Friday, November 17, 2017

Seemly, and Fair, and of the Best

Plato in London
by Lionel Johnson

To Campbell Dodgson

The pure flame of one taper fall
Over the old and comely page:
No harsher light disturb at all
This converse with a treasured sage.
Seemly, and fair, and of the best,
If Plato be our guest,
Should things befall.

Without, a world of noise and cold:
Here, the soft burning of the fire.
And Plato walks, where heavens unfold,
About the home of his desire.
From his own city of high things,
He shows to us, and brings,
Truth of fine gold.

The hours pass; and the fire burns low;
The clear flame dwindles into death:
Shut then the book with care; and so,
Take leave of Plato, with hushed breath:
A little, by the falling gleams,
Tarry the gracious dreams:
And they too go.

Lean from the window to the air:
Hear London's voice upon the night!
Thou hast held converse with things rare:
Look now upon another sight!
The calm stars, in their living skies:
And then, these surging cries,
This restless glare!

That starry music, starry fire,
High above all our noise and glare:
The image of our long desire,
The beauty, and the strength, are there.
And Plato's thought lives, true and clear,
In as august a sphere:
Perchance, far higher.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

God and Vast Spaces

Emily Thomas (best known for her work on early modern accounts of space and time) has a post at "RealClearScience", Does the Size of the Universe Prove God doesn't Exist? It looks at a kind of argument put forward by Michael Martin and Nicholas Everitt, in which the size of the universe is taken as a reason for the conclusion that God does not exist. Based on claims in religious texts about God's care for human beings, about human persons being in the image of God, and the like, it draws the conclusion "that God is human-oriented: human beings are like God, and he values us highly." Given that foundation, the argument proceeds:

If God is human-oriented, wouldn’t you expect him to create a universe in which humans feature prominently? You’d expect humans to occupy most of the universe, existing across time. Yet that isn’t the kind of universe we live in. Humans are very small, and space, as Douglas Adams once put it, “is big, really really big”....

Clearly, there is a discrepancy between the kind of universe we would expect a human-oriented God to create, and the universe we live in. How can we explain it? Surely the simplest explanation is that God doesn’t exist. The spatial and temporal size of the universe gives us reason to be atheists.

To be honest, when I come across an atheist telling theists what one would expect if God exists, I have come to expect that a bit of fast sophistry is coming this way. That's not quite the case here, and yet there are reasons why this kind of argument is relatively little used (although I have been seeing it more often than usual in the past few years).

(1) The argument depends crucially on what one would expect given what religious texts say about God. This is reasonable, but it requires consistent application. The texts in question don't just talk about human importance; they also talk about the grandeur of the cosmos. The point of Job 38 and following is certainly not that the world is a small and cozy one. What is more, it's not as if this is entirely unaddressed in the texts themselves:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.

The religious texts themselves, in other words, show no sign of expecting a small and cozy universe; given that "the heavens are telling the glory of God", they even at times insist on how extraordinary the world is in order to make the point that its Creator is even greater. The thing they portray as surprising is not that the universe is vast but that human beings are significant, and they affirm both. If you are going to talk about what can be expected on the basis of claims made in religious texts, one has to take in the whole; and there is another strand of those texts which plays up the vastness and power displayed in creation precisely in order to speak about the power and wisdom of God.

(2) More seriously, however, talk of what God can be expected to do is either dangerously ambiguous or an outright violation of the principle of remotion. When we talk about what can be 'expected', we can be taking the term either objectively or subjectively. Subjective expectation is irrelevant here (why would one's feeling be determinative here?), so the only thing that can be meant is that there is some causal requirement that God create a small universe if human beings are important. This point is always at least handwaved.

And it at least appears to violate the principle of remotion. As I've noted before, the principle of remotion is roughtly that God is known only by causal inference from effects and in such a way as not to fall under a genus. Thus anything that is said about God needs to be warranted by some causal pathway, taking the world or something else (like a religious text) as an effect. What is the actual causal warrant for saying that God would create a universe in which humans occupy most of the universe? The texts used to start the argument off can at most justify the claim that human beings are important; they don't even strictly require taking God to be "human-oriented", as opposed to simply caring about humans among many other things. So what causal reasoning is supporting these claims about what God would do? This is always glided over very quickly; and that suggests that the argument violates the principle of remotion.

(3) But perhaps the most problematic element of the argument is not what it says about God but what it says about human beings; it depends on a crabbed and limited view of human persons, and especially a crabbed and limited view of the excellence of human reason. Kant, on this point, at least, is far more accurate: the starry heavens above display the smallness of the human body, but the greatness of the human mind that is able to contemplate them. We know the vastness of the universe because we can study it; we are awed by the vastness of the universe because we are not merely crushed by an expanse of over two trillion galaxies but exhilarated by its awesomeness. Far from being unsuited to a vast universe, the human mind is immensely more at home in such a universe than in a universe supposed small, which is why people are so fascinated by astronomy, and, indeed, why we have astronomers at all.

Nor is this a new point. Ovid has the famous story that the distinctive feature of the human animal is that, unlike other animals, we stand upright in order to look at the stars, the point being that far from being intimidated by the starry skies, we are in some sense more at home taking as much of it in as we can than we are just rooting around in the earth. We have minds fascinated by apparently infinite expanse, exhilarated by countlessness, drawn on by endless vistas.

And this is where the argument most goes wrong. For it depends not merely on the claim that God, taking humans to be important, would create a world to fit humans, but also on the claim that a world to fit humans would have to be a small world. This derogatory view of the human mind is simply false of human beings as we actually know them. Give us a vast ocean of stars, with endless new and surprising things; that's the universe appropriate to our minds, where we find ourselves at our best. There is no mismatch at all.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Universal Doctor

Today is the feast of St. Albert the Great, Doctor of the Church. He was, of course, the teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas and a great many other Dominicans.

The following is from the Liber de Muliere Forti, a commentary on Proverbs 31. There is some debate over whether this is indeed St. Albert's, but the book was certainly written by a Dominican, comments on a passage that is often quoted in St. Albert's undoubtedly authentic works, and doesn't seem to say anything that would rule out his authorship. There are many works attributed to St. Albert that are disputed, and quite a few that are definitely spurious; this one is the disputed work that is far and away the most likely to be authentic if any are. The author takes the poem of the strong woman to be a depiction of the Church, and indirectly of the soul insofar as it participates in the Church, and thus takes Proverbs 31 to be a complete ecclesiology in poetic summary. (A thing that has to be noted in the following is that Albert uses 'seed' where we would use 'egg'; the ovum was not yet discovered at that point.)

In the second way, the Church and the faithful soul are thought of as a woman by the instrumental means of the organs by which man and woman differ: these are four. The first instrument is for receiving the seed; the second for conserving and forming it in the womb; the third is for the care of the embryonic child; the fourth is for the upbringing of the baby when it has been brought into the light. The first is called seed, the second womb, the third source of blood, the fourth breasts. And in the Church these, spiritually understood, are: zeal for souls, preaching, piety, and thanksgiving. By zeal for souls the Church conceives the salvation of converts. By preaching she forms, as if by the hand of doctrine, the one conceived. Piety, which is benevolence to all signed with the image of God, as Augustine says, provides the material that there might be no lack in its formation, yet she asks not about its size but only about its health. The fourth, thanksgiving, indicates that as from one part as from one breast flows milk inviting to goodness, and from another as from the other breast flows milk that fortifies in perseverance in what has been received from God; accordingly, the twofold nutrition of milk works in the baby, namely, for growth in size and perseverance in life.

Another passage, from a different work:

In investigations of nature, however, it is necessary not only to consider the changeable understood universally according to its common features, but it is necessary to get down to details so that the primary agent in each individual case may be ascertained, especially in sensible, animate things, because in investigations of nature we must discover the universal principles through singulars, since in such investigations the particulars are better known than the universals. It is through the singulars that we come to believe that it is convenient and necessary for universals and their principles to exist, since it is only those universals which are exemplified in particulars that we accept, while those which are not exemplified in particulars, we reject.

[Albert the Great, De animalibus IX tr. 2, c.4, ed. HernannStadler, in: BGPhlvfA5, Munster9 16'.T21, ll.16-21m as quoted in Leen Spruit, "Albert the Great on the Epistemology of Natural Science", p. 64.]

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Tom Regan on Utilitarianism

This moral philosophy, utilitarianism, has a long and venerable history, influential men and women, past and present, are among its adherents and yet it is a bankrupt moral philosophy if ever there was one.

Are we seriously, seriously, to inquire as to the interest of the rapist before declaring rape wrong; should we ask the child molester whether his interest would be frustrated before condemning the molestation of our children? Remarkably a consistent utilitarianism demands that we ask these questions and, in so demanding, relinquishes any claim on our rational assent.

From his famous speech in favor of animal rights in 1989. I was struck by this passage in particular when showing it to my Ethics students today.


MrsD had a post on the value of microfiction, which inspired me to do a little postcard-story of my own; I put it here so I can find it if I want to revise it at some point. Wordcount: about 490 words.

It takes a dancer's timing, but when it rains while the sun is shining, you can step just so, and just so again, and slide between the seams in the weather to the back of the world. The timing is critical, and the steps must be just right. I have managed to do it only twice. The first time, which was by accident, I was six, and hardly grasped any of it, but the traces I remembered haunted me for the next twenty years, and that entire time I did everything I could to do it again. And then one day I did. The sunshower-drizzle had just begun and, after a false start, I stepped just right, and was no longer in the front of the world, where we live our lives, but in the back of it, where men and women rarely go.

It is cooler, back of the world, and mistier, with a twilight look; I think the sun has to filter through there, like light into an attic. It is very still, but I did see a slight breeze dancing through the mist; I think it had followed me through. In the front of the world, misty twilight makes everything dim, but behind it the reverse is true. Everything is more clear, as if it were bursting out of a flat surface. Each blade of grass, each stone, each leaf on each vine, can be seen in perfect relief for miles, shining by light of its own existence.

A few yards away, there was a stream, its fluid sound very distinct to me ear. I followed it, enjoying the sights and the sounds and the spring-rain scent of the air. Then there was a little gust of breeze, and I saw her.

First she was not there, and then she was, so she must have just slipped through the seams. Her hair was chestnut brown, but her eyes a kind of deep blue, and she wor ea blue dress, like a going-to-church dress, that was dark in the front and back but was lighter down the side.

"Hello," I said. She only stared back in surprise.

There is only so long anyone can stay behind the world; after a few minutes, a sort of pressure builds, and the mist grows thicker and soon pushes you right back through the curtain. The mist was growing thicker. The pressure increased. I opened my mouth to speak again but, just as I did so, I was pushed through the front of the world, where the sunshower was just beginning to lose its sun and turn to gloom.

I have kept an eye out for her these past decades, never having much hope that I would win the lottery of chance meeting. I have tried even harder to slip through the veil during sunshowers, in the hope that she might be there, too.

But I can never quite get the steps right.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Far Through the Misty Future

Strive, Wait, and Pray
by Adelaide Anne Procter

Strive; yet I do not promise
The prize you dream of to-day
Will not fade when you think to grasp it,
And melt in your hand away;
But another and holier treasure,
You would now perchance disdain,
Will come when your toil is over,
And pay you for all your pain.

Wait; yet I do not tell you
The hour you long for now,
Will not come with its radiance vanished,
And a shadow upon its brow;
Yet far through the misty future,
With a crown of starry light,
An hour of joy you know not
Is winging her silent flight.

Pray; though the gift you ask for
May never comfort your fears,
May never repay your pleading,
Yet pray, and with hopeful tears;
An answer, not that you long for,
But diviner, will come one day,
Your eyes are too dim to see it,
Yet strive, and wait, and pray.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Joy, that as Joy, Is Truth

Virgo Potens
by Michael Field

Young on the mountains and fresh
As the wind that thrills her hair,
As the dews that lap the flesh
Of her feet from cushions of thyme;
While her feet through the herbage climb,
Growing hardier, sweeter still
On rock-roses and cushions of thyme,
As she springs up the hill!

A goat in its vaultings less lithe,
From a rock, to a tuft, to a rock;
As the young of wild-deer blithe,
The young of wild-deer, yet alone;
Strong as an eaglet just flown,
She wanders the white-woven earth,
As the young of wild-deer, yet alone,
In her triumph of mirth.

She will be Mother of God!
Secret He lies in Her womb:
And this mountain she hath trod
Was later in strength than is she,
Who before its mass might be
Was chosen to bear her bliss:
Conceived before mountains was she,
Before any abyss.

The might that dwells in her youth
Is song to her heart and soul,
Of joy, that as joy, is truth,
That magnifies, and leaps
With its jubilant glee and sweeps,
O fairest, her breast, her throat,
Her mouth, and magnanimous leaps,
As the mountain-lark's note!

Across the old hills she springs,
With God's first dream as her crown:
She scales them swift, for she brings
Elizabeth news of grace.
The charity of her face
Is that of a lovely day,
When the birds are singing news of grace,
And the storms are away.

Michael Field is the pen-name for Katherine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper -- a 'binary star', as Robert Browning once memorably called them.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Music on My Mind

Faith No More, "We Care A Lot", after all these years still the single best song that mocks posturing over moral matters, especially by celebrities. Chuck Mosley, the front man, died Thursday at the age of 57.