Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Basil Mitchell, RIP

Basil Mitchell, one of the most important contemporary Christian philosophers, passed away a few days ago at the age of 94. You can read his Gifford Lectures online, entitled Morality, Religious and Secular.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Quote of the Day

There are many other arguments which claim to show us that we can be determinists without upsetting any of our notions of moral responsibility or human freedom. We may keep our concepts in different pockets. The language we use to describe actions is often different from the language we use to describe events: there are different principles of identity and individuation, for what are to count as the same action and what are to count as the same event. And therefore, it is argued, the conflict between free-will and determinism is illusory, because the concepts occur in different languages and so cannot come into collision. Free-will belongs to the agent's language, determinism to the spectator's. I, as an agent, perform some actions freely: he, as a spectator, may predict events correctly. But I am not he; to be an active participator is not the same as to observe from the sidelines, and actions and events are logically very different; and therefore, it is claimed, no conflict can arise between my belief as an agent that I am acting freely and his certainty, as a spectator that events will follow their pre-established course; since the key concepts of the opposition must be formulated in different languages, no contradiction between them can arise.

The distinction drawn between the language of agents and actions and the language of observations and events -- a distinction which seems to be the modern formulation in linguistic terms of one that Kant drew -- is a distinction that needs to be drawn; but, like the one Kant drew, is unable to resolve this particular problem. It is true that agents and spectators do use different languages, and many mistakes have been caused by the unconscious equation of actions and events: many of the legends about Oracles and the fulfilment of their prophecies to the confusion of the enquirer, turn on his having wrongly translated from the Oracle's spectator-language into his own, agent-language. But from the languages' not being the same in all respects it does not follow that they differ in all respects. The languages, though admittedly different, overlap each other in many places. The same man can speak both as an agent and as a spectator, and the same things can be described from the two different points of view. Just as Kant's solution requires a sort of philosophical schizophrenia on the part of the thinker beyond the power of most reflective men, so the solution suggested here requires, as it were, a thorough-going schizoglossia which is blatantly at variance with the facts. We may not be able to equate actions with events: but we can say something in the event language which will translate into something in the action language that is incompatible with some things the agents would have liked to have been able to say. Thus I may think that my action in inviting the visiting professor to dinner was free, and that I could have quite well just asked him how his work was getting on: but if a psycho-physiologist with complete information about the state of my brain and my environment at some previous time can predict that upon my meeting a human being of such and such type, my lips will contort themselves so that such and such sounds come out, then, whatever the niceties of what exactly constitutes an action, I shall no longer be able to maintain that I could have not acted as I did. The argument of the two languages will not work because the spectator and the agent can communicate, indeed may be the same person. So, anything the spectator can know the agent could know also: and if the spectator in his language can predict certain events, then this state of affairs will be describable in the agent's language as well, and may be inconsistent with, or entail, certain courses of action on his part. Therefore if the determinist thesis occurs in the spectator's language, it can be expressed in the agent's language too, and the problem will not have been dissolved.

J. R. Lucas
The Freedom of the Will
(footnotes omitted)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Literary Science-Fiction

1. I just learned that the last novel of Franz Werfel -- one of the most important German writers of the first half of the 20th century, and the last husband of Alma -- was a science-fiction novel entitled Star of the Unborn (in German: Stern der Ungeborenen). So that's on my to-read list, once I finish writing my dissertation.

2. I've started reading Gene Wolfe's massive four-novel series The Book of the New Sun, but I don't really have the time. I note in an interesting interview that his fellow science-fiction author Patrick O'Leary has a very high view of him.

Forget "Speculative Fiction." Gene Wolfe is the best writer alive. Period. And as Wolfe once said, "All novels are fantasies. Some are more honest about it."

No comparison. Nobody--I mean nobody--comes close to what this artist does. ...

He has the intellectual whimsy, invention and rigour of Borges, the grace and music and hard beauty of Nabokov, the richness of voice and character of Faulkner, the moral insight and passion of Le Guin, the compassion and weirdness of P.K. Dick, and a courage and integrity of spirit that are entirely his own--all grounded, somehow rooted in a modesty, a working-class respect for the dirt and anguish and joy of everyday life. Ultimately he loves spinning a good yarn. And he is a lot of fun.

Read a story, say, "The Ziggurat" or "A Cabin On The Coast" or "The Death of Doctor Island"--it doesn't get better than that. Read a chapter, say, the Alzabo Chapter in The Book of The New Sun, or any [#*&!@] chapter from In Green's Jungles--the best novel I've ever read--Dude, this man is operating on all cylinders. He's like the lead in Steely Dan's "Reeling in the Years"--Jesus, do you remember the first time you heard that? Wolfe achieves that virtuosity and soul for whole books.

And then he does it backward. And in braille. And after the fifth time you read the same page and realize he's [#*&!@] doing it on a Kazoo while juggling tomatoes--you give up. You know--forgetaboutit--he's the best. He is so good, he's scary.

3. The Wordverter recently alerted to me to something that will be humorous to other Frank Herbert fans who are also parents: Goodnight Dune. It made me laugh, at least. I also laughed at this which is, unfortunately, serious.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Jesus' humanity

My wife just had a spectacular insight about Jesus that focuses on his humanity. It's important for Christians to remember that Jesus was both fully God and fully human. That can be difficult at times, though. Anyway, she remembered a particular passage from Seven Woes:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

My wife's insight is kind of obvious when you think of it, but it had never occurred to me. It's this: Jesus -- through whom everything was made, the one who holds the entire universe together -- washed dishes. At some point in his life, he had to clean dinnerware. That is how far down the food chain he was willing to go in order to show us how much he loves us. Pretty amazing.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

One more click

I mentioned a little while ago that the Hunger Site added a Veterans tab, where advertisers will pay for meals for veterans if you click a button. They've recently added another tab for Autism where advertisers will pay for therapy for autistic children each time you click. So get to it.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Just call me a conscientious carnivore

Keith Burgess-Jackson, a vegetarian, posted an interesting quote on eating meat from A Political Philosophy by Roger Scruton. Here's the final paragraph:

Furthermore, I would suggest not only that it is permissible for those who care about animals to eat meat; they have a duty to do so. If meat-eating should ever become confined to those who do not care about animal suffering then compassionate farming would cease. All animals would be kept in battery conditions and the righteous vegetarians would exert no economic pressure on farmers to change their ways. Where there are conscientious carnivores, however, there is a motive to raise animals kindly. And conscientious carnivores can show their depraved contemporaries that it is possible to ease one’s conscience by spending more on one’s meat. Bit by bit the news would get around, that there is a right and a wrong way to eat; and—failing some coup d’├ętat by censorious vegetarians—the process would be set in motion, that would bring battery farming to an end. Duty requires us, therefore, to eat our friends.

I'm definitely carnivorous (technically, I'm omnivorous), but I'm also an animal lover, so this idea appealed to me. My first thought against it, however, is that Scruton limits the possible influence "righteous vegetarians" could have on farmers to economic pressure. But surely they could exert other kinds of pressure that would have an influence on cruel farming practices. My second thought against it is this argument would apply equally to cannibalism: if the only people who eat members of ethnic group A are those who care nothing of their suffering, then there will be no motivation to minimize such suffering. If we really care about ethnic group A, "duty requires us, therefore, to eat our friends." Of course, one could get around this by adding more to the equation: human beings are not merely animals; we have other motivations for eating animals than simply reducing their suffering; etc. But by itself, the quoted argument strikes me as insufficient. Of course, there's a whole book surrounding it, so maybe I should read it instead of pass judgment on it.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Thought of the Day

In ancient Greece, Diogenes would urinate in public in order to prove that human beings are merely animals. But animals don't urinate in public in order to make a point.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

On parenting

David Mamet, the playwright and screenwriter, has come out of the closet recently as a political conservative. I was reading an interview with him about it, but the point that stood out to me was something that didn't have anything to do with politics. He was asked by the interviewer if he intends to promote conservativism through his writing.

No, it’s not my job as a playwright to send a message. It’s my job as a playwright to entertain the people. And it would be an abuse of their trust to addend a message to an entertainment. It’s like…
It’s like ending a wonderful fairy story that you tell your children, and saying and so, remember it’s always good to be kind to people and blah, blah, blah. No, you’ve just destroyed your kid, right? He thought that he was…he suspended his disbelief in order to have this wonderful moment with his father, where they both engage in this fantasy. And at the end, you’re saying but more important than that, son, let me misuse the gift of your attention to teach you a lesson.

I don't know what other people think of this, but my response was something along the lines of, "Oh my gosh, I'm not the only one who thinks that way!" Having said that, my pathetic attempts at fiction are absolutely message-driven. I only agree with Mamet about the parenting part.