to gain information to help prevent future attacks. This subject has been done to death, but I have a perspective that may add to the discussion.

Water-boarding is one of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" that the USA used on a few high-profile terrorists. The individual is tied to a board, tilted slightly back, and has some barrier (plastic wrap or a towel) placed over his face, and then water is poured onto the barrier. While this does not cause any actual inhalation of water (if it's done right), it instigates the gag reflex, which in turn instigates panic. It causes no physical damage, and apparently no long-term psychological damage either. Water-boarding is not the same thing as Japanese water torture, where the individual is repeatedly forced to ingest massive amounts of water into his stomach until he's bloated, and then punched or jumped on to make him vomit it back up. There's a scene in the movie To End All Wars where one of the characters undergoes the Japanese water torture, and it's simply not the same thing as water-boarding.

Of course, the issue is whether water-boarding should be classified as torture or not. I'm undecided on this. On the one hand, American military special forces are water-boarded as part of their SERE training, and to say that we torture our own troops as part of their training is extremely counter-intuitive to say the least. Moreover, since all of the individuals who go through SERE are volunteers, it would entail that people are volunteering to be tortured. Can you think of any form of torture, worthy of the name, where most of the people who undergo it are volunteers? On the other hand, it's so unpleasant that it breaks people very quickly. I think most people, myself included, are very disturbed by the idea that there's something that we couldn't handle, something so horrible that we'd do or say anything -- break any promise, betray any allegiance -- to make it stop. How could that not be torture? As a Christian, I'm particularly nervous that there is something so terrible that I would deny Jesus in order to make it stop.

I never went through SERE training, but I was in the Marines and went through boot camp. As part of our training, we had to practice using a gas mask in actual conditions, meaning we walked into a tent filled with tear gas. We took our masks off, then had to put them back on and clear them. Then we all had to take them off and, one by one, yell our ranks, names, platoon numbers, senior drill instructors' names, etc. I was at the end of the line with (I think) about forty people in front of me. That means I took off my gas mask and stood there inhaling tear gas for about two minutes before I had the chance to yell everything. When I finally got out I almost puked.

Now my point in bringing this up is that, as I recall, nearly every group that went into the tent had one or two guys who took one whiff and panicked. They ran out, had to be brought back in, and held down inside the tent, inhaling tear gas. The guy in my group who panicked was pretty tough, and we asked him later why he didn't just stand there and take it like the rest of us. He knew that he wasn't going to be hurt, they went to a lot of trouble explaining that to us beforehand. He said that as soon as he smelled the tear gas, there was only room in his mind for one thought: "I'm dying."

So when they dragged this guy back into the tear gas tent and held him down, were they torturing him? Intuitions may vary, but for me, to call that "torture" diminishes the meaning of the word, and demeans the suffering of those who have been actually tortured. Causing someone to panic just doesn't seem to me to be torture; I think there must be more to it than that in order to be classified as such. But what's the difference between this and water-boarding? Both are very unpleasant physically without actually being painful, and both have the ability to cause panic. As far as I can tell, it's that the percentage of people who panic in the tear gas tent is pretty low, while the percentage of those who panic while being water-boarded is high. But it's hard to see how that's relevant: the question is whether it constitutes torture for the people that it causes to panic. I just don't see how the claim that other people don't have that reaction affects this one way or the other.

Don't misunderstand me: I'm still undecided on whether water-boarding is torture. My problem is that I think something similar -- being forced into the tear gas tent -- is not torture, and I'm unable to think of a significant difference between the two. But I still have the intuition or feeling that something that horrible must be torture. Maybe the fact that I went through the same physical experience as my fellow recruit but didn't panic gives me a distorted perspective on what he went through. I don't know.

Update (20 Jan): Some good comments below. Let me clarify what I'm saying and not saying in this post. I have the feeling, intuition, whatever you want to call it, that something as terrible and effective as water-boarding must be torture. But I also have the feeling, intuition, whatever that if the vast majority of people who experience something do so voluntarily, and if it's something we do to our own troops to train them, it's not torture. Thus, my intuitions conflict. If this were all there is to it, I would probably just ask which intuition is felt more strongly and go with it -- and that would be that water-boarding is torture.

However, this intuition is primarily based on the effect water-boarding has: namely, it breaks the individual quickly. But this is not an appropriate definition of torture for two reasons: First, it would apply to things that are not torture. This is the example I gave of my fellow recruit who was forced to inhale tear gas until he told the drill instructors what they wanted. We could think of a more extreme example, though, to make the point. Say some criminal is caught who is very psychologically fragile and cannot handle confrontation. The police interrogate him by yelling at him and telling him he's going to jail for the rest of his life. He breaks down very quickly and tells them everything they want to know. Is that torture? Obviously not. But it meets the standard that makes me think water-boarding is. Thus, torture cannot be defined this way.

Second, this definition would not apply to things that are torture. I didn't make this point in the post, but an example could be made fairly simply. Take something that everyone, everywhere acknowledges is torture, something no one would have any doubts about. Some poor soul is subjected to it, but he does not break. He never tells his torturers what they want to hear. Is that torture? Obviously. But it doesn't meet the standard that makes me think water-boarding is. Thus, torture cannot be defined this way.

Because of this, I'm suspicious of my intuition that water-boarding is torture. However, I still feel this intuition strongly, and am not ready to give it up. So I'm asking, is there an argument that would demonstrate water-boarding is torture that would do justice to this intuition but does not have the problems listed above? Simply saying it's obvious doesn't go anywhere, because I have the same feeling about it; but it raises the problems I've mentioned.

Some of the comments, my own included, have gone off topic from this point. So this is not the appropriate place to compare water-boarding to what other countries do to their prisoners or what the USA has done in the past (as I did). Nor is it the place to condemn George W. Bush, or the war on terrorism, or American foreign policy. These issues are not what this post is about. I'm not even asking whether water-boarding should be allowed; only whether it should be considered torture. If it is torture, it doesn't follow that it shouldn't be allowed because plenty of people think torturing terrorists is acceptable in certain circumstances (Bill Clinton for example). On the other hand, if it isn't torture, it doesn't follow that there's nothing wrong with it and that it should be allowed.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Please pray

for the people in Haiti in the aftermath of their devastating earthquake. If you want to donate money to help, relief agencies can be found at the Hunger Site, the North Shore Journal, and the Anchoress.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Book Review: The Achilles of Rationalist Arguments

I just finished re-reading this book, having read it for one of my Master's theses. (Full bibliographical details: Ben Lazare Mijuskovic, The Achilles of Rationalist Arguments: The Simplicity, Unity, and Identity of Thought and Soul from the Cambridge Platonists to Kant: A Study in the History of an Argument. Archives Internationales d'Histoire des Idees Minor, vol 13. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974.) It's on the development and use of a particular philosophical argument throughout history, but primarily in the early Modern era. The Simplicity Argument is the claim that, "The essential nature of the soul consists in its power of thinking; thought, being immaterial, is unextended, i.e., simple (having no parts); and what is simple is (a) indestructible; (b) a unity; and (c) an identity." In the first chapter, Mijuskovic traces the argument back to Plato in the Phaedo, where Socrates argues that "in order for the soul to grasp the essence of immaterial forms, in knowledge, it must itself share in the attribute of immateriality." Aristotle also argues for the soul's immateriality, but interestingly, Mijuskovic does not employ the most obvious text to demonstrate this, namely, De Anima, but uses the Metaphysics instead. He doesn't appeal much to Medieval philosophy because he doesn't think the argument developed much in this time, but I would have liked to see how this argument related to the position of divine illumination, that human knowledge requires a direct link to God in order to be valid.

The meat of the book, however, is the middle three chapters where he demonstrates how the Simplicity Argument was used to argue for the immortality of the soul, the unity of consciousness, and the identity of the (moral) self with thought. Mijuskovic really shows an in-depth knowledge of early Modern philosophy, appealing to most of the great philosophers of this era and even popular-level writers -- the latter to demonstrate how deeply the argument had permeated society at the time. It's interesting how some thinkers employed the argument for one of its uses but not for the others, like Descartes. He also points out how Locke argued (following Hobbes) that matter may be able to think, and so thought is not necessarily immaterial. But it should be pointed out that Locke argued that thought could not be explained simply as matter in motion: God had to "superadd" thought onto matter in order for the "matter can think" thesis to be possible (on this, see this essay and this essay by Margaret Wilson).

The most interesting of these chapters, for me, was on the unity of consciousness. Mijuskovic summarizes the Simplicity Argument's use here as follows:

The argument from the simplicity of thought and its postulation as the "transcendental" condition for the unity of consciousness most often occurs in opposition to the Epicurean-Hobbesian principle that senseless matter can think; and the argument always refers to the peculiar nature of consciousness and, especially, of selfconsciousness. Thus, for instance, the rationalist tradition involved in this epistemological aspect of the simplicity theory constantly stresses the idea that either all consciousness is actually selfconsciousness; or that there is something special, "rational," about selfconsciousness which essentially distinguishes it from mere sensation, perception, or consciousness. And that even if perception might conceivably be explained on Epicurean grounds, selfconsciousness could never be so understood. Furthermore, unless different "thoughts" or concepts inhered in something essentially unified and simple, they would fall apart and crumble into distinct pieces and a disunity of consciousness would thereby result. But the fact that we cannot divide our idea of, say, blue into pieces as we can partition a blue object demonstrates that there is something different in principle between ideas and objects; and if there were not, stones could think and reason as readily as minds. Thus unless consciousness were unified by something intrinsically simple, and therefore necessarily a unity (for what is simple must be a unity), sensation, perception, cognition, awareness, memory, reason, etc., would all be impossible.

He also goes over Hume's skepticism regarding the unity of consciousness and the soul's identity in some detail, concluding with an interesting point reminiscent of the Argument from Reason: "It may be noted, however, that Hume's ultimate scepticism concerning the self is, paradoxically enough, based on the reflexive character of thought, on selfconsciousness."

The final chapter goes over the argument's role in the development of Idealism. Mijuskovic argues that Kant's claim that space is merely an appearance is not based -- or at least is not solely based -- on his antinomies but also on the Simplicity Argument (indeed, it was Kant who referred to this argument as Rationalism's "Achilles").

In what ultimately may be traced back to "Platonic," "Aristotelian," "Neoplatonic," or "Cartesian" sources, the principle that both thoughts and minds are unextended seems to lead philosophically to a conclusion which states that whatever "appears in" or "belongs to" the mind also must be thereby necessarily unextended. For in whatever fashion we contrast or distinguish thoughts and minds (and term the former the attributes or accidents and the latter the substances, or if we identify the two) the important consideration revolves around the recognition of the essentially unextended nature of thoughts and minds. And if both thoughts and minds are incorporeal, and the immaterial is identified with the unextended ... then it follows that everything which is cognitively apprehended by the mind must likewise by essentially unextended. And indeed, even the common man -- who may be tempted to say figuratively that a thought is deep in meaning or that his cares weigh him down -- would find it literally meaningless to speak of an idea two feet deep or a pound in weight.

He concludes by pointing to some possible influences of this argument on 20th century philosophy, such as Husserlian phenomenology, and its relevance for combating certain reductivist philosophies, such as Behaviorism and Materialism. Overall it's an interesting book and a valuable contribution to the history of ideas.


for the lack of posting. My computer broke, so I don't have much Internet access. I'll post when I can.

Update (16 Jan): Up and running again. The secret was to call the computer manufacturer's technical support hotline and have them tell me to do the exact same thing I'd been doing for days but hadn't worked.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Superman's Secret Identity

I was just re-reading my ridiculously long post on Nietzsche and realized something. Nietzsche makes a sharp distinction between the rational man and the intuitive man. The rational man lives his life by forcing everything into categories, allowing him to learn from mistakes so as not to make them again. This is unacceptable to Nietzsche for several reasons: first, classifying things like this would mean ignoring all the things about an experience that make it that particular experience and treating it as if it were the same as other experiences which are, by definition, different experiences. It is to ignore the uniqueness of each experience. Second, classifying things like this is motivated by fear: the fear of not being in control (by not being able to understand things), which amounts to a fear of life itself. It is the attempt to limit the effect life has on us. But you can't do this without also excluding the great joys that life offers as well. Thus, the rational man lives by fear, and lets this fear determine how he lives. He is afraid of life, running away from it. Third, classifying things like this can only be done if one accepts a Platonic/Christian worldview, which posits a world beyond the physical universe, a world of which the universe we experience is just a shadow or pale reflection. Nietzsche absolutely rejects such a worldview. Indeed, his philosophy is the working-out of the consequences of God's non-existence.

In contrast, the intuitive man -- the Übermensch (overman or superman) -- is the one who accepts life on its own terms, as it comes to him, not trying to understand it but just experiencing it, living it. He does not live negatively out of fear, but positively. This allows him to experience all the great joys that life has to offer. It also means that he will experience all the great pains and even horrors that life has to offer, and will never learn to avoid them -- in order to avoid them, he would have to learn from previous experiences not to do certain types of things, but that would mean classifying certain types of experience. Thus, the Übermensch rejects this, refuses to run away from life by living in fear, and allows himself to live life to its fullest.

But if that's the definition of the Übermensch -- someone who will not rationally think about things, will not try to understand things by comparing them with similar things in order to learn from them -- then a rather radical conclusion follows.

The Übermensch is ... Homer Simpson.

This can easily be verified by simply watching the Simpsons to determine for oneself that Homer exemplifies precisely these qualities.

So if you want to be a full-blooded Nietzschean, if you really want to reject the Platonic/Christian worldview, just be aware of what you're aspiring to. Homer Simpson: the ultimate realization of Nietzsche's philosophy.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


I mentioned this on Quodlibeta a while ago, but I thought some of you folk might appreciate it as well: Plantinga's trilogy on warrant is available to read online.

Warrant: The Current Debate
Warrant and Proper Function
Warranted Christian Belief

The first two are series of Gifford Lectures (which I wrote about here), and the last one is hosted at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Enjoy.