Monday, April 22, 2013


The word “trial” seems to come up often and in various contexts these last few days. I’ve watched the news, for instance, and tried (in vain) to understand why one U.S. citizen, no matter how heinous his act, would not be given a trial like that of any other U.S. citizen – the trial in fact that forms a cornerstone of the very definition of U.S. citizenship. Thinking about that debate is itself a trial.

Traveling is also a trial in many ways. Not to mention (a self-refuting phrase that always introduces a lie!) the strange beds, unreliable diet, and lack of exercise, traveling certainly puts a ten-year reading plan on trial. I’ve been covering a little of this and a little of that, reading some of it in the car to Nancy (who graciously marked several things on my plan that she would be interested in trying out) and other parts in the little motel downtime that occurs now and then. And it has put my blogging on trial; I can’t remember the last time I waited eight days between posts.

I started Richard II the other day, and it starts right out with a trial by combat. Well, OK, the combat never comes about because King Richard decides to banish both parties instead. But the two disputants start out ready to fight, willing to submit the outcome to God as an indication of right. Submission to trial by combat transforms the philosophy of “Whatever is, is right” into “Whoever lives is right.” The Duke of York extrapolates the attitude to all of life when he says, “By bad courses may be understood that their events can never fall out good.” Flipping another old epigram, the Duke essentially says here that the ends condemn the means. We could also say that he is reexpressing the proverb that tells us a tree is known by its fruit.

I’ve also been reading with fascination, in Durant, about the papal schism of the early fifteenth century. If that tree is known by its fruit, then it was a tree that needed to be cut down or pruned or regrafted – or something! Three popes at once. France and Bohemia recognizing none of them. Councils with hundreds attending from all over Europe declaring that the wisdom of Christendom as a whole held sway over the wisdom of a single bishop, no matter how glorious (or previously glorious) his city. Clearly some huge change was in the wind. Luther didn’t appear out of nothing.

Saddest of all the tales in this section revolves around the summit between Catholic and Orthodox leaders, held first at Ferrara and then moved to Florence by the fascinating Cosimo dei Medici. According to Durant, the conferees actually agreed on the combined hierarchy of bishops and patriarchs and on the all-important doctrine of the procession of the Holy Ghost (the addition of the word filioque supposedly precipitating the break between eastern and western churches in 1054). But the eastern delegates received nothing but scorn upon their return home, so nothing came of it.

From the viewpoint of the Duke of York, it would seem that Christianity should be rejected on the basis of this decadent, disorganized chapter in its history. But Boccaccio suggests a different kind of trial in one of the stories of his Decameron. I read it years ago, but we’ve also been reading other portions of Boccaccio’s monumental collection of stories in the car, and it certainly came to mind. In the story I’m thinking of, a Muslim going to Rome to assess the leader of Latin Christendom, finds bickering, gross immorality, and a complete lack of religious piety. But he concludes that Christianity must be true in order to survive in spite of such a horrible leader.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The End of Desire

In the Peirce reader, I recently read about the logical process he calls abduction. To explain it best, I’ll offer a syllogism.
Major premise (or rule): A student who copies on a test will write many of the same answers as his neighbor, even wrong ones.
Minor premise (or case): Algernon copied off of Edna.
Conclusion (or result): Algernon’s test has many of the same answers as Edna’s, even wrong ones.
This syllogism doesn’t involve necessary truths, only probable ones. As Peirce pointed out, the realm of probable reasoning is where we live most of our time. So the definitions I learned in high school about deduction and induction don’t strictly apply here. (I have to admit it: I learned these in “Detective in Literature” class. I guess I did learn something in that weird English program after all!) Deduction supposedly leads to conclusions that must be true given the premises. (“Once you eliminate the impossible . . . ,” began literature’s most famous detective.) But here in my example the conclusion is not a completely sure thing: if Algernon feels the need to copy from Edna, he may well be the kind of student who doesn’t copy accurately. In any case, deduction is about finding the conclusion, induction about finding the major premise from a string of observed instances.

Abduction, on the other hand, as Peirce explains it, is about finding the middle proposition. Aristotle introduced me to reasoning aimed at finding the middle proposition in the Posterior Analytics. It seems he and Peirce agree that this process (which they definitely didn’t teach me about in high school!) is actually the most common, most practical process of reasoning. We see situations in the world, and we seek explanations. I find Algernon and Edna have many of the same answers, even wrong ones, so I conclude that one copied off the other. Now I want to know who copied from whom – and whether whom let who do it!

Having finished the Schopenhauer reader, I ended with the impression that it was all an exercise in abduction. Schopenhauer may have written as if he were deducing ethics from his premise of the world as Will. But as long as his ethics tells us that we should think of others and be ready to make sacrifices in order to benefit our fellow humans, it doesn’t come off as a deduction. We don’t need a revolutionary philosophy to lead us to that conclusion; most of us know it already. So it seems more likely to me that he started with these evident states of affairs and, seeking an explanation, came up with his theory that the Will that moved his arm is the reality behind every phenomenon that struck his senses, from planets to plagiarism. I kept finding myself agreeing with him on what I was to do in life and how I might learn to see the big picture, but disagreeing with him on the explanation. Whenever I read “because the world is nothing but Will” (or words to that effect) I simply substituted “because the world is the product of one Creator who made all things according to his will.”

The substitution game came to an end, though, when Schopenhauer began to talk of ascetics. People fall into five moral categories, according to Schopenhauer. The wicked take pleasure in others' suffering. The unjust cause suffering in others for their own ends. The just have seen through the “veil of Maya” (the illusion that “I” am an individual) and cause no harm to others. The noble see the unity of all things and balance will out by sacrificing their own pleasure to ease the sufferings of others. And the ascetic tries to break the cycle of suffering altogether by denying the will-to-live. Two details forced my complete break with Schopenhauer’s ethics. First, he says that the ascetic has given up his own will so entirely that death means nothing to him. It seems, though, that it might also mean everything to him in a way, since death brings its benefits to the world. Let’s jump to the punch line and point out that Schopenhauer says that if all humans died, all animal suffering would cease because no intelligent life would be present to know it. (If a deer falls in a forest and no one is there, does it make a sound of suffering?) Secondly, the ascetic who knows what Schopenhauer knows understands that his suffering will actually bring relief to someone somewhere in the cosmos just because Will always stays in balance. Put it all together, and it sounds to me as if Schopenhauer is telling people to hurt and even kill themselves for the sake of the universe.

But then the system is doomed to failure from the start. You can’t have an ethics based on the goal of denying Will: the goal itself is the object of a desire, so as soon as we have the will to reach it, we’ve already left the path to our goal. It’s the ethical analogy to the logical problem entailed in the sentence “I always tell lies.” Desire must have an end, indeed, but that end must be a conclusion, not an annihilation. To cite Aristotle again, without a goal to our actions, no action takes place. God, be the End of my desire!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Probability of Peirce

It’s times like last Friday morning that fuel my determination to stick with such a monumental reading plan. The rewards of moments like that one repay the inevitable disappointments and tedium with abundant interest.

It began with Basil of Caesarea. But I didn’t know it at the time, so I’ll jump ahead in my story and come back to the Cappadocian Father later. My sense of the onrushing confluence of wonderfulness began when Charles Peirce, exploring the meaning of possibility, told me that odds mean nothing in a single case. As a game player, I’ve been fascinated with the mathematics of probability since I was a tot. And I’ve puzzled over this same conundrum many times. As much as I know how to calculate odds, what do they actually mean in a single instance? Here’s an example. I once went to the pound to find a dog for my kids and saw a beautiful cocker spaniel. I went to claim the dog, but the fellow at the front desk told me it wasn’t clear for adoption yet and that I would have to come back that Saturday. “So I can have it then?” I asked. “If you’re the only one who shows up. Otherwise, you’ll participate in a drawing.” So I showed up Saturday (without telling my children where I was going – thank goodness!) to find three other people hoping for the pretty puppy. One-in-four, I cleverly told myself (displaying my dazzling grasp of the math). And yet, I thought, what difference does that make? The agent is going to dip his hand into the jar and touch one slip of paper. Just one. That paper will either have my name on it or not. It won’t contain one-fourth of my name. I won’t return home with one fourth of a cocker spaniel. My kids won’t be one-fourth happy. In a minute, there will be a Fact, and that Fact will be either black or white.

Peirce illustrates his idea for a while with dice. But his explanation becomes clearest when he proposes a scenario involving cards. Suppose, he says, you were shown a deck of twenty-five red cards plus one black card and a different deck with twenty-five black cards plus one red card. Then suppose that you had to draw the top card from one deck and that a red card would immediately take you to a life of bliss. (I would add that drawing a black card dooms you to execution.) Of course you choose the deck with twenty-five red cards. But still that top card is what it is, even though you can’t see it. Touching it and drawing it won’t change its color. So what do odds mean in this case? Peirce’s form of the question is, Is it logical to choose the deck with twenty-five red cards? If you think only about yourself and you happen to draw the one black card, thinking that you acted logically provides absolutely no comfort as you are led to the scaffold. Your end is what it is. However, if you think of a large number of people given the same torturous option, you can begin to say that the thinking is logical.

Thus, he concludes, "logic is rooted in the social principle." This is the logic, he says, that convinces a man to storm an enemy fort with the rest of his unit. “I will probably die,” he reasons, “but enough will make it through to achieve the goal I desire.” So we have to be ready to think of others ahead of self if we are to call our thinking logical. He even goes so far as to say that logical thinking requires three virtues that look suspiciously like Charity, Faith, and Hope. When this (in my experience) unique approach ends up suggesting that logical thinking equals Christian thinking, it garners my fullest attention.

So probable logic makes no sense in the individual case, only in the long run, and probable logic is where we do the vast majority of our thinking. (Of how many outcomes can we be 100% sure?) So to think logically, we must be in the habit of thinking about the long run. But now go back to the die. The odds of rolling a 3 or a 6 are 1 in 3. If a particular game comes down to a final throw by your opponent, and he must roll a 3 or 6 in order to win, probability doesn’t mean anything when he succeeds. Your saying that he shouldn’t have won makes no difference in the world. He has won, and that’s that. Probabilities mean nothing in a single case; the 1-in-3 odds only make a difference in the long run. But the run can’t be too long, either. If your concept of odds rests on imagining the outcome of an infinite number of throws, then all odds (other than 0) become the unhelpful infinity-in-infinity.

The final fascinating facet: A chance of failure will, given enough opportunities, come about. Every gambler, he says, will come to ruin if he continues; with even the best strategy, his losses are bound to exceed his resources at some point. Similarly, no insurance company can last forever; there is a chance that widespread disaster resulting in claims exceeding the company’s assets will occur, so given enough time, that chance will come about. Peirce then applies the lesson to even grander scenarios. Every civilization is bound to fall. A human with the power to cheat death will one day eventually find that every earthly thing he has ever trusted in will have failed him. He’s on the verge of stating the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and I’m amazed (perhaps as a result of my ignorance of physics) that he doesn’t see it. Since every atom has a chance of coming apart, there will eventually come a time when they will all have fallen apart. But he doesn’t see his principle through to this bitter end. In fact, he says “there can be no reasons for thinking that the human race, or any intellectual race, will exist forever. On the other hand, there can be no reason against it.” Now maybe he specifies “intellectual race” in order to allow for the eternity of the soul and God’s restoration of the material world. But it sure seems like he misses the golden opportunity to discover the (barring divine intervention) inevitable decline of the universe into utter entropy.

The idea of the dissolution of the elements probably stood out so prominently in my mind Friday morning because of two of the coincidences that constantly attend my reading. I had just read, a few days earlier, one of several passages by C. S. Lewis in which he critiques some of his materialist contemporaries’ belief in a gloriously perpetual evolution of mankind. But even more astonishingly, just thirty minutes earlier I had read Basil the Great’s fourth-century anticipation of the Second Law. It is foolish to believe in the eternity of the material universe, says Basil. The philosophers who teach it contradict themselves when they also teach that all material things are subject to corruption and death. Don’t they then see, he asks, that the time will surely come when corruption and death will have happened to everything at once?

Three references in one week to the inexorable fate of the Long Run! I mean, what are the odds?

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Proof of Anselm

I’ve read and heard several times about Anselm’s Ontological Proof for the existence of God. I even read a book last year by a current professional philosopher (Alvin Plantinga) that went into depth (depth into which I could not dive very far) critiquing the Ontological Proof. But now I’ve read Anselm of Canterbury’s Proslogion itself, and as always, reading the original has changed the view I had formed from reading only references and commentaries. The biggest change in my outlook on this particular subject is that I now see that Anselm doesn’t offer the Ontological Proof as a proof at all. He says explicitly that no one who doesn’t believe in God will be convinced by his train of thought; he searched for this argument, he says, only in the spirit of faith seeking understanding.

The so-called Ontological Proof goes this way:
• God is the greatest imaginable Being.
• “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ ”
• That fool means something by the word “God,” presumably a very great Being.
• The very great Being about which the fool imagines does not exist. (He clearly states so.)
• One can, by contrast, imagine a God that does exist.
• The God of that second imagination is greater than the nonexisting God of the fool’s imagination, since any existing Being is greater than any nonexisting Being.
• Since God is the greatest imaginable Being, God must be [at least as great as] this second imagined God.
• Therefore, God exists.
Now if I understood Plantinga at all (which I wouldn’t be surprised to find isn’t true), the problem with the Ontological Proof is that the fool’s conception is not of a Being who has every quality of God except for existence, since without existence, this god would also not have omnipotence, for instance. My critique rests on much humbler analytical skills. I just can’t buy the definition with which the proof begins, since I can’t imagine God in all of his attributes. Because of this mental limitation, I added some words in brackets to the outline of the proof I drew above; that’s the only way the proof has any chance of making any sense in my view. But I put my addition in brackets; Anselm doesn’t say anything about the real God being “at least as great as” the God the second person imagines. He just says that someone can imagine God to exist, so therefore He exists. But that doesn’t seem right to me at all. What if that second person imagines the existing God to be a powerful, handsome fellow driving a chariot that hauls the sun around the skies? Does the exercise then prove that that God exists? OK, no: I can imagine a God greater than Apollo. So maybe I imagine Zeus. But clearly Anselm wouldn’t say that his reasoning points us to Zeus, either, so I’m still not there and must imagine a yet greater God in order to arrive at the scenario that Anselm describes. But if the proof doesn’t work for any of the gods I’ve imagined so far because they are less than the real God, then the proof can never work: no matter how much I stretch my imagination step by step above these first gods, the thoughts in my head will never reach the real God.

Also, I’m not sure that there is a conception of God in the fool’s head. I think his conception is about a thought – a thought that other people have in their heads. I think he really means, “That thought that theists have isn’t true.”

I can’t close without pointing out that discussing this issue took me through very confusing deliberations about whether to capitalize the word made out of g and o and d. I decided that I should capitalize it any time the supposition of the moment seemed intended to point toward the greatest possible Being. I used a lower case initial only when a candidate had been eliminated by the process.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Abject Light

Today I just have a few stray comments about a few stray passages from Light in August, but I’ll end with the quotation that imbued most of my thinking about the second half of the book.
Overhead the slow constellations wheeled, the stars of which he had been aware for thirty years and not one of which had any name to him or meant anything at all by shape or brightness or position.
Of course we each move through our days surrounded by things we never notice or inquire about. But Joe Christmas is particularly cut adrift from the meaning of life, and it seems to me that Faulkner picks the perfect example of persistent yet impactless phenomena to demonstrate his alienation. The stars come out at night, a time with which the lecherous Joe surely has much acquaintance. And one might suppose that a man who has wandered the country on foot for fifteen years might at least have learned about the North Star. The example also has religious overtones: Joe’s ignorance places him in clear contrast with the One Who knows all the stars by name, and it shows contempt for the Baby whose birth, celebrated on the holiday that gives Joe his very name, was heralded by a blazing light in the heavens.
He became aware of complete silence beyond it, a silence which he at eighteen knew that it would take more than one person to make.
What an insightful observation with which to show that we percieve each moment in the context of our habits and expectations!
It was as if the very initial outrage of the murder carried in its wake and made of all subsequent actions something monstrous and paradoxical and wrong, in themselves against both reason and nature.
Am I the only one who noticed that taking a shower or eating lunch on September 12, 2001, felt out of place with the universe?

The subjection of the present to the past pervades Light in August. Some characters believe in fate. Some believe in predestination. The influence of the customs, bequests, and graves of the dead comes up often. The disgraced Rev. Hightower, for example, thinks obsessively about a violent Civil War incident in which his ancestor played a role.
A man will talk about how he’d like to escape from living folks. but it’s the dead folks that do him the damage.
The direction laid out by fate and ancestry in Light in August seems never to lead to anywhere comfortable. The word “abject” makes astonishingly frequent appearances, because everything in the world of the book is degraded. The light in August is a dying light. The following hypothesis is given to explain why character A didn’t kill character B in revenge for killing character C:
He was French, half of him. Enough French to respect anybody's love for the land where he and his people were born and to understand that a man would have to act as the land where he was born had trained him to act. I think that was it.
So the land rears its sons and daughters and determines their abject characters. Did Faulkner mean to indict the land of Mississippi alone in this judgment, or all the earth in general? The standard answer is to say that Faulkner wrote about the South that he knew, and I have neither reason nor standing to argue against the experts on this point. So as I read the latter portion of the novel, I kept wondering what I would have been like had I grown up in Mississippi. Would my character have been established by my surroundings? Was it truly impossible, for instance, for anyone in that place and time to see skin color as irrelevant to any lasting values? Faulkner certainly says enough about fate and predestination to suggest that his answer is, yes: it was impossible.

And yet how did Faulkner himself come out of the South that he depicts? If the land guides the course of a person’s life so strongly that someone might even be excused from the guilt of murder because of his patria, then how did Faulkner learn to see the fact and critique it? Where did he get his sensitivity, his skill with language? I’m not ready to blame Mississippi for anything.