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.

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'.

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’.

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?

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.

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?


(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.

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.

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.

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'.

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.

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.

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

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?"

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'.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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?

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.

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.

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.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

De Hebdomadibus

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

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

More on Zeno

I asked earlier how the four premisses of Zeno's argument given in the IEP imply the conclusion that Achilles never reaches the tortoise.

Clearly there are other assumptions that have to be made. There is the ‘and so on’ of premiss 4. But how does that work? Suppose Achilles aims at the exact spot Y where he is going to overtake the tortoise. Clearly when he has reached that spot, he will have reached the tortoise. If he reaches any spot X before that, he will have not reached the tortoise. So all the ‘argument’ appears to be saying, it seems, is that if we take any point X before Y, then there is some distance to go. And if we take any spot X’ between Y and X, there is still some distance to be ‘and so on’. But this ‘and so on’ doesn’t prove anything. It proves simply (or rather, it assumes that) we can take any distance whatever, and cut it somewhere. How does that prove ‘Achilles will never reach the tortoise’?

Graham Priest has a slightly different version of the argument. He says (I paraphrase) In order to get from a to b, you must first get to each point between a and b. But there are infinitely many points between a and b. Hidden premiss: to get to something = to do something. Therefore to get from a to b in a finite time, you must do infinitely many things. But you can’t do infinitely many things in a finite time. Therefore etc. But there is much to challenge there. Is the hidden premiss correct? Is ‘getting to’ a point the same as ‘doing something’? Can we actually ‘get to’ a mathematical point? How? We can cross such a point, of course. But then the argument amounts to this: there are infinitely many collections of finite distances between a and b, and we can traverse any such collection in a finite time. Indeed, clearly we can, for the total length of any such collection will be the length between a and b.

Aristotle mentions the argument several times in the Physics, arguing that we must distinguish the ‘actual’ from the ‘potential’ infinite, but this distinction is not very clear. I don't have the book to hand, so will post something later.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Is Zeno's Paradox a Paradox?

Brandon Watson has a discussion on Zeno's Paradox here. He refers to a version of the argument given at the Internet Enyclopedia, but I don't follow it. The salient points are listed below. I can see that 1-4 are true. But why is 5 true? How are 1-4 supposed to imply 5?

1. The tortoise has a head start, so if Achilles hopes to overtake it, he must run at least to the place where the tortoise presently is
2. But by the time he arrives there, it will have crawled to a new place.
3. So then Achilles must run to this new place.
4. But the tortoise meanwhile will have crawled on, and so forth.
5. Achilles will never catch the tortoise, says Zeno.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

A philosophical scandal

Freddoso writes:

It is something of a philosophical scandal that most of the major works of
William of Ockham, himself an Englishman, have yet to be translated into
English. The Summa Logicae, which contains Ockham's most
extensive treatment of logic and philosophy of language, is a case in point.
Even given the translation of part II found here and Michael Loux's recent
translation of part I, more than half of the Summa Logicae remains
untranslated [Ockham's Theory of Propositions, Indiana 1998] .

Freddoso was writing in 1998, and since then the second part of Part III has been translated by John Longeway (and discussed here in a number of posts). But still (as far as I know) there is no translation of the first part of III (on syllogisms, which covers Aristotle's Prior Analytics) and the third part (on consequences, which broadly cover the Topics). There is also much of the Ordinatio that remains.

This is partly explained by the fact that Ockham has had no 'champions'. Aquinas' work has received attention since the nineteenth century because of his role in the intellectual history of the Catholic church. Scotus has always received the support of the Franciscans (although there is less of Scotus in English than Aquinas). Because of Ockham's perceived apostasy, and perhaps because he was perceived as a 'Catholic philosopher' by the early moderns, has received no such attention.

But it is still a scandal that the works of one of England's greatest philosophers have never been completely translated into English.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Faith, understanding and apostasy

The second of the second part of Summa Theologiae now available in the Logic Museum. Questions 1-7 on the object of faith; the virtue of faith; the cause and effects of faith; questions 8 and 9 on understanding and knowledge, and questions on unbelief, heresy, apostasy and blasphemy.

Augustine on Adam's sin

Advent is nearly here and I shall try to revive my custom of publishing a seasonal Latin hymn. Here is one from three years ago (actually from as long ago as the 12th century). It begins Fregit Adam interdictum – Adam broke God’s commandment, and left the punishment of his sin to all his descendants. One of the themes of Advent is the reminder of this original sin, as well as what follows from it – the hope for a saviour, the virgin birth, the defeat of sin and the Devil.

Below is a passage from Augustine’s City of God, which proves that original sin exists. The evidence for it is the ‘host of cruel ills’ which the world is filled with. These can be restrained by laws and punishments, but law and punishment is itself a means of restraining the evil desires that we are born with. Even great innocence is not a sufficient protection against the evil of this world, for God permits even young infants to be tormented in this life, teaching us ‘to bewail the calamities of this life, and to desire the felicity of the life to come’.

At the end he observes that as well as the gift of grace, there is also the gift of philosophy which – he cites Cicero with apparent approval – is the greatest gift that the gods have given to man.

“That the whole human race has been condemned in its first origin, this life
itself, if life it is to be called, bears witness by the host of cruel ills with
which it is filled. Is not this proved by the profound and dreadful ignorance
which produces all the errors that enfold the children of Adam, and from which
no man can be delivered without toil, pain, and fear? Is it not proved by his
love of so many vain and hurtful things, which produces gnawing cares, disquiet,
griefs, fears, wild joys, quarrels, lawsuits, wars, treasons, angers, hatreds,
deceit, flattery, fraud, theft, robbery, perfidy, pride, ambition, envy,
murders, parricides, cruelty, ferocity, wickedness, luxury, insolence,
impudence, shamelessness, fornications, adulteries, incests, and the numberless
uncleannesses and unnatural acts of both sexes, which it is shameful so much as
to mention; sacrileges, heresies, blasphemies, perjuries, oppression of the
innocent, calumnies, plots, falsehoods, false witnessings, unrighteous
judgments, violent deeds, plunderings, and whatever similar wickedness has found
its way into the lives of men, though it cannot find its way into the conception
of pure minds?

These are indeed the crimes of wicked men, yet they
spring from that root of error and misplaced love which is born with every son
of Adam. For who is there that has not observed with what profound ignorance,
manifesting itself even in infancy, and with what superfluity of foolish
desires, beginning to appear in boyhood, man comes into this life, so that, were
he left to live as he pleased, and to do whatever he pleased, he would plunge
into all, or certainly into many of those crimes and iniquities which I
mentioned, and could not mention?

But because God does not wholly desert those whom He condemns, nor shuts up in His anger His tender mercies, the human race is restrained by law and instruction, which keep guard against the ignorance that besets us, and oppose the assaults of vice, but are themselves full of labor and sorrow.

For what mean those multifarious threats which are
used to restrain the folly of children? What mean pedagogues, masters, the
birch, the strap, the cane, the schooling which Scripture says must be given a
child, "beating him on the sides lest he wax stubborn," Sirach 30:12 and it be
hardly possible or not possible at all to subdue him? Why all these punishments,
save to overcome ignorance and bridle evil desires-these evils with which we
come into the world? For why is it that we remember with difficulty, and without
difficulty forget? learn with difficulty, and without difficulty remain
ignorant? are diligent with difficulty, and without difficulty are indolent?
Does not this show what vitiated nature inclines and tends to by its own weight,
and what succor it needs if it is to be delivered?

Inactivity, sloth, laziness, negligence, are vices which shun labor, since labor, though
useful, is itself a punishment.But, besides the punishments of childhood,
without which there would be no learning of what the parents wish,-and the
parents rarely wish anything useful to be taught,-who can describe, who can
conceive the number and severity of the punishments which afflict the human
race,-pains which are not only the accompaniment of the wickedness of godless
men, but are a part of the human condition and the common misery,-what fear and
what grief are caused by bereavement and mourning, by losses and condemnations,
by fraud and falsehood, by false suspicions, and all the crimes and wicked deeds
of other men? For at their hands we suffer robbery, captivity, chains,
imprisonment, exile, torture, mutilation, loss of sight, the violation of
chastity to satisfy the lust of the oppressor, and many other dreadful evils.
What numberless casualties threaten our bodies from without,-extremes of heat
and cold, storms, floods, inundations, lightning, thunder, hail, earthquakes,
houses falling; or from the stumbling, or shying, or vice of horses; from
countless poisons in fruits, water, air, animals; from the painful or even
deadly bites of wild animals; from the madness which a mad dog communicates, so
that even the animal which of all others is most gentle and friendly to its own
master, becomes an object of intenser fear than a lion or dragon, and the man
whom it has by chance infected with this pestilential contagion becomes so
rabid, that his parents, wife, children, dread him more than any wild beast!
What disasters are suffered by those who travel by land or sea! What man can go
out of his own house without being exposed on all hands to unforeseen accidents?
Returning home sound in limb, he slips on his own doorstep, breaks his leg, and
never recovers. What can seem safer than a man sitting in his chair? Eli the
priest fell from his, and broke his neck. How many accidents do farmers, or
rather all men, fear that the crops may suffer from the weather, or the soil, or
the ravages of destructive animals? Commonly they feel safe when the crops are
gathered and housed. Yet, to my certain knowledge, sudden floods have driven the
laborers away, and swept the barns clean of the finest harvest.

Is innocence a sufficient protection against the various assaults of demons? That
no man might think so, even baptized infants, who are certainly unsurpassed in
innocence, are sometimes so tormented, that God, who permits it, teaches us
hereby to bewail the calamities of this life, and to desire the felicity of the
life to come. As to bodily diseases, they are so numerous that they cannot all
be contained even in medical books. And in very many, or almost all of them, the
cures and remedies are themselves tortures, so that men are delivered from a
pain that destroys by a cure that pains. Has not the madness of thirst driven
men to drink human urine, and even their own? Has not hunger driven men to eat
human flesh, and that the flesh not of bodies found dead, but of bodies slain
for the purpose? Have not the fierce pangs of famine driven mothers to eat their
own children, incredibly savage as it seems? In fine, sleep itself, which is
justly called repose, how little of repose there sometimes is in it when
disturbed with dreams and visions; and with what terror is the wretched mind
overwhelmed by the appearances of things which are so presented, and which, as
it were so stand out before the senses, that we can not distinguish them from
realities! How wretchedly do false appearances distract men in certain diseases!
With what astonishing variety of appearances are even healthy men sometimes
deceived by evil spirits, who produce these delusions for the sake of perplexing
the senses of their victims, if they cannot succeed in seducing them to their

From this hell upon earth there is no escape, save through the
grace of the Saviour Christ, our God and Lord. The very name Jesus shows this,
for it means Saviour; and He saves us especially from passing out of this life
into a more wretched and eternal state, which is rather a death than a life. For
in this life, though holy men and holy pursuits afford us great consolations,
yet the blessings which men crave are not invariably bestowed upon them, lest
religion should be cultivated for the sake of these temporal advantages, while
it ought rather to be cultivated for the sake of that other life from which all
evil is excluded. Therefore, also, does grace aid good men in the midst of
present calamities, so that they are enabled to endure them with a constancy
proportioned to their faith. The world's sages affirm that philosophy
contributes something to this,-that philosophy which, according to Cicero, the
gods have bestowed in its purity only on a few men. They have never given, he
says, nor can ever give, a greater gift to men. So that even those against whom
we are disputing have been compelled to acknowledge, in some fashion, that the
grace of God is necessary for the acquisition, not, indeed, of any philosophy,
but of the true philosophy. And if the true philosophy-this sole support against
the miseries of this life-has been given by Heaven only to a few, it
sufficiently appears from this that the human race has been condemned to pay
this penalty of wretchedness. And as, according to their acknowledgment, no
greater gift has been bestowed by God, so it must be believed that it could be
given only by that God whom they themselves recognize as greater than all the
gods they worship.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Ockham's Razor

"Ockham's Razor" is a misnomer. The phrase itself was not coined until 1852 by Hamilton. The modern formulation of the princple, 'Entities should not be multiplied without necessity', is not found in exactly this wording in the medieval literature, and it seems to have originated with the Scotist Commentator, John Ponce of Cork in 1639. The medieval wording, used by both Scotus and Ockham, was 'Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate' - 'plurality is not to be posited without necessity', and 'Frustra fit per plura, quod potest fieri per pauciora' - 'it is vain to make through several, that which can be made through fewer'.

Neither of these capture Ockham's nominalism - a realist may agree that entities should not be multiplied without necessity, but he (or she) will argue against the nominalist that universals re necessary. Ockham neatly formulates a principle that captures his nominalism in Summa book I, chapter 51, where he accuses 'the moderns' of two errors, and says that the root of the second error is to multiply entities according to the multiplicity of terms and to suppose that every term has something real corresponding to it. He says grumpily that this is erroneous and leads far away from the truth. ('Secunda radix est multiplicare entia secundum multitudinem terminorum, et quod quilibet terminus habet quid rei; quod tamen abusivum est et a veritate maxime abducens').

There is more about the myth of the Razor here.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Reply to Freeman

Charles Freeman has commented on my last post in a way that misunderstands my point so fundamentally that it probably needs stating again, more clearly. It was as follows.

1. Many of Aristotle's scientific explanations are obviously wrong.

2. On the assumption that Greek science ended in the 4th century, Greek science had about 700 years to correct these obvious errors. But it didn't (in the sense that it did not arrive at a consensus of where Aristotle was wrong).

The first point is not simply that Aristotle was wrong. It was that he was obviously wrong. For example, he states in De Caelo (tr. Guthrie, Cambridge 1960 pp. 49-51) that if a weight falls a certain distance in a given time, a greater weight will move faster, with a speed proportional to its weight. This is obviously wrong: obvious in a way that his statement about why glass is transparent is not obviously wrong. To refute his theory about glass requires instrumentation and a complex atomic theory, neither of which was available to Aristotle. So while his transparency theory is wrong, it was not obviously wrong. But to refute his theory about falling bodies requires only a few simple experiments. In the 6th century A.D., loannes Philoponus challenged this as follows.

But this [i.e. Aristotle's theory] is completely erroneous, and our view may be
corroborated by actual observation more effectively than by any sort of verbal
argument. For if you let fall from the same height two weights of which one is
many times as heavy as the other, you will see that the ratio of the times
required for the motion does not depend on the ratio of the weights, but that
the difference in time is a very small one." [M. R. Cohen and I. E. Drabkin, "A
Source Book in Greek Science" (McGraw Hill. N.Y.) 220 (1948) - my emphasis].
So my first point stands: some of Aristotle's scientific observations are obviously wrong, in a way that the technology and understanding of the time could easily have shown. On my second point, that Greek science did not correct these obvious mistakes, the history shows that clearly enough. You may object that Philoponus was Greek, and that he spotted at least one obvious error. I reply: Philoponus' observation does not amount to a scientific consensus. We make progress in science when we arrive at a view that is not necessarily correct, but which is accepted by a majority, or a significant majority, of the scientific community. This was not properly achieved until Galileo. And note also that Philoponus was writing somewhat later than Freeman's 'cutoff point' of 381 AD. Moreover, he was a Christian thinker.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Aquinas on the Perihermenias

Just out, Thomas Aquinas' commentary on Aristotle's Perihermenias (also known as De Intepretatione). the commentary was probably written between 1269 and 1271, following his other 'Aristotelian' commentaries such as on the Posterior Analytics and on the Metaphysics. There are some notes on the Perihermenias, together with links to other commentaries (including this one) here.

I see Charles Freeman has just commented on an earlier post - welcome Charles. There were dozens, if not hundreds of medieval commentaries on this logical work by Aristotle. Many of them were written before the thirteenth century - Abelard's being the most notable of those.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The problem of Aristotle

I have just noticed The Closing of the Western Mind by Charles Freeman. The thesis is that after Constantine declared Christianity the state religion in 312, the church successfully quashed any challenges to its religious and political authority, in particular any challenges arising from the tradition of Greek rationalism and (in effect) held up human development for a thousand years until the Renaissance.

The difficulty with any such view is that it must face up to the 'problem of Aristotle'. If there really was a 'spirit of Greek rationalism', why did Greek science and philosophy apparently not advance much beyond Aristotle, writing in the fourth century BC, and Constantine in 312 (that's about 700 years)? And if Christian dogma was really that stifling, how was it that Western science developed from the rediscovery of Aristotle's work at the end of the 12th century to the scientific revolution in the 17th century (that's about 500 years)?

It is particularly difficult to explain given that (as I noted here, and as everyone knows) Aristotelian science is so spectularly wrong. Nearly all his scientific views are false, indeed spectacularly and obviously false, and in a way that the simplest experiment would confirm. How did the Greeks did not notice this? As Hannam notes (God's Philosophers chapter 11), simple observation of the trajectory of an arrow or of a ball thrown through the air, noted by Albert of Saxony as early as the 14th century, would have refuted a considerable part of Aristotle's physics.

Why and how was it that the medieval West eventually progressed well beyond Aristotle's science, when Greek culture did not? Constantine's state religion seems completely irrelevant.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Hasty generalisation?

After a demanding and sometimes painful week with Longeway I am taking it relatively easy with James Hannam's Gods of the Philosophers. "With an engaging fervour, James Hannam has set about rescuing the reputation of a bunch of half-forgotten thinkers, and he shows how they paved the way for modern science" says Boris Johnson, no less.

It is an engaging and entertainingly written book, whose purpose is to show the extent of scientific progress in the Middle Ages, and to dispel some prevalent and persistent myths about the period. I can't find serious fault so far (I have reached the 'condemnations' of 1277). While it has no news for students of the period, being mostly taken from (generally reliable and authoritative) secondary sources, the subject desperately needs a popular audience, and Hannam has succeeded brilliantly

Yet it has attracted fierce criticism. Charles Freeman, author of The Closing of the Western Mind, attacked the book in an essay in New Humanist, arguing that it presents a distorted view of the medieval period.

God’s Philosophers is ... poorly structured, without a
coherent argument and often misleading, either through making assertions for
which there is no, or contrary, evidence or by omitting evidence that would
weaken its case. The review that called it “a spirited jaunt” was spot on. It
catches the mood of serendipitous ramblings, anecdotes and asides that make it
an easy read but hardly a serious contribution to our understanding of medieval
and sixteenth century science. Its success is mystifying.
Hannam replied, and Freeman followed with a further critique.

I won't attempt any serious analysis of these, except to note Freeman's frequent accusation of Hannam's 'sweeping assertions'. Generalisation is difficult to avoid when you are attempting to cover nearly a thousand years of intellectual history in 300 pages. So far, Hannam has avoided it very well. His main arguments is are from example. He gives many stories and accounts, all sourced, showing the extent of medieval innovation. Many of them are simply intended to debunk myth and prejudice (I was particularly struck by the revelation that the synthesis of hydrochloric, sulphuric and nitric acid first occurred in the West in the thirteenth century, and not earlier in the Middle East). The only hint of generalisation I have found so far is on page 105. Hannam writes:
The condemnations [of 1277 when 219 propositions were banned in Paris] and
Thomas's Summa Theologiae had created a framework within which natural
philosophers could safely pursue their studies. The framework first defined
clear boundaries between natural philosophy and theology. This allowed the
philosophers to get on with the study of nature without being tempted to indulge
in illicit metaphysical speculation. Then the framework laid down the principle
that God had decreed the laws of nature but was not bound by them. Finally, it
stated that Aristotle was sometimes wrong [...] and if Aristotle could be wrong
about something that he regarded as completely certain, that threw his whole
philosophy into question. The way was clear for the natural philosophers of the
Middle Ages to move decisively beyond the achievements of the Greeks (God's
p. 105).
The passage is not sourced, and Hannam does not explain clearly the logic for his assertion. It is one of at least three views which Hyman and Walsh summarise it as follows.
Most scholars agree that these condemnations had a profound effect on the
history of medieval thought, but they disagree as to the nature and significance
of that effect. The condemnations have been called [1] a brutal victory
Augustinianism over Aristotelianism, but Aristotle flourished in the schools
after as well as before. It has been said [2] that by freeing the later Middle Ages
from the domination of a rigid Averroistic Aristotelianism, the way was opened
for the development of natural science as the inquiry into nature rather than
the dogmatic reiteration of the Aristotelian corpus. But surely this exaggerates
the monolithic character of the acceptance of Aristotle even by masters such as
Siger of Brabant, and underestimates the continued influence of Aristotle and
Averroes on the development of natural science. A more general and widely
accepted view [3] is that with the Condemnation of 1277, the scholastic effeort to
inforporate and renovate philosophy came to an end. But this surely
underestimates the philosophical advances, especially the methodological ones,
of the later period.
But it is a recognised view for all that. So far there is very little of distortion or falsification. I recommend the book.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Ockham: the founder of European empiricism

I am finally getting to the meaty parts of Longeway's book*. He says at the beginning (p.2), and in the 'Ockham and his [medieval] predecessors approached some of the most fundamental problems of a scientific empiricism, both ancient and modern'and that 'Ockham may reasonably be regarded as the founder of empiricism in the European tradition'. This is strong and heady stuff and was a clinching reason for buying the book. After 100 pages, we are getting towards some of the reasons.

I understand Longeway's argument as follows. According to Ockham (Summa I.26), there are three kinds of definition. (1) A nominal definition is a way of setting the meaning of the defined term, and so a is true in virtue of the meaning of the term. E.g. 'a bachelor is an unmarried man. (2) Two kinds of real definition. A metaphysical definition indicates genus and difference, for example 'a man is a rational [differentia] animal [genus]'. (3) A natural definition (Spade translates this as physical definition) is one which signifies obliquely essential parts of the thing defined. For example, 'a triangle is a figure contained by three straight lines'.

Ockham argues (Summa II.ii.35, cited in Longeway p. 112) says that any attempted demonstration will depend upon either the nominal definition of the attribute, and so beg the question, or a metaphysical definition, which is essentially inexplicable and provides no scientific assistance, or a natural definition. Only demonstration using natural definition is truly scientific.

Let's flesh this out. The Aristotelian model for scientific demonstration is as follows.

A B is a C
An A is a B
Therefore, an A is a C

To explain why A is C, Aristotle says we must find a 'middle term' B which is common to A and C. But it is clearly not enough for B simply to be synonymous with C, otherwise the syllogism would beg the question. For example

An unmarried man is a bachelor
John is an unmarried man
Therefore, John is a bachelor.

To understand the term 'batchelor' you have to understand that it means 'unmarried man'. Thus the conclusion moves us no further than the minor premiss 'John is an unmarried man' It expresses the same thing in different terms, having the same meaning, and the 'reasoning' is trivial. Nor is a 'metaphysical definition' of any assistance. We can have a direct intellectual grasp of a thing, but only of its genus, as a whole, 'without any insight into its metaphysical structure' (p.114). 'A demonstration rooted in a grasp of metaphysical definition of the primary subject of an attribute can only occur after this life'.

The only case where true demonstration is possible is in the case where the middle term involves a natural definition. And this can only happen where the subject is something composite. Longeway cites (p. 113) the example of a triangle, with spatial parts arranged in such a way that an analysis of its structure will tell us that it has the attribute in question. This is what happens in geometry and mathematics.

This means that there can be no true scientific explanation of things which are essentially simple. Ockham thinks we cannot explain heat, for example, because we cannot explain it in terms of of composition and mathematics. As Longeway explains it "The natural definition of an attribute is of no assistance here for the straightforward reason that a simple quality such as heat has no variety or structure of essential parts, but is rather uniformly alike in every one of its parts. No mechanism by which heat heats is there to uncover. It just heats. And this can only be known from experience" (p. 113)

We can only apply mathematical techniques to things in nature which they are composite, and which can be defined in terms of their material parts. Thus (for Ockham) we cannot have a scientific explanation of substance. Ockham still holds to the Aristotelian view that the causal properties of a substance cannot be explained in terms of the substance's parts. According to Aristotle, substances are essentially simple. Their properties follow from their substantial form (the essence of a substance, corresponding to a species). A substantial form is what is signified by the definiens of a definition. A substantial form is a universal (since only universals are definable - see Metaphysics Z8 1034a6-8). A substantial form is immaterial (because a substance is a combination of material and form). A substantial form is simple (Metaphysics Z12). If the properties of a species could be explained by composition, a substance would not be an essential unity, and so would not be a substance, but a collection of substances.

This is interesting, but doesn't really explain why we should regard Ockham as the founder of European empiricism. As Longeway points out, real progress only began when Descartes and Boyle "insisted on mathematical-mechanical modes of explanation connecting one accident of material substance to another, rather than explanations of the first attributes of material substance". (p.115) One of the essential ingredients of modern science is the rejection of the Aristotelian doctrine of substantial forms. (See Locke about this here, especially section 10). Since Ockham did not reject substantial forms, why should we regard him as the founder of modern science?

Longeway gives no convincing reply to this line of reasoning, except for suggesting that once Ockham has shown the impossibility of scientific explanation using metaphysical definition, it is tempting to look for explanations in terms of natural definition.

we know that early modern scientists were so tempted, and Descartes and others
rejected the assujmption immaterial substantial forms underlying biological
properties precisely because such an assumption did nothing to provide an
understanding why animals and plants have the properties in question. (p 115)
Since our only tool for understanding why is analysis in terms of material parts and the application of mathematics, it would be natural to be tempted by materialist reductionism in biology.

* Demonstration and Scientific Knowledge in William of Ockham: A Translation of Summa Logicae III-II: De Syllogismo Demonstrativo, and Selections from the Prologue to the Ordinatio.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The end of the first of the second

The last questions of Prima Secundae, the first part of the second book of Summa Theologiae. Questions 106-108 and Questions 109-114 now available.

Is it cruel to believe in Hell?

Is the belief cruel? You might say that God is cruel. But is the person who believes this of God also cruel? Why? If God does not exist, no one has or will be punished, and so no one is hurt. If God exists, but does not intend to punish souls in this way, the same applies. Cruelty can only exist when there is an object of cruelty.

But if God exists and does intend punish souls in this way, then that is the fact of the matter. There is nothing that the believer can do to prevent the suffering.

David Hume had the interesting theory that all professed believers are really atheists. He says that all Catholics condemn the St Bartholomew's massacre as cruel and inhumane. Yet these are the same people, he says, who condemn non-Catholics to eternal torment 'without scruple'.

Currently being discussed at the Quodlibet forum.

Wikipedia admits plagiarism

Yesterday's post saw a burst of traffic from Wikipedia, of all places. The fuss over this particular incident will down, but there are two important principles to be gathered from this.

The first is that most of the people now on the project do not possess the skills to develop an accurate and comprehensive reference work. As we just saw, a senior person on the project has defended his outright plagiarism by admitting he cannot write. Another of his colleague agrees, making the extraordinary statement that "plagiarism … is not only rampant, it is a standard editorial practice throughout the project". Crowdsourcing doesn't work.

The second is the lengths the adminstration will go to stifle any legimitimate criticism of the project. An editor (not me) who raised an earlier alarm about plagiarism was promptly blocked by the same person who said that plagiarism is now standard practice. The edit history of the plagiarist has been erased - if you click on the links in my previous post you will see they no longer work. Any discussion of the incident has been stifled. A long-term content contributor complained about this and was promptly blocked as well . More details here.

Of course, all organisations have the tendency to stifle debate and legitimate criticism. But Wikipedia takes this to extremes, which is especially ironic given its commitment to 'free culture' and 'open source'. Or is it? When being free and open really means stealing, it's difficult to be free and open, isn't it?

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Plagiarism now and then

I've commented before that many of Wikipedia's articles are plagiarised from out of date sourceslike the Catholic Encyclopedia and Encyclopedia Britannica. Actually a lot of them are plagiarised from more current sources. The table below compares the article on an American Buddhist temple written by a member of the prestigious Arbitration committee with the source where he apparently obtained it from. He has since left ‘the project’ after similar concerns raised by other users, and left this touching message on his talk page. This includes the bizarre statement “I asked many people for help because I know I’m not good at writing”.

The first formal meeting was held on August 25, 1996 in York County, Virginia and was attended by many local Thais, Laotians, and Cambodians.The first formal meeting was held on August 25, 1996at the Thai Erawan Restaurant in York County, Virginia. The meeting was very successful with many local Thais, Laotians, Cambodians attended.
After the meeting, the first newsletter was published and distributed.After the meeting, the first newsletter was published and distributed.
PhraMaha Surasak Jivanando, the Abbot of Wat Thai Washington, D.C., provided advice to the group throughout the process to get the new temple functioning.PhraMaha Surasak Jivanando, the Abbot of Wat Thai Washington, D.C., who is widely known for his wisdom, kindness, and well respected, provides unending support and advice to the group.
On September 8, 1996, members of the Thai Buddhist community went to Wat Thai and had the first formal meeting with PhraMaha Surasak.Seeking his advice, on September81996, members of the Samukee Group went to Wat Thai Washington, D.C. and had the first formal meeting with PhraMaha Surasak again on November 19, 1996.
The association's first formal president, Dr. Tawatchai Onsanit, guided the organization through the first two years.The association first formal president, Dr. Tawatchai Onsanit, guided the organization through trouble water during the first two years.
Rental properties for religious functions were scarce and thus the association looked for a property to buy.It was also obvious that the rental property for religious functions were scarce. Consequently, probability of succeeding with purchase option was far greater.
The first priority was to have a place where one or two monks could reside in the Tidewater area and provide continuous spiritual leadership. The search committee finally found an affordable place in Carrolton, Isle of Wight County, Virginia.[1]… the first priority was to have a monks' residence such that one or two monks could reside in the Tide Water area and could provide continuous spiritual leadership. The search committee finally found an affordable place at 14289 Chapman's Lane in Carrolton, Isle of Wight County, Virginia.
On September 28, 1997, PhraMaha Taweepong Tawiwongso, PhraMaha Putthachak Buddhisaro, and PhraMaha Saman Methawee were invited to a local celebration of the "Sarth Thai" Day and to visit the place of interest. All monks agreed that was a perfect place for a monks' residence and a meditation center as it was rural and located in a wooded setting.On September 28, 1997, PhraMaha Taweepong Tawiwongso, PhraMahaPutthachak Buddhisaro, and PhraMahaSaman Methawee were invited to a local celebration of the "Sarth Thai"Day and to visit the place of interest. All of the monks agreed that was a perfect place for a monks' residence and a meditation center.
Upon consensus among its members, the Association presented to PhraMaha Surasak Jivanando a proposal to formally establish a monks' residence and requested that two monks reside at the place and act as local religious leaders.Upon consensus of the its members, the Association presented to PhraMaha Surasak Jivanando a proposal to formally establishing a monks' residence and requested that two monks are to reside at the place and to be local religious leaders.
On December 31, 1997, The Buddha Samukee Association bought the said parcel on Chapman's Lane for the sum of 50,000 dollars with the owner agreeing to hold a $40,000 mortgage note. The parcel consists of 6.35 acres of wooded land and a house.On December 31, 1997, The Buddha Samukee Associationbought the said parcel on Chapman's Lane for the sum of 50,000 dollars with the owner agreed to hold a $40,000 mortgage note. The parcel consists of 6.35 acres of wooded land and a house.
In January 1998, Phra Maha Surasak and other monks from Wat Thai Washington D.C. graciously accepted the invitation to visit the place and to give a blessing and a name of 'Wat Pa Santidhamma'.[1]On January 1998, Phra Maha Surasak and other monks from Wat Thai Washington D.C. were graciously accepted the invitation to visit the place and to give a blessing and a name of 'Wat Pa Santidhamma'

Thursday, November 04, 2010

The best way for a pressure group to spend its time

"The more I think about it, the more it occurs to me that this [Wikipedia] is the best way for a pressure group to spend its time" Daniel Hannan. I pointed out as much here.

Indifference to science

A few things have reminded me of philosophers' indifference to actual science. The first was my own fault. I linked to this explanation of why glass is transparent, but after second thoughts and a bit longer on Google, the explanation seems completely wrong. I suspect the explanation (if you can follow it) in Wikipedia is the correct one, although (as I constantly remind my readers) you should beware of anything you read in Wikipedia. The second reminder is the supply of amusing and interesting scientific explanations by medieval authors quoted in Longeway's book. All of them are wrong. Grosseteste gives an explanation of thunder that involves hot and cold air mixing, expanding and producing flame, then quenching the flame with an audible explosion (the thunder). Any explanation of thunder that does not involve electricity (and the associated concepts of charge) is clearly wrong. And how about this wonderfully dodgy piece of neuroscience (from Albertus Magnus, quoted in Longeway p.56).

(1) In everyone in which there is an appetite for pain in what opposes him, there is an accession of blood to the heart from the evaporation of gall;
(2) in someone who is angry there is an appetite for pain in what is opposed to him;
(3) therefore, in one who is angry there is an accession of blood to the heart from the evaporation of gall.

The science mentioned by philosophers is often very bad. That in itself does not mean they are indifferent to science, but I believe they are indifferent as well. They are philosophers, and the actual science does not affect any philosophical point being made. I can easily change the example given in my earlier post as follows

Propter quid
Light passes through any substance which neither reflects it nor absorbs it
Glass neither reflects nor absorbs light
Therefore light passes through glass.

I will leave the construction of the corresponding quia form as an exercise. Note also that you would need to combine this with further syllogism involving an account of why glass neither reflects nor absorbs light (a substance absorbs light when its electron orbitals are spaced such that they can absorb a quantum of light (or photon) of a specific frequency, and does not violate selection rules). But none of that matters. The philosophical point is the same. Similarly, we could alter Albert's example to use a favourite example (probably equally dodgy) of modern philosophers of science as follows.

In everyone in which there is an appetite for pain in what opposes him, there is an appropriate stimulation of c-fibers in the hypothalmus
in someone who is angry there is an appetite for pain in what is opposed to him;
therefore, in one who is angry there is an appropriate stimulation of c-fibers in the hypothalmus

Aristotle's point is that every scientific explanation involves interposing a 'middle' B between some empirical truth of the form 'A is C', so we get a demonstration of the form

All B is C
This A is B
Therefore this A is C

which is meant to explain why the empirical truth is really true. All scientific demonstration involves 'finding a middle', and this point can be illustrated whether or not the scientific truth 'All B is C' is bad science or not. This is all about the philosophy of science, not science itself.

Which raises a further interesting point. Given that these medieval philosophers (Grosseteste, Albert, Aquinas, Ockham) were doing philosophy of science, not science itself, does that mean that all the medieval writing about 'science' was really philosophy of science? Which raises the difficult question of whether there really was a scientific revolution in the thirteenth century. And raises yet another question: do we need the philosophy of science, or an approach resembling the one adopted by the Aristotelian philosophers, in order to explain the most fundamental and difficult problems of science? Recall the Aristotelian definition of science: knowledge arrived at by demonstration. What kind of demonstration explains the phenomenon of anger? How do we explain anger in terms of the mechanical stimulation of 'c-fibres'? What kind of stimulation would explain anger at further bouts of quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve? Is philosophical indifference to science, merely indifference to science of a certain kind? But enough for now.