Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Truth in advertising

Following up a tip from a commenter on a new philblog (hat tip: Mormon Metaphysics sidebar), I went to cog sci heavyweight Andy Clark's page of downloadable papers, and I snagged a few of them, including one called "The Extended Mind," which sounds promisingly anti-Cartesian in a post-phenomenological vein (but I haven't read it yet). At first I was a bit worried, seeing as it was cowritten with someone who, well, does not inspire me with as much confidence in this specific sense, viz., D. Chalmers; but on the first page we see, after the authors' names, a big asterisk leading the eye to a helpful disclaimer:
Authors are listed in order of degree of belief in the central thesis.
Got it.

Sunday, June 26, 2005


Jon Pareles is a fairly standard-issue rock critic, but in Saturday's Times he shows that he has the ability to put himself in other people's shoes (or hear with their ears, or whatever). Reviewing Robert Fripp's recent Soundscapes show at the Society for Ethical Culture (which I did not see, but I've heard more than my share of Soundscapes), he says:
Symphonic as the soundscapes were, longtime Fripp fans may have missed the sound of his guitar itself, with its searing liquid-nitrogen chill.
This is exactly right. I hereby authorize Mr. Pareles to strike that "may have." And well said!

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Abe and Aaron

Here's a neat line from Primer, a clever little no-budget film I saw recently, a line which shows exactly, and I do mean exactly, what sort of movie we have here:
Are you hungry? I haven't eaten since later this afternoon.
Yes, boys and girls (girls?), Primer is a time-travel movie. As experienced chronocinephiles know, there are two strategies for making a TTM. First, you can wink at the audience and say, no, it doesn't make sense, but at least it's a different kind of big-screen peril for our hero to get into Рwill he make it back to the future or get stuck in the past (or eaten by prehistoric monsters), will he "change the past" (with whatever consequences this is stipulated to have) or fail to do so, etc. Or you can make it as realistic as possible, tantalizing us with the idea that it might (be intended to) make sense after all. (Or there's the glorious La Jet̩e, which we've already discussed.)

Primer, the title of which I still have never heard pronounced (prymer or primmer?) is a TTM of the second kind, which I generally prefer (you may keep The Time Machine, which I haven't seen). The setup (act I) is very well done: they walk the line very carefully between too much explanation and not enough, and it has a great lo-tech hi-tech look, if you know what I mean. The continuation (act II) proceeds naturally out of what came before (so to speak), with a few subtle hints that not all is, or will be, what it seems. Particularly effective are the unnerving, half-understood suggestions of what might be about to have already gone wrong (oh, stop it). The concluding act is a little rushed, as if they were worried about making it too easy to follow (no danger here) and thus ruining the enigmatic mood they've built up (total running time = 77 minutes). I really don't think it would have hurt too much to make it a little clearer and drawn out the tension at the same time; but maybe the idea is for later viewings to make the right amount of sense. I certainly would like to take another look – maybe that will help tie up some of the loose beginnings. Check it out!

P.S. Here's a review from the above-linked page at imdb.com:
Did you like Pi? If so, go see this one.

By the way, the attention to detail in the beginning is great. Often in thrillers with technical content, if you have a technical education you have consciously ignore all the stupid movie crud that they pull to make it into a good story. But this movie pulls off an incredibly believable technical story, with only a few distracting gaffs. That is, the tech jargon is good enough that you don't get distracted and can focus on the story line.

Final comment: Yes, it is very hard to follow the story line in this movie.

Obviously I'm not going to spoil it, but I think the following fact will help when the movie gets kind of hairy towards the end: Aaron is the dark-haired guy, Abe is the blond-haired guy.

I agree: that last fact is very important. And Pi is the natural comparison (only less techno on the soundtrack).

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Strawson on totally awesome mistakes

An interesting feature at Mormon Metaphysics is the quotation appearing in a little box in the top right-hand corner of each page. It varies from page to page; I think they repeat, but I'm not sure how many there are, and I'm pretty sure it's random, in that there's no correlation between their content and the page they adorn. Maybe Clark will tell us someday.

I found the quotation below in the top right-hand corner of a page on which Clark discusses Taylor Carman's book on Heidegger. [In retrieving this url, I got a quote from Kafka this time; so I guess it is random.] A few years ago I sat in on the first half of Taylor's course on the Phenomenology of Spirit, until I got too far behind and I had to stop fooling around and finish up the damn dissertation. I have the book, and Clark says it's really good, so maybe I'll read it someday. Check back in 2013.

Anyway, here's the quotation, from P. F. Strawson:
One of the marks, though not a necessary mark, of a really great philosopher is to make a really great mistake: that is to say, to give a persuasive and lastingly influential form to one of those fundamental misconceptions to which the human intellect is prone when it concerns itself with the ultimate categories of thought.
I like that. For examples, my first thought was Descartes, then Plato (but something tells me Strawson's talking about Kant's "idealism"). People, like myself, who strive mightily against the all-too-pervasive misconceptions abounding in the wake of Plato and Descartes can forget the genius it requires to give these fundamental misconceptions a determinate form. Those who perpetuate the misconceptions -- our contemporary Cartesians and Platonists -- tend to see them (say, the conceptual self-sufficiency of subject and object) as the merest common sense, and the contribution of Descartes and Plato as on a par with other philosophers: i.e., as trying, and (ironically) failing, to establish their doctrines conclusively. The irony here, that is, is that it is on the basis of their (internalized) Cartesianism and Platonism that these people see the task of philosophy as trying to do what Descartes and Plato indeed failed to do, thus causing them to deny the label ("who, me? A Cartesian [Platonist]? But I reject skepticism [the Forms]!"). When we learn to see philosophy aright, though, we can see Plato's and Descartes's contributions, again ironically, as in line with Wittgenstein's ambition to (teach us to) "pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense" (PI §464). In other words, this is the flip side (the negative side) of what he is more usually seen as urging on us: to pass from failing "to notice something—because it is always before one's eyes" (§129) to, well, noticing it, and thus "command[ing] a clear view of the use of our words" (§122).

Actually, we don't have to see things Wittgenstein's way in order to appreciate Strawson's idea, which of course isn't simply that it's great that people have made big whopping spectacular mistakes so that we will know, at least, not to do that. In Hegelian terms as well, we are best able to make progress (say via an Aufhebung) when the dualism to be aufgehoben is explicitly and firmly established, so that we can really see the difference (so to speak) when (if!) the Aufhebung is performed properly. (So would Hegel agree that "it's always darkest just before dawn"? Is this the "night in which all cows are black"? Discuss.) Now of course Hegel made his own whoppers...

And even this way of taking the idea has a less fancy variant (that is, which still says more than the simple version), which is perhaps all that Strawson had in mind (I like my two versions better though). Refuting a silly error is hardly progress; it's more like retying your shoes after tripping over your laces. If we refute a deep, perennial error, now -- then we've made some progress. But that's only possible if that error has been rigorously distilled into a philosophical doctrine which we can argue against directly; and for that we owe a profound debt to the distiller. My problem with this is that on this conception of what's going on, the beast is felled, necessarily, only by an even meaner beast. It would be a type of skepticism to which I do not subscribe to claim that the new doctrine must be just as bad -- I've been known to advance, or at least endorse, a few doctrines myself -- but when the shiny new doctrine loses its luster, it can be all too easy to keep it around on the basis of its giant-killing abilities alone: for what if the giant, or his brother, comes back?

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The mind works in mysterious ways

Actually it doesn't. Or it may, but this isn't an instance of it really -- just normal association. But when you're mystified, things look mysterious. When I saw it, everything cleared up. What? I should get to the point? Okay, okay. Sheesh.

All day today I have found myself with "Bella figlia dell' amore," from Rigoletto, running through my head. What, you too? No? Okay, never mind. What? Get on with it? Right. Sorry. Anyway, I've been wondering: why should this be? I haven't heard Rigoletto lately, though I did read there's some reality show about would-be opera singers (American Diva? No? Well, that's what I'd call it), but I think they were women, so it would really be "Caro nome," then, not "Bella figlia dell' amore." Hmmmmmm.

The first line of "Bella figlia dell' amore," as you might have guessed, is:
Bella figlia dell' amore
which means "Beautiful child of love [or Cupid, anyway]". No help there. But the next line is:
Schiavo son de' vezzi tuoi
which means "I am a slave to your charms" -- but of course you don't care what it means, because your eyes are drawn, like mine were (metaphorically speaking) when I saw it (ditto), to that first word. Of course! There's been all this hoop-la in the last couple of days about the autopsy of that poor lady from Florida (you know the one I mean). Dr. P. posted on it here, and Ed B. here, with a follow-up here (Ed's comment: "Good Lord, what must it be to go through life thinking like these loonies?"). Apparently the wingnuts, instead of shutting up, given that the autopsy proves them wrong, are all atwitter because the doctors don't know what caused her brain damage in the first place (as if that mattered), except that it wasn't what the 'nuts had been darkly hinting that it might be (i.e., spousal abuse). At least they weren't making anything out of Michael's name meaning "slave" in Italian...

P. S. I just looked up the text in my handy copy of The Authentic Librettos of the Italian Operas (1939), because I wanted to make double darn sure it wasn't "dei vezzi tuoi," seeing as this is being posted on the Internet for everyone to see, but no, "de' vezzi tuoi" it is. But check out the translation! Instead of
Beautiful daughter of Eros
I am a slave to your charms;
With a single word
You can console my pains;
Come, and feel the rapid beating of my heart.
which is what I would say, they have:
Ah! of Venus the fairest daughter
The slave of your charms here behold;
One word from thy beautiful lips
My suffering alone can assuage;
Come, and my fond heart relieve
Of its anxious palpitations.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Philosophy in the schools?

One thing I can't get enough of in the blogosphere is the endless uproar about "intelligent design." There are various debates in there somewhere as well, but it's the uproar that I find particularly fascinating. Non-philosophers discussing philosophical issues are always good for a laugh (or fit of despair, as the mood strikes you), and even after the tears, of whichever sort, have been wiped away, there's always something to think about. I have a couple of posts (or papers, if they get that far) in the works about substantive issues, so stay tuned (or tune in again; you know what I mean).

Today's topic, however, is what we should teach the kiddies. You will probably have noticed that whenever someone objects to discussing, in public school classes, the existence, or not, of an intelligent non-human designer, they always say: not in science class! Save that stuff for philosophy class! My first reaction to this is: Philosophy class?? In public high school? Bwah hah hah hah hah! Where do think you are -- France?

Of course, I'm sure some school district somewhere has a philosophy elective, or even more than one (school district, that is, not philosophy elective). What's funny here is that this is the only time the idea of philosophy for high-schoolers ever comes up -- when it's a question of what's not appropriate material for some normal class like Science, where we teach proven facts instead of batting around unanswerable questions in a heady rap session to entertain the weird kids.

Related to this is the assumption that in philosophy class we would of course be discussing the Existence Of God, along with the other Central Questions of the discipline, such as the Meaning of Life, How Do You Know You're Not Dreaming Right Now and Whether, When a Tree Falls in the Forest and No-one Hears it, it Makes any Sound. (This being the modern era, philosophers have finally abandoned such earlier head-scratchers as Whether the World is Made of Fire or Water or Both and How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin.) On the other hand, I have to admit that HDYKYNDRN, while not exactly a live philosophical question, can at least serve as a catchy intro to one if you do it right. But the EOG? Please. ("So you see, class, if God is defined as that most perfect entity, which instantiates all predicates essentially, then that God exists is a necessary truth!")

Of course it would be nice if there were philosophy classes in high school. But what should be discussed (that is, taught) in philosophy class, should there be one, are such things as what is an argument and what is it to believe something and what's the connection between agency and normativity and rationality and objectivity (okay, maybe that one's a little advanced, but we could make a start on it) and why "metaphysical" doesn't mean "supernatural" and why all non-philosophers, and most philosophers too for that matter, who say anything at all, pro or con, about "postmodernism" or "relativism" are hopelessly confused.

Some of this does intersect with the question of what counts as "science," and is thus relevant to the issue of evolution vs. design. But I don't see why addressing that issue in science classes would be inappropriate simply because it is not itself to be determined scientifically. (Of course, even some philosophers think every philosophical question should be reduced to empirical investigation. For some reason which I do not understand, this view is not known as "nihilism.") Why should it be irrelevant to the study of science to think about what science is? For that matter, and here we do approach a substantive issue I claimed to be putting off, I don't see what's wrong with addressing, again in science class of course, the particular issue of how, if life (or the cell, or the wombat, or whatever) had been the result of design, it would be possible to tell this.

Here's what's ironic. Biologists say: Intelligent Design isn't science, because it's just unverifiable speculation about ultimate origins, where what science is concerned with is verifiable facts about nature. One standard anti-evolution reply is: that's right, science can't tell us with certainty what really happened, or if there is anything beyond nature, so it's all a matter of blind faith, which means you can't teach naturalistic evolution as The Truth (indoctrinating those impressionable minds with atheism, etc.). Playing the "fairness" card, this reply invites us to see the "two sides" of the question as equally valid. But that's not enough for ID-ers, who after all, like the "Creation Scientists" before them, see naturalistic evolution as not merely "unprovable" but in fact provably false. That's why they take such pains to detach the question of design from the identity of the Designer (uh, better make that a small d): so that the idea of detecting design cannot be ruled out of court as essentially non-naturalistic and thus beyond the bounds of science.

Quite right; but now the argument for time in the classroom is no longer based on claims about the symmetry of unprovable assumptions about ultimate origins, but instead on the viability of the "design inference" as science. But (here's the irony, finally) the pro-evolution side is still arguing that ID isn't science, so we shouldn't discuss it (because to mention it at all, even to dismiss it, would give those people credibility). But if it is admitted that the issue is not one of unprovable assumptions after all, then we get to examine it scientifically. And although I won't argue the point here, I think it is indeed instructive for the young 'uns to see the result -- which includes places where we have to shrug and say, well, here we don't yet know exactly how it went; that's an issue for further research (something you might want to do, perhaps?). After all, that's true; and, as my own teacher liked to say, you shouldn't deny facts.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

On the other hand, maybe I am simply a humorless clod

As you get older, there are more and more cultural phenomena that you are simply too old and out of it to understand. I'm not complaining, mind you; it's just a fact of life. So it was interesting to encounter one recently that I am apparently too young to understand. Here's how it happened. I've already mentioned here how impressed I've been with the work, especially w/r/t Wittgenstein, of Stanley Cavell. Cavell also writes on other things, of course, including cinema, and one of his books is about Hollywood comedies of a certain time, including Howard Hawks's Bringing Up Baby (1938), which features Cary Grant as a geeky paleontologist and Katharine Hepburn as what the back cover of the DVD calls "a scatterbrained heiress." Not only that, Dan at Doing Things With Words recently posted on this film (it's a paper on Kant, but his examples come from this film), so I thought I better check it out.

After having viewed the film, which btw ranks at #141 of imdb.com's viewer-selected top 250 films of all time, I am even more curious to know what Cavell (and Dan) have to say about it, seeing as I am utterly baffled as to how anyone could possibly have found it even remotely funny or charming. I know what they called "screwball comedies" are supposed to be silly and contrived, and this film certainly was that, but they're supposed to be funny too, and this film certainly was not. I smiled precisely once, when they're holding onto Baby (a leopard -- don't ask) by the tail to prevent him from escaping out the back seat of the car (I told you not to ask), and they burst into "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby," because, as has already been established, he likes that song. The rest of it was painfully unfunny, annoying, and, yes, just stupid, worse than It Happened One Night (#119 at imdb). The scene in the jail is just excruciating (I keep telling you: don't ask). Of course there may still be interesting things to say about this film; but does this mean that the philosophers of the future will extract profound truths from 50 First Dates and Monster-in-Law?

[Update (9/3): In retrospect, I seem to have been a little harsh. The 50 First Dates line was uncalled for. However, to be honest, I must reluctantly stand by my recollection of this film as "painfully unfunny."]

Friday, June 10, 2005

More from the Six Duchies

Last month I disclosed, perhaps rashly, that I had been reading the second book in a fantasy trilogy (recommended, incidentally, by philosopher Crispin Sartwell -- thanks for the tip!), about FitzChivalry the Witted Bastard and his Wit-bonded wolf companion Nighteyes. Well, I just finished the third volume, Assassin's Quest, and, while this is not a review exactly, I do have a few thoughts. My intent will be to avoid spoilers, but on the other hand I can't help revealing a few things (if you don't want to know anything, stop reading this now and go find a post about Spinoza or something).

Overall, the trilogy is very accomplished (the blurbs on the back cover, describing the first two books, say things like "intriguing, controlled, and remarkably assured," "built of patient detail, believable characters, and mature plotting," "And beneath all, that wise, deeply involved, humanity." All this is right; but I have a few minor gripes as well. Royal Assassin, the second book, worked because it takes place pretty much within the walls of Buckkeep Castle (with a few excursions here and there, including engagements with the Red Ships), so there was a focus on castle intrigue, where author Robin Hobb's careful plotting unfolds effectively. This time, as the title suggests, Fitz hits the road (out of necessity, given the ending of the second book), so there's more temptation, which Hobb does not resist, to have him face certain death and escape to someplace else and face certain death and escape again and face certain death and escape once more, which gets a bit tiresome. So it takes a while to get going.

Next, we inherit a few problems from the other books. Fitz is a rash and immature lad who keeps acting like a jerk and never learns, so often you just want to smack him. It doesn't help that Hobb underlines this with lines like "It was the worst thing I could have said" or "I knew it was a mistake even as I did it" or whatever. The usurper Regal is a cartoon villain, and making him even more pathologically cruel doesn't make him any more interesting. The Red Ship Raiders are nameless baddies (and the creepy "white ship" angle is dropped like a stone, except for a brief paragraph of explanation at the very end). The romance angle is PG-rated and adolescent, and of course Fitz's beloved Molly, while undoubtedly spunky, remains the cipher she was last time.

This is partly because we don't see a lot of her. And this is because we see everything through Fitz's eyes, and he's off questing while she stays behind (never mind why). The only reason we see her at all, in fact, is that Fitz uses the Skill, often involuntarily (e.g. when asleep, in Skill-dreams), to see what his distant friends are up to, not to mention the Red Ships whose invasion we were so concerned with in the last book. This must have seemed like a good device -- we are witness to a few key scenes we might otherwise never even have heard about -- but Hobb goes to the well too often here. It's as if, like Fitz himself, she couldn't bear to make the clean break with the investment she made in Molly, as well as (especially, given their importance in the other books) the more interesting characters Chade, Patience, and Burrich; plus of course she needs to remind us now and then that the war (remember the war?) is going badly (duh). It's both too much and not enough.

However, by the second half of the book the quest is on in earnest (although Fitz continues to face death, etc., with alarming regularity), a few key characters (guess who) are re-met in the flesh, and the narrative picks up as the question is joined as to where exactly Verity is and what exactly he's doing and will he succeed in time and who these mysterious Elderlings are, anyway. Here the Skill factor is well handled, as with the powerful Skill coterie controlled by the dastardly and ruthless Regal. That's really the best part of these books: the Skill, and of course the Wit, each of which takes on new strategic and tactical significance in this installment. The Elderling factor in particular is as well done, given all that buildup, as one could reasonably hope (though if you want a semi-spoiler, you could do worse than look at the cover of the book).

In some of the reader reviews at Amazon (I didn't read all 216 of them, just the few on the front page), there was some griping about the ending. In part, I think, this is because once the Elderlings get involved (which of course they do -- no spoiler there!), the war is over in a page or two, making it look anticlimactic. This didn't bother me, although it might indeed have gone that way, i.e., that we get 100 more pages (making 800 in all) of exciting battles with Raiders, Regal, etc. As it is, the climactic issue concerns how exactly the E's are enlisted -- and no, it doesn't go like this, thank goodness:
[Verity]: Please, Mr. Elderling, won't you help us save the Six Duchies?
[Elderling]: No.
[Fitz and Verity together]: Pleeeeease??
[Elderling]: (rolling his eyes) Oh, okay, if it'll get you off my back. Might enjoy kicking Raider butt.
[Fitz and Verity together]: Yaay!

Once it does happen, it's fine for the war (which, again, we haven't really been following except for a few unpleasant Skill-visions) to be over in an eyeblink. In general, everything happens that needs to happen, some bittersweet losses and partings occur, virtue triumphs and evil is vanquished. It's as well-crafted as it is disappointingly generic.

As I mentioned before, Hobb has written two more trilogies taking place in the same world, the next one about trade ships (presumably before the Red Ship war, with no apparent character overlap with the Farseer trilogy), and the third one with Fitz et al. some years later (these are the ones with "Fool" in the title, so we can assume that the Fool returns as well). I enjoyed the Farseer trilogy, especially Royal Assassin, but I have to say I'm in no hurry to go back to the Six Duchies any time soon.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Divine identity

In a comment on this post over at dadahead, one Christopher S. expresses a common opinion:
Muslims worship the same God as Christians and Jews do. They don't worship some different deity whose name is "Allah" -- "Allah" MEANS "God." Arabic-speaking Christians refer to "Allah" just like Muslims do. The Catholic Maltese (who speak a language directly related to Moghrabi Arabic) say "Allah" as well.

Didn't know that about the Catholic Maltese. Didn't know there were Catholic Maltese. (I do know where Malta is, though. I think.) The Maltese, however, Catholic or no, are not our subject today, but instead the identity of God Himself.

Remember a while back, when the President was explaining how he was ticked off, not at Muslims per se, but instead at the small minority thereof who did mean things like blow people up? Not surprisingly, in so doing he said something very much like the first sentence in the above quotation. As I recall, he was immediately challenged on this point by (I think) Richard Land, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention, who said (paraphrasing freely here) "No, they don't either, you big dummy!" So, which is right?

In this sense, I believe, God and/or Allah is not unlike a certain twice-baked yummy Italian cookie. Don't click that link yet! Let me explain first. Provoked by a claim about biscotti (i.e., that they aren't really biscotti until they've been cooked twice), in the linked post (after some dithering) I ended up saying, pretty much along Austinian and/or Wittgensteinian lines, that it doesn't matter which we say, as long as we don't get confused. It's not true, as some people claim, that the ontological facts of the matter swing completely free of our linguistic practices (that is, what we actually say), such that when speaking normally we might get (what we like to call) the appearances right (thus allowing for ordinary mistakes) but the underlying metaphysics wrong.

In our case, my immediate sympathies, ontologically speaking, were with the President (and Christopher S.) rather than Rev. Land (if that's indeed who it was). Here's why. A lot of people don't know the first thing about Islam (for some reason they don't teach this in school), and it is indeed worth pointing out that Islam is what we call an Abrahamic faith. Briefly and crudely, the Muslim story is that the God they worship ("Allah") is the God of Abraham the patriarch and Moses the lawgiver, as discussed in the Hebrew scriptures. Like Mohammed (peace be upon him), Jesus of Nazareth was a human being; a prophet (rasul), in contact (of some sort) with the divine, but apart from that, a human being like any other. Unlike pagans, Jews and Christians are "people of the book" (the Bible), and deserve at least that much respect. So when Muslims say (pardon my transliteration) La allahu ill' Allah ("there is no god but God"), they are agreeing with Jews and Christians that the God of Abraham is the only deity.

Naturally, about the nature of this entity, there remains some disagreement, which can get quite heated at times. So on this (Kripkean?) view what we should say is this: that the three faiths worship the same (i.e., numerically identical) entity, about Whom they believe different things (such that the three objects of devotion are qualitatively distinct). But now, as upon further reflection I have come to see, we run into the same issue as we did in the kitchen (with the cookies). Rev. Land's point was that the President was being silly to imply that the shared heritage, which of course he does not dispute, means that Muslims are somehow okay, theologically speaking. (Again I paraphrase.) The heart of the matter is this: Muslims reject the divinity of Christ. So what if Allah is numerically identical with the God of Abraham? In a way that makes it worse: Muslims aren't simply pagans (worshiping some entirely other, presumably non-existent, god), but heretics and blasphemers (worshiping God, supposedly, but getting his nature completely wrong: worse than Protestants (if you're Catholic) and worse than Catholics (if you're Protestant).)

In other words, the God Muslims worship is not triune, and did not send his Son to save us, which sounds like a different God indeed from the Christian God. Given this, it seems like the only reason to insist on marking the difference by referring to the two as numerically identical entities with different properties is the Kripkean one, that when the Prophet recited the Qur'an he referred to its ultimate source, naturally enough, with the Arabic name ("Allah") with which the God of Abraham had already been "baptized" (in the Kripkean sense; see Naming and Necessity for the whole story). But as far as I'm concerned the Kripkean story is entirely optional, best suited for hardcore metaphysical realists and their benighted ilk. For English speakers (and Arabic speakers), on the other hand, it seems perfectly natural to speak as Rev. Land does -- that is, to make the point about the difference between Muslims and Christians by speaking of the respective objects of devotion as (numerically) distinct entities. For Muslims, while Christians are indeed "people of the book," their "triune" God (whatever that means) doesn't exist; that would be blasphemy (or it would if it made any sense). La allahu, in other words, ill' Allah.

My point here, obviously, is metaphysical cum semantic rather than theological; on both (semantic) accounts the theological differences are the same, mutatis mutandis. On the other hand, however, particular differences may indeed only emerge on one way of speaking rather than the other: are Muslims firing their prayers into the void, or instead at a God against whom they blaspheme? What it is right to say, I claim (again putting the "facts of the matter" -- i.e., whether Islam or Christianity is the one true faith -- to one side), does not depend on an underlying ontology. The reason this is not idealism is that what it is right to say does depend, in part, on how things are (i.e., construed without the metaphysical appearance/reality dualism). If you want to hear more about cookies, or Austin, you can click that link now.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

I got your "elucidation and moderation" right here, Jack

I finally finished the Spinoza bio I've been reading (spoiler: he dies at the end). Here's one last quotation. One of the few works published in Spinoza's lifetime was the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, for which he caught holy hell, so to speak, on account of the (supposedly) impious and (actually) heretical doctrines to be found therein. Naturally most if not all of the attacks were from people who didn't understand it. On the other hand, this doesn't mean they would have liked it any better if they did. His friends believed him when he said he had been misunderstood, so they urged him to clear things up so he wouldn't get into any more trouble. Here's Henry Oldenburg, one of his oldest friends and the Secretary of the Royal Society of England, writing in 1675:
I cannot but approve your purpose in signifying your willingness to elucidate and moderate those passages in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus which have proved a stumbling-block to readers. I refer in particular to those which appear to treat in an ambiguous way of God and Nature, which many people consider you have confused with each other. In addition, many are of the opinion that you take away the authority and validity of miracles, which almost all Christians are convinced form the sole basis on which the certainty of Divine Revelation can rest. Furthermore, they say that you are concealing your opinion with regard to Jesus Christ, Redeemer of the World, sole Mediator for mankind, and of his Incarnation and Atonement, and they request you to disclose your attitude clearly on these three heads. If you do so, and in this matter satisfy reasonable and intelligent Christians, I think your position will be secure.

Nadler's comment: "Spinoza must have wondered, indeed, how closely Oldenburg had read the Treatise" (p. 331).

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The innocence of youth (or: careful with that hammer, Eugene)

I was out to-day on my late-afternoon constitutional, and I happened to pass a small group of children playing by the side of the road. As I passed, a lad of about eight years remarked to his fellows, in the wonder-filled tone in which you might expect a child to say something like "Aren't butterflies beautiful?", the following charming observation:
Isn't it fun to smash things?
I would make some remark here about the times we live in, except children have been saying this to each other from the beginning of time -- and besides, he's right. Ah, to be a kid again!