Friday, December 31, 2010

Ockham on the BBC

Researching ways in which I might write a useful and interesting and improving article on Ockham for the Daily Mail, I found this excellent programme on the life and work and legacy of Ockham, first broadcast 8:00 a.m., Thursday 31 May 2007, on Radio 4. It doesn’t tell us a huge amount that someone familiar with Ockham or that period of medieval thought would not have already known. Its interest lies in the great way it summarises Ockham. Given you have five minutes, twenty minutes or (as in the case of this broadcast) 45 minutes to talk about Ockham, what actually do you say? The Wikipedia article is truly awful (for reasons I explain here, if it is not self-evident from just looking at the article). The article in the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy is simply not going to be comprehensible to the average Daily Mail reader.

The opening (by Bragg) is picturesque.

The small village of Ockham, near Woking in Surrey, stands a church. Made of
grey stone, it has a pitched roof and an unassuming church tower but parts of it
date back to the 13th century. This means they it have been standing when the
village witnessed the birth of one of the greatest philosophers in Medieval
Europe. His name was William and he became known as William of Ockham. William
of Ockham’s ideas on human freedom and the nature of reality influenced Thomas
Hobbes and helped fuel the Reformation. During a turbulent career he managed to
offend the Chancellor of Oxford University, disagree with his own ecclesiastical
order and get excommunicated by the Pope. He also declared that the authority of
rulers derives from the people they govern and was one of the first people so to
do. Ockham’s razor is the idea that philosophical arguments should be kept as
simple as possible, something that Ockham himself practised severely on the
theories of his predecessors.
That's right! Begin with a picture of where Ockham grew up, and a place he might have seen in some earlier form. Designate him as ‘one of the greatest philosophers in medieval Europe. Say that he ‘fuelled the Reformation’, that he disagreed with his own order, and was excommunicated by the Pope (as was Anthony Kenny, one of the participants in the programme, as it happens). The only thing it is missing is the wonderful “under cover of darkness” from the Stanford article, describing his flight from Avignon for Pisa. Probably the only part of that article that would not have been out of place in the Mail. The programme is well worth a visit. In summary:
  • What sort of world did Ockham live in (Kenny, 1:19)

  • His early life (Adams 5:50)

  • The problem of universals (Adams 7:46). There is a wonderful moment where Adams says “The problem is really a problem about whether similarity is to be grounded in the identity of metaphysical components. If each of us is a human being, we are maximally similar with respect to rational animality. But does that similarity between two individuals ... have to be grounded in a common metaphysical consituent which we all share, and if it does, then would there have to be another constituent which makes us to be the very individuals that we are - the haecceity". Bragg understandably asks her to run that one past him again.

  • Ockham on universals. (Adams 9:05) Ockham's view that any explanation in terms of a common nature and an individuating component requires an account of the connection between the nature and the individuator is, and O thinks that any attempt to give an account of this will end in contradiction.

  • The Holy Trinity. (Cross - 10:48). This is a wonderful explanation of why Ockham’s view on universals was controversial. If there aren't shared natures, it is hard to explain how there is just one God, where there are supposed to be three divine persons who all share something (the divine nature/essence), plus a distinguishing feature. If in principle there couldn't be a shared essence, it looks as though you have ruled out the Trinity on philosophical grounds. Oh no.

  • How Ockham gets round it (Cross, 12:46). Ockham simply thought that theology is an exception. A bit of a sidestep, and an unsatisfactory position for a medieval philosopher, given their program, which had some success, of showing the overall consistency and coherency of Christianity, even if its truth cannot be logically proved.

  • Ockham's Razor (Kenny 15:51). “Scotus had grown huge metaphysical fuzzy beard that needed cutting off”. This is how Kenny achieved fame and respect and universal admiration in the philosophical universe. However, he does add that Ockham was the most brilliant philosopher ever to have taught at Oxford, and Kenny taught at Oxford.

  • The political period (Cross, 22:40). The spiritual Franciscans, who believed in Franciscan poverty – the use of things, but not the ownership of property - were a bit ‘like hippies’, and also possibly a bit mad. Pope John XXII proclaimed that Franciscans had a right to use things, which Ockham said contradicted a proclamation in 1279 proclamation, since a ‘right to use’ is the same as ownership. Ockham’s finally declared that the pope was a heretic. ‘Quite bold really’, comments Bragg (although Adams adds that it was actually quite common in those days for popes to be denounced as heretics).

  • Church and state. (Adams 31:40). Ockham defended a dualist or parallel system of church and state. He had a liberal view of the state - after the fall, you wouldn’t have to have property ownership if everyone would live by natural reason – but not everyone will, so you need the state. The state should stay out of church affairs, the church should stay out of temporal affairs. He also emphasised personal liberty, so clearly was a very modern person.

  • Divine right. (Kenny 35:44) The right of monarchs does not derive directly from God. It comes from God to the citizens who then pass it on, if they wish, to the king. Ockham’s significance. (Cross, 37:50) Ockham’s theory is a modern democratic theory, promoting a liberal state. This idea might have reached Hobbes, who had been reading Grotius, who might have been reading someone like Ockham or Marsilius.

  • Ockham’s real significance. (Cross 41:10) Ockham was more influential for his logic - not least because early modern philosophers were nominalists.
The programme features host Melvyn Bragg, with experts Anthony Kenny, Marilyn McCord Adams and Richard Cross.

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Everything is everything

Peter Adamson from King's College London emailed me to let me know about his series of podcasts here. It currently covers only the pre-Socratics ('Aristotle is some way in the future still'). In one of the pods, Peter talks us through the philosophy of Anaxagoras (who I talked about in an earlier post here) with entertaining humour: "He didn't wind up drinking hemlock, but instead just left town, which is safer"; "We humans get a healthy portion of mind, rocks don't get any".

He also notes that "When soul singers from the 1970s to the present have informed us that everything is everything, they were broadly speaking in agreement with Anaxagoras". Very true, and to bring us up to date here is the excellent rapper Lauryn Hill singing Everything is everything, which contains as an added bonus the philosophical 'what will be will be'.

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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Ghosts and metaphysics

Peter Lupu makes the following objection to my claim that there are no substantive theses of metaphysics. Claims such as “there are no universals” are substantive metaphysical theses. But it is also a substantive thesis of nominalism, one which I (as a card-carrying nominalist) would surely uphold. The choice is mine!

I reply: is the thesis that there are no such things as ghosts, a substantive thesis in the theory of ghosts? No. Because it is not a thesis about ghosts. Any thesis in the theory of ghosts is about ghosts. But the thesis that there are no ghosts is a substantive theory not about ghosts, but about the world. Namely, that the world contains no ghosts. Not being a thesis about ghosts, it is not part of the theory of ghosts.

Analogously, the nominalist holds that there are no universals. His thesis is a substantive one, to be sure. But it is not part of the theory of universals. Rather, it is a substantive part of the theory of the world, that it contains no such things as ‘universals’.

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Album fuit disputaturum

Vallicella continues here. What I find puzzling is how he continues with trifling, even frivolous objections to the extreme version of Ockhamism that I have proposed here and there, without picking up on any of the really serious objections to it.

So let’s talk about one possible objection here. Extreme or ‘London’ Ockhamism is the view that relations can only relate things. There are no ‘non-existent relata’. Where the Stanford Realist talks about ‘non-existent relata’, as apparently required by ‘Tom is thinking about Pegasus’, the Ockhamist sees only things. ‘Tom is thinking about Pegasus’ relates Tom to nothing (for Pegasus is not a thing). Thus ‘Tom is thinking about Pegasus’ is a linguistic relation only

Londonists allow present relations. Thus ‘Cameron is colleague of Clegg’ is true, and relates two things. Londonists also allow past relations. Thus ‘Churchill met Roosevelt’ is true, since it expresses a relation which was between two things, although now between no things.

The problem occurs when the relation is between something in the present, and something in the past, or when there is no time at which the relation could possibly have been between two things. Consider ‘Churchill (who died in 1965) died before Cameron (who was born in 1966) was born’. At no time when Churchill was something, was Cameron something. For when Churchill was something, Cameron was not born. And when Cameron was born, and so was something, Churchill was nothing. Thus at no time did ‘Churchill died before Cameron was born’ relate any two things.

The medieval philosophers discussed a similar problem in the sophisma ‘Album fuit disputaturum’ (a white person was going to argue). Assume Socrates was white, before he went into the Mediterranean sun. And assume that he only argued after acquiring a Mediterranean suntan. Thus ‘a white (i.e. untanned) person is arguing’ was never true (at least, in respect of Socrates). Thus ‘Album fuit disputaturum’ apparently relates the person of whom the subject is true (untanned and unarguing Socrates) with the person of whom the predicate is true (tanned and arguing Socrates). How is that possible?

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Aquinas on Aristotle's Posterior Analytics

Just out in the Logic Museum. Thomas's very accessible and highly recommended commentary on Aristotle's Posterior Analytics.

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Intentionality and semantics

Bill Vallicella comments: "One cannot eat without eating something, and indeed something that exists. And one cannot desire without desiring something -- but in this case the thing desired needn't exist." But then we have the problem of 'something desired which doesn't exist', which seems contradictory. Is the problem about ontology at all?

Consider

(1) Jake is searching for a gold mine near Cripple Crow Creek.
(2) There are no gold mines near Cripple Crow Creek.

There is not even even a whiff of contradiction or paradox here, and we are not tempted to posit 'non-existent objects' or suchlike. Of course, if we try to analyse them in terms of predicate calculus, we do get a contradiction:

(1a) For some x, [x is a gold mine near Cripple Crow Creek, and Jake is searching for x].
(2a) Not for some x, [x is a gold mine near Cripple Crow Creek].

The first sentence logically implies 'for some x, x is a gold mine near Cripple Crow Creek', which directly contradicts the second. But that suggests a problem with the analysis of (1) into an inappropriate formalisation such as (1a), rather than any question of 'ontology'. As soon as we even ask the question about the 'ontological status' of the sought-for gold mine, we are already on the metaphysical sandbank. E.g. we might try resolve the contradiction between (1a) and (2a) by replacing (2a) with

(2b) Not for some x, [x is an existent gold mine near Cripple Crow Creek].

This resolves the contradiction. But by now we are well into the Meinongian jungle. This is entirely a problem of language and logic, as I see it. What is the deep structure or logical analysis of sentence (1) which makes it transparently clear that it is not inconsistent with (2)? Note that we do get inconsistency if we turn the grammatically active sentence (1) into a passive without getting 'existential implication'.

(1b) Some gold mine near Cripple Crow Creek is sought for by Jake.

In its most natural reading, this contradicts (2). So, what is the true semantic structure of sentence (1)? That is the real question, and it has nothing to do with metaphysics. As a suggestion, consider

(3) Jake says that there is a gold mine near Cripple Crow Creek.

which we can analyse into

(3a) Jake says that for some x, x is a gold mine and x is near Cripple Crow Creek.

This, unlike (1a) above, is not inconsistent with (2a) above, since it does not imply that for some x, etc. Could there not be some analogous analysis of (1) into

(1c) Jake is searching-that-there-is a gold mine near Cripple Crow Creek ?

Could it be that 'searching for' has an embedded that-clause which invalidates the inference to 'for some x there is ...', but which is not visible at the surface level of the sentence? That seems a much cleaner way to resolving the difficulty than all this intentional objects nonsense. For nonsense it is.

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Brentano and the convertibility of ‘exists’

Brentano held that a thought must have an object. Did he mean to qualify this by ‘existing object’? According to at least one important thing he said, he would not have drawn any distinction between ‘object’ and ‘existing object’. According to what is now called the Brentano-Venn analysis of propositions, every categorical proposition (one of the form ‘A is B’) is convertible with an existential proposition ‘An A-B exists’. He says, for example

The categorical proposition "Some man is sick", has the same meaning as the
existential proposition "A sick man exists" or "There is a sick man".

It follows from this that 'some hobbit is thought about by some man' is convertible with 'some hobbit thought by some man exists' or 'there is a hobbit thought about by some man'. I have more to say on the history of this here.

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Can a relation have non-existent relata?

Can a relation have non-existent relata, asks Bill Vallicella. Surely not. For we have to ask what kind of relation it is – one-termed, two-termed, three-termed, or whatever. Let’s suppose it is two-termed, i.e. it has two relata. If one of those were destroyed, i.e. made non-existent, it would only have one relatum. If both destroyed, none. Frege said it well: that the number zero represents the denial of existence. If the number of Fs is zero, then there are no Fs: no Fs exist.

Thus if a relation has two relata, it has two existing relata.

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Intentionality II

In my first post yesterday, I asked us to accept the following definition, for the sake of argument.

(1) Intentionality: the existence of some thoughts depends on the existence of external objects

Note my comment 'for the sake of argument'. As Bill Vallicella has commented on this post here, this definition does not coincide with Franz Brentano's definition. But then Brentano's use of the term does not coincide with the medieval usage, which is different again. The thesis I am trying to capture here is what Stephen Neale has called the 'object-dependence' of certain thoughts: that certain thoughts are intrinsically 'about' an object. Note also that by 'external' I mean genuinely separable and distinct from the person thinking: such that it could exist (in some sense) without the person thinking about it, but also such that if it did not exist, the thought could not exist.

I am exploring the reasons that some philosophers have given for believing the thesis of intentionality or 'object dependence' as I am characterising here. The first step is to characterise thought in terms of the language expressing it, in a way that implies (1) **, as follows.

(2A) A thought is the same as the signification of the proposition* expressing that thought
(2B) The signification of some propositions (namely singular propositions) depends on the existence of external objects

This doesn't get us that far, but it focuses the discussion. It takes us from 'thought', which in a wide sense could include any mental phenomenon such as an emotion, a musical phrase, an idea or mental image, to something narrower whose structure and composition is closely related to the structure and composition of language. This move was crucial in the development of modern analytic philosophy (in the hands of Russell, Wittgenstein and others). It was also taken for granted by the late 13th century modist philosophers who held that thought is presupposed by signification (significare praesupponit intelligere).

*I am using the term 'proposition' in its traditional sense, i.e. as signifying an indicative sentence, rather than the meaning of an indicative sentence.

** Note that, in this and all subsequent posts, I will be giving premisses that support the contentious premiss of the previous post, in terms of a (to me) uncontentious premiss labelled 'A', and a contentious premiss labelled 'B'.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Is there a problem of intentionality?

Is there a problem of intentionality? That depends what intentionality is. Let's accept the following definition, for the sake of argument.

(1) Intentionality: the existence of some thoughts depends on the existence of external objects

Is that a problem? Yes, and for two reasons.

First, a psychological reason. It is intuitive that thoughts, which are part of our mind, don't depend on the existence of objects external to our mind. If they did, we would automatically know whether there objects corresponding to them are not. For example, I can wonder whether the Antichrist exists, and I can have thoughts about the Antichrist. Or at least it seems to me that I can think about the Antichrist. And if it seems to me that I think p, that I do think that p (this is the 'Cartesian intuition' - I cannot be mistaken about the existence and nature of my own thoughts). But if a thought about the Antichrist requires that the Antichrist exists, and if I am thinking about the Antichrist, then the Antichrist exists. But that is absurd, for my thought is to question whether the Antichrist exists at all. Therefore my thought about the Antichrist does not require that the Antichrist exists.

Second, a psycho-physical reason. It seems plausible that the existence and nature of our thoughts depends upon the existence and nature of certain biological processes (i.e. in the brain). But the existence and nature of biological processes is in theory independent of things that exist outside. Therefore the existence and nature of our thoughts is independent of what exists outside.

Therefore there is a problem of intentionality. Many philosophers have tackled the problem by questioning whether we have 'Cartesian intuitions', or by theories of mind that are consistent with (1). I shall not be approaching the problem this way. The intentionality thesis, as expressed by proposition (1), seems to me fundamentally false. Instead, I shall be making a series of posts looking at the arguments for (1). More later.

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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Is there an English philosophy?

Some subjects are independent of the culture that first developed them. Thus, we can't really talk about German or French mathematics, except in referring to the history of their respective development. Other subjects are strongly dependent on their culture. Think poetry. Think of Shakespeare or Goethe.

Philosophy is oddly in-between. On the one hand, it is supposed to deal with eternal verities and perpetual and necessary truths. So it ought to belong with mathematics and logic or biology. On the other hand, there are so many varieties of opposing philosophical positions (Platonic realism vs nominalism, physical realism vs idealism, and so on), and many more possibly combinations of such positions, that philosophy appears almost as subjective as poetry or painting. C.S. Peirce below gives a persuasive argument that nominalism is essentially English.
From very early times, it has been the chief intellectual characteristic of the
English to wish to effect everything by the plainest and directest means,
without unnecessary contrivance. In war, for example, they rely more than any
other people in Europe upon sheer hardihood, and rather despise military
science. The main peculiarities of their system of law arise from the fact that
every evil has been rectified as it became intolerable, without any
thoroughgoing measure. The bill for legalizing marriage with a deceased wife's
sister is yearly pressed because it supplies a remedy for an inconvenience
actually felt; but nobody has proposed a bill to legalize marriage with a
deceased husband's brother. In philosophy, this national tendency appears as a
strong preference for the simplest theories, and a resistance to any
complication of the theory as long as there is the least possibility that the
facts can be explained in the simpler way. And, accordingly, British
philosophers have always desired to weed out of philosophy all conceptions which
could not be made perfectly definite and easily intelligible, and have shown
strong nominalistic tendencies since the time of Edward I, or even earlier.
Berkeley is an admirable illustration of this national character, as well as of
that strange union of nominalism with Platonism, which has repeatedly appeared
in history, and has been such a stumbling-block to the historians of philosophy.

Peirce is discussing Berkeley here. I will turn to William of Ockham later, to whom a similar point applies. Can we say that Ockham is an essentially English philosopher? Who are the other English philosophers of whom we would say, as we say of Shakespeare or Chaucer or Milton, that they are represent Englishness, or English thinking, or English tendencies?


* Peirce, C.S., "Fraser's The Works of George Berkeley", North American Review 113 (October 1871): 449-72. Review of The Works of George Berkeley, by Alexander Campbell Fraser, 1871.

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Friday, December 17, 2010

The first Wikipedia philosophy article

Joseph Reagle has managed to reconstruct one of the earliest versions of Wikipedia (dating from 2001). As he says, it is a weird mixture of philosophy, geography, the United States and a huge collection of articles on Atlas Shrugged. I have copied the original article on philosophy below, probably written by Larry Sanger. It is an interesting question whether the article is better or worse than the one that exists now. While the present article has many more lists and extensive cross-references, the original article tries to get to the heart of what philosophy really is. Sanger mentions two standard theories about this. The first is that philosophy is essentially a priori. The natural habitat of the philosopher is the armchair, rather than the laboratory, or a field trip, or a museum. I think this is correct. The second is that the scope of philosophy has got ('gotten') much narrower over time. As problems got solved, they got moved out of philosophy and into the departmental sciences, until what is left is a core of apparently intractable problems (some or all of which may be solved in time, just as the problems of physics and psychology have been 'solved'). I don't think think this is correct. And more later, as I like to say.
Consider first how to distinguish philosophy from science -- from disciplines
like physics and chemistry. Well, it?s not part of philosophy to do
experiments. Experiments play little, if any, role in the solution of
philosophical problems. Now someone might object to this, if he knows much
about the intersection of philosophy and science. He might say, "But
philosophers are often referring to and interpreting the scientific work of
physicists, who do experiments about space and time and quantum mechanics.
And they are often referring to experimental work done in psychology when they
discuss philosophy of psychology."

There?s no doubting that
philosophers sometimes interpret and refer to experimental work of various kinds
-- especially in the philosophies of the different sciences. For example,
in philosophy of physics, or philosophy of psychology. But that?s not
surprising of course: the purpose of those branches of philosophy, branches like
philosophy of physics, is to help interpret the philosophical aspects of
experimental work. But at any rate it?s not the philosophers, in their
capacities as philosophers, who do the experiments.

There is a
basic historical reason why philosophy is not experimental. Originally,
"philosophy" meant simply "the love of wisdom." The "philo-" part comes
from the Greek word philein, meaning to love, and the "-sophy" part comes from
sophia, or wisdom. Originally the scope of philosophy was all abstract
intellectual endeavor. Even up until early modern times, the people we now
call "scientists" were referred to as "natural philosophers," i.e., philosophers
who study nature. Over the years, the scope of philosophy has gotten
smaller and smaller, as different sciences have spun off and become independent
disciplines in their own right. Some relatively early "spin-offs" were
physics and chemistry; more recently, just within the past 100 years, psychology
has spun off.

So of course one might wonder how thinkers knew or
sensed that a new discipline was to be treated as independent from
philosophy. The answer is that the discipline began to be prosecuted using
rigorous methods of observation and experimentation. Philosophy in its
core sense, the sense that remains today, is essentially something that one
should be able to do from one?s armchair, surrounded, at most, by some books
that scientists write. But be careful thinking about this. I
emphatically do not mean that philosophy is totally non-observational, or
non-empirical. Certainly philosophy makes use of, in a really essential
way, observations about the world. But they are, we might say, very
general observations -- observations like "It seems to me I make free choices"
and "It seems to me that killing another person, if ever necessary, requires a
really good excuse." Observations like this take a great deal of
investigation to make; they require careful attention. But most (not all)
philosophical topics require no more specialized knowledge than the average
educated person has; except perhaps specialized knowledge about philosophy
itself.

So philosophy is not experimental and its observations are
only very general, broad observations. And that is what makes it different
from natural sciences like physics, and social sciences like psychology.
So mind you, some people confuse philosophy and psychology, but they are
different. Philosophy does study the mind (and it also studies other
things besides the mind, too), just as psychology does. But the study of
the mind involved in doing psychology involves careful, specific observation of
particular mental phenomena, and experimentation; philosophers think about more
general aspects of the mind, questions like, "What is consciousness? What
is the mind itself?"

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The London Greyfriars

More strange goings-on at Wikipedia. The article on the London Greyfriars, which had never existed until this week, has been put up for deletion. The reason: simply because the author was someone that Wikipedia didn't like.

The London Greyfriars has a fascinating history, not least the connection with Ockham and Chatton (and their feud, of which more should be said).

If any of you have Wikipedia accounts, you are free to vote on the matter. Even if you don't, you can easily create one, it being the 'Encyclopedia that anyone can edit'.

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Internal and external time

I am still thinking about Brightly's objection to my arguments here and elsewhere. Is the impossibility of a Cantorean transfinite consciousness - a conscious moment preceded by an infinite number of conscious moments before that - simply down to the length of time such a consciousness would require? One simply cannot wait for so long. Or is it as I maintain, that the discontinuity between the transfinite consciousness and the finite one is such that the traversal of such a sequence is impossible?

Every conscious moment leads to the next, but that 'next moment' must be finitely far away. For conscious time and physical time are fundamentally different. I cannot 'cheat' infinity by sleeping for an infinite number of days then waking up on the infinitieth day. The physical time is irrelevant, for in my consciousness the passage of an infinite number of days goes unnoticed. The infinitieth day is indistinguishable from any other day in the finite series. Therefore (I would like to argue) in order to get to the infinitieth day, it is essential to be conscious of every one of the previous days. Every conscious moment (i.e. every moment of my consciousness) must be either (a) conscious of some previous moment or (b) conscious of nothing previous, in which case it is my first conscious moment, and nothing of mine preceded it.

Augustine (in the Confessions, e.g., see here) made a similar distinction between 'internal' (conscious) and 'external' (physical) time, holding that only internal time is real.

For if there are times past and future, I desire to know where they are. But if
as yet I do not succeed, I still know, wherever they are, that they are not
there as future or past, but as present. For if there also they be future, they
are not as yet there; if even there they be past, they are no longer there.
Wheresoever, therefore, they are, whatsoever they are, they are only so as
present. Although past things are related as true, they are drawn out from the
memory, -- not the things themselves, which have passed, but the words conceived
from the images of the things which they have formed in the mind as footprints
in their passage through the senses. My childhood, indeed, which no longer is,
is in time past, which now is not; but when I call to mind its image, and speak
of it, I behold it in the present, because it is as yet in my memory. Whether
there be a like cause of foretelling future things, that of things which as yet
are not the images may be perceived as already existing, I confess, my God, I
know not. This certainly I know, that we generally think before on our future
actions, and that this premeditation is present; but that the action whereon we
premeditate is not yet, because it is future; which when we shall have entered
upon, and have begun to do that which we were premeditating, then shall that
action be, because then it is not future, but present. (Confessions XI.18.23).

On this view, however, it seems difficult to explain the passage of time.

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Friday, December 10, 2010

Books not bombs

I came out of a meeting at Mallet Street and behold, there was a large demonstration. I remember demonstrations from the 1970s, gradually dissipating the energy of the 1960s. This was like, and unlike, anything I had seen before. There were many similarities. There was the ‘Socialist Workers Party’ out in force. This is one of a few relics of organisations that survive from the old days. Oddly titled: what is this idea of ‘workers’? They were handing out hundreds of flags stapled onto sticks, no doubt assembled in some third world sweatshop. There were young people with stuff painted on their faces: a hippy custom that survived in the backwaters of Glastonbury and has always been there, really, without us realising what it really was in its essential nature. There were people lecturing the crowd in that odd Sid James/Ben Elton old-fashioned ‘workers’ accent that no young Londoner actually speaks . And lots of banging on drums and stuff. All this was familiar from the 1970s

But the scale and energy of it was beyond anything I had experienced. I stayed for ten minutes to listen to the speeches. Short, compressed angry sentences, followed by swelling angry noises from the crowds. Grandiose sentiments (one of them calling for an immediate general strike). Although I was only there for a short time, at the beginning of the march, it was clear it was going to be very big (as indeed it was). And though I am too old to be a victim of naïve sentiment, I succumbed to naïve sentiment. The rise in tuition fees takes the expense of education to impossible levels. Education will suffer. In particular, the classics, medieval studies, all the stuff that is not obviously ‘vocational’ will suffer. So, books are good. Bombs are bad. Support books.

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Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Aquinas on the Metaphysics - books V and VI

Book V and Book VI of Thomas's commentary on the Metaphysics just out in the Logic Museum. Let me remind you again of the hyperlinkish wonder of the Web. I have nearly completed a translation of one of Burley's questions on the Perihermenias (which will itself shortly end up in the Museum). He says (though I don't claim fully to understand this)

[...] certain persons say that being is not the essence of a thing, but
nonetheless proceeds from the essential principles of a thing of which it is the
being, and is in the same genus by reduction with the thing of which it is the
being, just as motion is of the same genus by reduction with a finishing point.
Therefore the being of a substance is a single actuality in the genus of
substance by reduction, and is neither substance nor accident. And Thomas and
Giles hold this opinion.

The footnote in Stephen Brown's edition, (Fran. Stud. 34 (1974) 200-295) refers us to Thomas commentary on book IV, IV, lect. 2 n. 558. In the old days you would have to look for some old book, probably in some university library. Now you can just follow the link. And it doesn't end there, because the commentary is linked right back to Aristotle's text.

What Thomas says is as follows. As I said, I don't claim to understand it fully.

LatinEnglish
Sed in primo quidem non videtur dixisse recte. Esse enim rei quamvis sit aliud ab eius essentia, non tamen est intelligendum quod sit aliquod superadditum ad modum accidentis, sed quasi constituitur per principia essentiae. Et ideo hoc nomen ens quod imponitur ab ipso esse, significat idem cum nomine quod imponitur ab ipsa essentia.558. But in regard to the first point he does not seem to be right; for even though a thing’s existence is other than its essence, it should not be understood to be something added to its essence after the manner of an accident, but something established, as it were, by the principles of the essence. Hence the term being, which is applied to a thing by reason of its very existence, designates the same thing as the term which is applied to it by reason of its essence.

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Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Anaxagoras and the argument from design

Anaxogoras (500-428 BC) seems to have been the first to suggest that ‘blind’ causation and deterministic mechanical features of the world cannot explain the order and harmony we see in the universe. Many or all of the operations of nature seem to be directed towards specific ends. Anaxogoras – apparently reacting to contemporary atomistic theories that deterministically explained everything in terms of fixed laws of the motion of elementary particles – thought that such design was evidence of an agency which was rational and non-physical. This idea clearly appealed to Aristotle, and may have been an influence on his thought. He speaks approvingly:
When one man said, then, that reason was present - as in animals, so throughout
nature - as the cause of order and of all arrangement, he seemed like a sober
man in contrast with the random talk of his predecessors. We know that
Anaxagoras certainly adopted these views, but Hermotimus of Clazomenae is
credited with expressing them earlier. Those who thought thus stated that there
is a principle of things which is at the same time the cause of beauty, and that
sort of cause from which things acquire movement. [Metaphysics book I, 984b18
Without doubt, the idea became influential as a result of Aristotle. He argues (in Book 12 of the Metaphysics) that the world is moved by an eternal prime mover who is the source of all process and change, while not itself subject to process or change. This substance does what is the highest form of life ought to do, namely to think. ‘The rule of many is not good; one ruler let there be.’ Thomas Aquinas finally unified Catholic and ancient Greek with this idea at its centre.
Sed pluralitas principatuum non est bonum. Sicut non esset bonum quod essent
diversae familiae in una domo, quae invicem non communicarent. Unde relinquitur
quod totum universum est sicut unus principatus et unum regnum. Et ita oportet
quod ordinetur ab uno gubernatore. Et hoc est quod concludit, quod est unus
princeps totius universi, scilicet primum movens, et primum intelligibile, et
primum bonum, quod supra dixit Deum, qui est benedictus in saecula saeculorum.
Amen. [Commentary on the Metaphysics, book 12]

*Note (quick advertisement for the Logic Museum) that the Museum is still, AFAIK, the only place on the internet where you can link to Aristotle via Bekker numbers. The coverage and scope of Aristotle, and the medieval writers who cited his work, is increasing all the time.

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Monday, December 06, 2010

Cantor's Angel

The brief argument I gave here needs expanding. I wrote:
Every day I wake up from sleep, that 'little slice of death', and become
conscious. Imagine the following thought-experiment. I wake up an infinite
number of times. Could I have a conscious moment after that infinite sequence?
Is it possible that there could be a waking moment belonging to my consciousness
such that there are an infinite number of waking moments before that? Surely
not. I can't think of an argument to prove it, rather, it seems an irreducible
part of my idea of consciousness that I cannot conceive of an actual or
'completed' infinity of conscious moments.
Imagine the following thought-experiment. My soul is in hell, and I am being tormented by a demon dentist who is removing my teeth by drilling through their nerves in an exquisitely painful way. My agonising screams are echoing through the halls of the inferno. After all my teeth are removed, they are supernaturally replaced, and the whole process begins again. I understand that this process is to continue infinitely. (There is a colourful depiction of the infinity of hell by James Joyce here).

While I am waiting for the demon to replace my teeth, a Cantorean angel whispers to me. I must not despair. After this process has been repeated infinitely many times, my soul will enter a transfinite Cantorean paradise. I will still be conscious of every one of the infinite moments that has passed in hell. But those moments will now be behind me. They have all happened, infinitely many of them, an infinite number of teeth drilled out and replaced.

Now I ask. Does the pronouncement give me any hope? Surely not. I cannot hope ever to escape this infinite painful process; I have no hope. But if the consciousness in the Cantorean paradise were my consciousness, I would have such a hope. Therefore the consciousness in the Cantorean paradise cannot be my consciousness.

My consciousness is a set of conscious moments tied together by their belonging to a single consciousness. Any future moment must be such that I can hope or expect to experience it by the process of waiting. Thus no future moment of the same consciousness can be such that it is preceded by an infinite number of such moments belonging. For I cannot hope or expect the experience of such a moment. I would be waiting for and expecting something that will never happen to me. (I concede it is logically possible that such a moment could happen to someone else, who was remembering my conscious moments as if they were my own, but more on that later).

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Saturday, December 04, 2010

Completion and consciousness

Of course the argument I gave yesterday is a blatant fallacy. We have


  • Achilles will not reach the tortoise before the sequence is completed
  • The sequence is never completed.
but the word 'complete' is being used in different senses in the two propositions, and so the one does not imply the other. In the first sense it means 'happened', and since it seems possible for every event in the infinite sequence to have happened, it is therefore possible for the sequence to be 'complete' in that sense. In the second sense it means something like 'terminated', and in that sense the second proposition seems false. If the sequence were terminated at some point, then Achilles will not reach the tortoise, but we have no argument that it will not be terminated.

But the idea of completion suggests another argument. Every day I wake up from sleep, that 'little slice of death', and become conscious. Imagine the following thought-experiment. I wake up an infinite number of times. Could I have a conscious moment after that infinite sequence? Is it possible that there could be a waking moment belonging to my consciousness such that there are an infinite number of waking moments before that? Surely not. I can't think of an argument to prove it, rather, it seems an irreducible part of my idea of consciousness that I cannot conceive of an actual or 'completed' infinity of conscious moments. (Complete in the first sense of 'already happened').

You object: what if I failed to wake at some point, an infinite number of days passed, and then I woke up? I reply: physical time and conscious time are different. If I go to sleep on Saturday, and an infinite number of days pass, and I wake up, it is no different for me than if I had woken up on Sunday. I cannot conceive of a sequence of infinite waking moments that I can ever 'escape from', in the sense that every one of those moments was behind me. Perhaps there could be some consciousness after such a sequence, but it would not be my consciousness.

Thus any two waking consciousnesses of mine must be connected by a series of finite waking moments. Which leads to the following paradox. Given that every moment of my consciousness is in a sense a waking moment - the only difference being the lapse of physical time which we assume occurs during sleep, and which we assume does not occur when we are waking - and given that any series of conscious moments belong to my consciousness must be finite, how is it that are consciousness also appears continuous. i.e. there are no obvious gaps or 'flickers' in consciousness such as we see in the early movies? How can consciousness be both discrete and continuous?

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Friday, December 03, 2010

Two masters of the beat

Joe Morello from 1961, John Bonham from 1971. The influence is clear. Mick Wall recounts

The best thing Bill [Harvey, a friend of Bonham's in the early sixties] ever did
for you was to introduce you to the Dave Brubeck quartet, whose drummer Joe
Morell was famous for his finger control technique - this weird bloody thing he
did with his fingers, tapping on the snare drum in a way that made it sound
like a lion's roar one minute, then doing something else that made it sound like
a bow and arrow the next. You couldn't get over the idea of using your bare
hands on the drums. You thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. Then
Bill showed you another 'great pattern' from a Humphrey Lyttleton recording he had
called 'Caravan', where the drummer played floor-toms with his hands. You
couldn't get over it and begged Bill to show you how it was done. 'Forget it',
he'd said. But you bloody well did, mate. You bloody fucking well did!
(Mick Wall, When Giants Walked the Earth , 2008, p/36)

It's easy to forget the influence that jazz (as well as folk) had on the development of modern rock music in the 1960s.

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The essence of Socrates

I am whiling away the time by working on a translation of Burley’s Questions on the Perihermenias. The question on essence and existence is fascinating, but it is almost a parody (and thus a self-parody) of a scholastic quaestio. A sample:

‘Socrates is the essence of Socrates’ is false – for if Socrates and
his essence were the same, whatever were a part of Socrates would be a part of
the essence of Socrates, and then the foot of Socrates would be a foot of the
essence of Socrates, and belonging to the essence of Socrates.

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Completing Zeno

Let's restate the Zeno argument as follows.

(1) At time t2 Achilles reaches a point where the tortoise was at t1, at t3 he reaches the point where the tortoise was at t2, at t4 he reaches the point where the tortoise was at t3, and so on.

(2) Achilles will not reach the tortoise before the sequence outlined in (1) above is completed,

(3) The sequence is never completed.

(4) Achilles will never reach the tortoise.

Unlike the IEP version I referenced below, the conclusion appears to follow logically from the premisses. Furthermore, it does not rely on assumptions like 'cannot do infinitely many things in a finite time'. It relies simply on the definition of an infinite sequence as one which is endless, not terminated, not completed.

Well it appears valid, but is it? More tomorrow, and comments welcome.

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Thursday, December 02, 2010

De Hebdomadibus

Boethius logical-theological work De Hebdomadibus now in the Logic Museum, in the usual parallel Latin-English layout.

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