The Joy of Discovery

Back in late spring of 2003, I was reading a translation of Aristotle’s De Anima, specifically III.4-5 on human thinking, and ran across a footnote that tied DA III.5 to the Metaphysics XII.7, 9. That is to say, human thinking episodically thinks the same thing as divine thinking (when each is thinking the form of a thing).

Which seems straightforward enough. But III.5 is terribly obscure, for it talks about imperishable thinking, and of course thinking is an activity of the soul, and yet in DA Bk I, Aristotle clearly notes that when a body dies the soul ceases to be. So how could imperishable thinking cease to be on the death of the body? Or, conversely, how could imperishable thinking not cease to be on the death of the body? And if it ceased to be, how could it be imperishable?

That is only one of the troubling questions. For DA III.5 is also the notorious “active intellect” (or as some call it the “maker mind”) passage. Is the active intellect that brings potential intellect into full being-at-work (i.e., “actuality”) an aspect of the human intellect, and therefore of the human soul? Or is it external to the human soul (is it, say, the divine intellect)?

And finally there is the vexing question of the relationship between theoria, which is the most divine of human intellectual activity and is a thinking of the forms, and phronesis, which is the sort of human intellectual activity that enables one to choose to act virtuously. And as Aristotle notes, eudaimonia, happiness, comes about through a life of virtue in accordance with reason (intellect).

But Aristotle tease out a seemingly contentious relationship between theoria and the life of virtue in Nicomachean Ethics X, which would seem to split human intellectual activity between the divine (theoria) and the mundane (the life of virtue). One could have the best, divine contemplation, but one usually and most often has to settle for the second best, the life of virtue, since we are inescapably social-communal animals.

And in fact EN VI seems to present a sharp distinction, even an apparent separation, between intellect (nous) and practical judgment (phronesis), the former having to do with universals–which can found true knowledge, the latter having to do with particulars and choices–upon which knowledge is impossible to found. (Very Ur-Kantian!)

But I had had an intuition that I should try (precisely because of EN X) to see if there weren’t an ethical dimension to thinking the forms. I just could not come up with any sort of reconciliation.

But then I was reading an article for my dissertation proposal and came across an almost throw-away comment by the author, about how in EN VI is another passage which unites intellect and practical judgment in the activity of the intellect which derives out of practical judgment’s ultimate particular the very universal thing one needs to know (a la the practical syllogism of EN VII) to make a deliberate and voluntary choice to act virtuously in a specific instance.

This opens up further investigation.

Ah, the joy of serendipitous discovery.

Some Free Will Reading

Back in May, when I was finishing up my paper on free will (pdf file), due to the press of time and urgency, I only quickly and partially engaged the texts that I was utilizing for my paper. (Which in part accounts for why, even by my own estimations, this is not evidence of my best work.)

In the last week I have set about to rectify that problem. I recently completed Peter van Inwagen’s classic libertarian free will text An Essay on Free Will. And I have just picked up Timothy O’Connor’s Persons and Causes: The Metaphysics of Free Will, for a much more leisurely read. I’m saving the best to last: Robert Kane’s The Significance of Free Will, which I hope to get to by the end of the week.

It was my first encounter with van Inwagen’s text, I’m a bit shamed to say. But it was an enjoyable one. I admit to having read rather quickly over his specific modal argumentatioin, but the outline of his argument is quickly summarized. It is contained in the two things he spends the majority of the book proving:

1. Determinism is incompatible with free will.

That is to say, compatibilism is not an option. Determinism and free will are mutually excluding truths, in terms of human volition/action. Either we have free will and it is up to us to freely act in accordance with our deliberations, or determinism is true and all our acts are the necessary consequences of past events and the natural laws that obtain.

Now, he does not pretend to settle the issue as to whether or not free will is irrefutably proven to be true. But he does, it seems to me, to make the excellent case that compatibilism cannot be true.

2. Moral responsibility requires free will.

While there are several accounts, along the lines of Frankfurt-style counterexamples, that argue for a compatibilist account of moral responsibility, the fact of the matter is, there are no real advocates for moral responsibility if determinism is true. But van Inwagen shows that moral responsibility is not predicated upon the outcome of acts (i.e., whether or not one could have done otherwise) but upon the volitional aspect behind human action. Part of that demonstration has to do with the argumentative weaknesses of Frankfurt-style counterexamples, but it also banks heavily on everyday intuitive language and behavior.

I think this summary quite nicely accounts for libertarian free will. By eliminating compatibilism, it really quite nicely lays out the true options. (It also heavily undercuts Reformed Calvinism as a bonus). And by grounding moral responsibility in free will it clarifies what it is one can be morally responsible for.

But of course laying out the libertarian free will case is not the end of the matter. It also matters that one be able to defend indeterminist and incompatibilistic free will against skeptical charges (that indeterminism and free will are just as exclusive of one another as are determinism and free will; i.e., that the agent’s acts are up to chance and not the agent’s control), and to provide some sort of account which will recommend it to the prevailing naturalistic mindset. O’Connor’s and Kane’s books set out to do just that.

The PhD and the Point of Philosophy

Mary Midgley’s Proud not to be a doctor (hat tip to Jason), is a good reminder of what the heck I’m doing at Loyola anyway.

I am not saying that the PhD training isn’t useful. It provides the indispensable skills of the lawyer. It shows you how to deal with difficult arguments, which is necessary in dealing with hard subjects. But that close work doesn’t help you to grasp the big questions that provide its context – the background issues out of which the small problems arose. I think there ought to be a corrective course after the PhD – a course in bypassing details to look at the whole landscape. It’s hard to do this on your own. Today’s academic system, which forces people to write articles without having time to think properly about them, makes this harder. . . .

Institutions which have to examine people train their students in fighting mock battles, and that emphasis on competition has increased out of all measure. No doubt it produces good lawyers. But the philosophers of the past were not just lawyers. They were volcanic phenomena, eccentric thinkers who located new problems and grappled with the issues of their age. Many worked outside universities. Indeed, a number – Hobbes, Berkeley, Mill, Nietzsche – growled explosively about the bad influence that universities have on thought. Today, as more people are being channelled into higher education, is it perhaps time that we looked into this?

Jesus the Logician

Dallas Willard makes some extremely important points about Jesus the Logician.

Few today will have seen the words “Jesus” and “logician” put together to form a phrase or sentence, unless it would be to deny any connection between them at all. The phrase “Jesus the logician” is not ungrammatical, any more than is “Jesus the carpenter.” But it ‘feels’ upon first encounter to be something like a category mistake or error in logical type, such as “Purple is asleep,” or “More people live in the winter than in cities,” or “Do you walk to work or carry your lunch?”

Sort of brings to mind the presidential debates of the 2000 election season in which then-Governor Bush proclaimed Jesus as the philosopher who had the most impact on him.

There is in our culture an uneasy relation between Jesus and intelligence, and I have actually heard Christians respond to my statement that Jesus is the most intelligent man who ever lived by saying that it is an oxymoron. Today we automatically position him away from (or even in opposition to) the intellect and intellectual life. Almost no one would consider him to be a thinker, addressing the same issues as, say, Aristotle, Kant, Heidegger or Wittgenstein, and with the same logical method.

This is most true in academic philosophy in the secular university (and, not infrequently true of the Christian seminary, too). Perhaps one might refer to him in a philosophy of religion class, but not in a logic or epistemology class, nor in an ethics class. Yet at least with regard to the latter, Jesus had some extremely critical ethical things to say.

Now this fact has important implications for how we today view his relationship to our world and our life–especially if our work happens to be that of art, thought, research or scholarship. How could he fit into such a line of work, and lead us in it, if he were logically obtuse? How could we be his disciples at our work, take him seriously as our teacher there, if when we enter our fields of technical or professional competence we must leave him at the door? Obviously some repositioning is in order, and it may be helped along simply by observing his use of logic and his obvious powers of logical thinking as manifested in the Gospels of the New Testament.

Is Jesus Lord or not? Do all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge inhere in him (Colossians 2:3) or not?

Willard answers in the affirmative.

Now when we speak of “Jesus the logician” we do not, of course, mean that he developed theories of logic, as did, for example, Aristotle and Frege. No doubt he could have, if he is who Christians have taken him to be. He could have provided a Begriffsschrift, or a Principia Mathematica, or alternative axiomatizations of Modal Logic, or various completeness or incompleteness proofs for various ‘languages’. (He is, presumably, responsible for the order that is represented through such efforts as these.)

He could have. Just as he could have handed Peter or John the formulas of Relativity Physics or the Plate Tectonic theory of the earth’s crust, etc. He certainly could, that is, if he is indeed the one Christians have traditionally taken him to be. But he did not do it, and for reasons which are bound to seem pretty obvious to anyone who stops to think about it. But that, in any case, is not my subject here. When I speak of “Jesus the logician” I refer to his use of logical insights: to his mastery and employment of logical principles in his work as a teacher and public figure.

So what is unique to Jesus’ use of logic?

Not only does Jesus not concentrate on logical theory, but he also does not spell out all the details of the logical structures he employs on particular occasions. His use of logic is always enthymemic, as is common to ordinary life and conversation. His points are, with respect to logical explicitness, understated and underdeveloped. The significance of the enthymeme is that it enlists the mind of the hearer or hearers from the inside, in a way that full and explicit statement of argument cannot do. Its rhetorical force is, accordingly, quite different from that of fully explicated argumentation, which tends to distance the hearer from the force of logic by locating it outside of his own mind.

Jesus’ aim in utilizing logic is not to win battles, but to achieve understanding or insight in his hearers. This understanding only comes from the inside, from the understandings one already has. It seems to “well up from within” one. Thus he does not follow the logical method one often sees in Plato’s dialogues, or the method that characterizes most teaching and writing today. That is, he does not try to make everything so explicit that the conclusion is forced down the throat of the hearer. Rather, he presents matters in such a way that those who wish to know can find their way to, can come to, the appropriate conclusion as something they have discovered–whether or not it is something they particularly care for.

“A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” Yes, and no doubt Jesus understood that. And so he typically aims at real inward change of view that would enable his hearers to become significantly different as people through the workings of their own intellect. They will have, unless they are strongly resistant to the point of blindness, the famous “eureka” experience, not the experience of being outdone or beaten down. . . .

Today, by contrast, we commonly depend upon the emotional pull of stories and images to ‘move’ people. We fail to understand that, in the very nature of the human mind, emotion does not reliably generate belief or faith, if it generates it at all. Not even ‘seeing’ does, unless you know what you are seeing. It is understanding, insight, that generates belief. In vain do we try to change peoples’ heart or character by ‘moving’ them to do things in ways that bypass their understanding. . . .

Paying careful attention to how Jesus made use of logical thinking can strengthen our confidence in Jesus as master of the centers of intellect and creativity, and can encourage us to accept him as master in all of the areas of intellectual life in which we may participate. In those areas we can, then, be his disciples, not disciples of the current movements and glittering personalities who happen to dominate our field in human terms. Proper regard for him can also encourage us to follow his example as teachers in Christian contexts. We can learn from him to use logical reasoning at its best, as he works with us. When we teach what he taught in the manner he taught it, we will see his kind of result in the lives of those to whom we minister.

May we all, I especially, seek to emulate our Lord in our conversations and dialogues with others.

And how might we bring this about?

Here I have only been suggestive of a dimension of Jesus that is commonly overlooked. This is no thorough study of that dimension, but it deserves such study. It is one of major importance for a healthy faith in him. Especially today, when the authoritative institutions of our culture, the universities and the professions, omit him as a matter of course. Once one knows what to look for in the Gospels, however, one will easily see the thorough, careful and creative employment of logic throughout his teaching activity. Indeed, this employment must be identified and appreciated if what he is saying is to be understood. Only then can his intellectual brilliance be appreciated and he be respected as he deserves.

An excellent way of teaching in Christian schools would therefore be to require all students to do extensive logical analyses of Jesus’ discourses. This should go hand in with the other ways of studying his words, including devotional practices such as memorization or lectio divina, and the like. It would make a substantial contribution to the integration of faith and learning.

While such a concentration on logic may sound strange today, that is only a reflection on our current situation. It is quite at home in many of the liveliest ages of the church.

This certainly brings a new perspective to my teaching of logic on Thursday nights!

Be sure to read the entire article linked above.

Top Ten Books Every Student Should Read While in College

Human Events Online, two years ago, contacted twenty-eight scholars to ask them what ten books every college student should read. They explain the weighting given to the compiled lists, and the rationale for each book. Here’s the straight list:

  1. The Bible
  2. Alexander Hamilton, et al, The Federalist Papers
  3. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
  4. Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy
  5. Plato, The Republic
  6. Aristotle, The Politics
  7. (tie) Aristotle, Nicomachaean Ethics
  8. (tie) St. Augustine, City of God
  9. St. Augustine, Confessions
  10. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

And here are the honorable mentions, according to ranking:

  • Natural Right and History by Leo Strauss
  • The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk
  • A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War by Harry V. Jaffa
  • Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
  • The Illiad by Homer
  • King Lear by William Shakespeare
  • The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis
  • Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
  • Aeneid by Virgil
  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  • Modern Times by Paul Johnson
  • Oedipus Trilogy by Sophocles
  • Ideas Have Consequences by Richard Weaver
  • Idea of a University by John Henry Newman
  • The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich von Hayek
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • Gorgias by Plato
  • A Humane Economy by Wilhelm Roepke
  • The Public Philosophy by Walter Lippman
  • The Roots of American Order by Russell Kirk

Conservative Syllabus

As a mirror to yesterday’s “Conservative Index” of the 19th and 20th centuries’ ten “most harmful” books, I present here an unscholarly list, in rough chronological order, of conservative must-reads of the 17th through 20th centuries taken from a survey of online conservative reading lists. (I’ve provided links to online texts. The rest can be checked out from your local library, or ordered online.)

  1. Alexander Hamilton, et. al., The Federalist Papers
  2. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
  3. Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (you might be interested in The Road to Serfdom in cartoons)
  4. Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences
  5. William F. Buckley, Jr., God and Man at Yale
  6. Whittaker Chambers, Witness
  7. Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind
  8. Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom
  9. Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative
  10. George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America

Some honorable mentions:

Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind
Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France
James Burnham, Suicide of the West
Dinesh D’Souza, Letters to a Young Conservative
Milton and Rose Friedman, Free to Choose
Henry Hazlitt, Ecnomics in One Lesson
Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order
John Locke, Second Treatise on Government
Roger Nisbet, The Quest for Community
Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservativism
Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise On Economics

More items are listed here and here.

Conservative Index

Human Events Online gives a list of the Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries:

HUMAN EVENTS asked a panel of 15 conservative scholars and public policy leaders to help us compile a list of the Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Each panelist nominated a number of titles and then voted on a ballot including all books nominated. A title received a score of 10 points for being listed No. 1 by one of our panelists, 9 points for being listed No. 2, etc. Appropriately, The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, earned the highest aggregate score and the No. 1 listing.

Each book is accompanied by a short ‘graph of rationale. But here’s just the straight list.

  1. Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto
  2. Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf
  3. Mao Zedong, Quotations from Chairman Mao
  4. Alfred Kinsey, The Kinsey Report
  5. John Dewey, Democracy and Education
  6. Karl Marx, Das Kapital
  7. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique
  8. Auguste Comte, The Course of Positive Philosophy
  9. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
  10. John Maynard Keynes, General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money

The list of scholars follows the (longer) list of honorable mentions.

Ethics and Sextus Empiricus

Sextus Empiricus lived in the late second, early third centuries AD. He was a physician and a philosopher, and the last of the followers of Pyrrho of Elis (fourth/third century BC), an early Greek sceptic. One of Sextus’ works, Outlines of Pyrrhonism (or here) (Gr. Purroneioi Hupotuposeis), is most known for this formulation of the earlier sceptical arguments. Pyrrhonian sceptics do not deny knowledge altogether. Rather, they deny that there is any way we can know something to be true. That is to say, the problems are (as in the three most important of the Agrippan modes): a) infinite regress (i. e., that one’s belief is justified by something else, which itself needs justified by something else, and so on ad infinitum), or b) circular reasoning (i. e., that one’s belief is justified by something else, but that other thing receives its justification by the belief in question), or c) dogmatism (i. e., that one’s belief is justified by simple assertion of its truth, but this is no justification). Further, and this will have bearing on our ethical discussion in a moment, there is the problem of the criterion, that is to say, the problem of getting behind how a thing appears to us and to its essential reality. (Yes, folks, this was long before Kant said the same thing in the eighteenth century, some 1600 years later. This is why I study ancient philosophy: Ad fontes!)

In the Outlines, Sextus’ criticism of ethics comes in his account of the tenth of the ten modes (at Book I Chapter XIV/146-163) and in his examination of the good, the bad and the indifferent (at Book III Chapters XXI-XXIII/168-187). Sextus issues his criticisms on two fronts: on the strength of the conflict of different ethical accounts, and on the inability to actually define the essence of the good, bad or indifferent are and to determine whether things are good, bad, or indifferent by nature.

In the tenth mode, Sextus notes that ethics is based on rules of conduct (choice of a way of life or of a particular actions adopted by one person or many), habits (joint adoption of a certain kind of action by a number of men, the transgressor of which is not actually punished), laws (written contracts among members of a state, the transgressor of which is punished), legendary beliefs (acceptance of unhistorical and fictitious events, such as the legends about Cronos), and dogmatic conceptions (acceptance of a fact which seems to be established by analogy or some form of demonstration). He then proceeds to show the contradictory nature of these five things in themselves (e. g., by opposing habit to habit and law to law; so, some of the Ethiopians tattoo their children, but we do not; or, A Roman man who renounces his fatherís property doe not pay fatherís debt, but among the Rhodians he always pays them), as well as opposing each of these five things to one another (e. g., by, among other options, opposing habit to legendary belief, and rules of conduct to law; so, Cronos devoured his children, whereas we protect our children; and homicide is forbidden, but gladiators destroy one another). In other words, since there is no agreement among the things in themselves, or between them, making up ethics, then we must suspend judgment about ethical matters, for there is no way we can judge between them as to which is true or not.

In the last half of Book Three, he returns once again to ethics, this time examining it from the standpoint of our rational conceptions about the good, the bad and the indifferent, and on the nature of these things themselves. He looks the definitions of these three concepts in three ways: essentially, accidentally, and as productive of certain ends. The differences in the definitions of these terms shows our inability to get at the “real thing.” But if we define these concepts in terms of properties, we aren’t dealing with the essential thing itself, nor can we know if these adhere to an essence if we do not know what the essence is, and if other “essential things” have similar properties, then we are even further removed. And finally, if we cannot know the essence of the thing, then we cannot know if something is productive of ends related to that thing (e. g., happiness to the good). Since we cannot know what the good, the bad or the indifferent is, in itself, we must suspend judgment.

Furthermore, since there is substantive discrepancies among accounts of the good, and one cannot argue for one account or another lest he become a partisan for that account and lose objectivity, we must suspend judgment. But even if, for the sake of argument, we take up a particular claim about the good, to what does that good apply: the body, the soul, or both together? But if to the body, then that is irrational and we cannot know it. But if to the soul, then the soul and its parts are not able to be sensorily apprehended, and we cannot know it. And if not either, than not both together. In other words, good, bad and indifferent cannot be accounted for “by nature.” As Sextus puts it: “[I]t is impossible to explain how in a heap of atoms there can come about pleasure and assent or judgment that this object is choiceworthy and good, and that object to be avoided and evil” (III.XXIII/187).

The upshot of this, however, is not what one might first think. Pyrrhonian sceptics are not relativists. They do not think there is no truth, or that all “truths” are true. They are saying that we cannot know whether those things we think are true, are, in fact, true. On what the good is, we may certainly have an opinion, but it is just that, an opinion, which cannot be grounded in reason alone. But sceptics are not anarchists. As Sextus writes:

Adhering, then, to appearances we live in accordance with the normal rules of life, undogmatically, seeing that we cannot remain wholly inactive. And it would seem that this regulation of life is fourfold, and that one part of it lies in the guidance of Nature, another in the constraint of the passions, Another in the tradition of laws and customs, another in the instruction of the arts. Nature’s guidance is that by which we are naturally capable of sensation and thought; constraint of the passions is that whereby hunger drives us to food and thirst to drink; tradition of customs and laws, that whereby we regard piety in the conduct of life as good, but impiety as evil; instruction of the arts, that whereby we are not inactive in such arts as we adopt. But we make all these statements undogmatically. (Outlines, Book I Chapter XI/23-24)

The end of the Pyrrhonian sceptic is ataraxia, quietude of soul. One is not torn between judgments and impressions, but holds the opinions he holds undogmatically. In practice, in terms of ethics, the sceptic does not make ethical judgments but simply holds to appearances without conviction. That is to say, sceptics are utterly conventional in their morals, following the general dictates of society, though not dogmatically asserting that one must do so.

But here we are into the sceptical way of life, and this is beyond my point. What I can say is that Sextus shows very well the failure of the modernist paradigm: that reason can be the sole arbiter of ethical claims. But he also shows the failure of postmodern relativism (though I have not highlighted how this is the case in the summary above). That is to say, it is a non sequitor to move from “we cannot know the good” to “there is no good to know.”

No, contra postmodernism, we are reason-endowed creatures, and that reason is a powerful tool. But contra modernism, our reason is not the final arbiter of truth. We need something extra-rational to ground truth and our claims to knowledge and ethical certainty. Apart from such grounding, reason collapses in upon itself. But reason is, nonetheless, an inescapably powerful tool for knowledge, even if real and ultimate knowledge is, as Christianity asserts, Personal.

Thus ends the summary.

[Note: Additionally, one should consult Sextus’ Against the Ethicists (Gr. Pros Ethikous), which historically came to be grouped with some other works under the title Against the Mathematicians (Gr. Pros Mathematikous) as the eleventh and final book of that collection. Jonathon Barnes and Julia Annas, The Modes of Scepticism is also a must read.]