Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Clifford's Sea Captain

In his Ethics of Belief, W. K. Clifford gives his famous example of the negligent sea captain:

A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not overwell built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him at great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance-money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.

Clifford from this draws the conclusion that we would recognize the ship captain as responsible for the deaths of those who died and that, in particular, we would say that "the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him."

The example is often quoted or alluded to in discussions of the ethics of belief, due to Clifford; but always uncritically, I think. More careful reasoners should pause here, because Clifford's ethical analysis is just obviously bad. First, like everything in the essay, the condemnation is stated in an exaggerated manner; on most ethical theories we could not say "that he was verily guilty of the death of those men" without qualification. Negligent omission, even egregiously culpable negligent omission, does not work like deliberate commission, and does not interact with guilt in the same way. Further, Clifford is playing a rhetorical game in his parting shot at the sea captain; told that someone "got his insurance-money...and told no tales", we would usually take this to suggest that the matter was in fact more deliberate than the sea captain's actions are actually presented as being -- that, in fact, he was at least half-angling toward the insurance money to begin with, particularly given the prior emphasis on expense. But what Clifford needs for his argument is really a clean case -- someone believing badly without the additional unsavory suggestion of things like greed. He needs a sea captain who is, as he previously said, genuinely benevolent, and whose only flaw is this. Otherwise you get cross-interference that blunts the usefulness of the example for the purpose of showing that there are obligations of belief in particular, and not just obligations not to be greedy.

Worse, the ship captain's belief is simply irrelevant here. The sea captain's sincerity of belief does not help him, to be sure, but it is not because "he had no right to believe", but because the belief in question doesn't matter. We condemn the sea captain not because he believed badly; we condemn the sea captain because, given his doubts, he had responsibilities regardless. Likewise, this is why it doesn't matter whether his belief turns out to be right or not: not because he had no right to belief, but because his responsibilities didn't depend on that belief at all. His responsibilities are based on the warning-flags that had been raised; it didn't matter what he in fact believed about the ship.

What is more, if we look at the timeline here, we find that it is poorly suited for Clifford's ultimate point. The timeline is as follows:

(1) The shipowner is preparing to send the ship, knowing that it is old, flawed, and often in need of repair.
(2) He has doubts that the ship is not seaworthy.
(3) He thinks that perhaps he has an obligation to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted.
(4) He tries to talk himself out of this and tries to dismiss some of his worries.
(5) He comes to have a sincere and comfortable conviction that the vessel is seaworthy.
(6) He sends the ship off with light heart and benevolent wishes.

The first thing to note is that the sea captain starts out believing that he might have an obligation, and then actively tries to talk himself out of that until he succeeds at (5). This is important because his actual obligation as a sea captain begins at (2), at which point he still suspects there might be a problem. All that the rest of the case shows, as far as the ethics of it, is that (3)-(6) don't affect this obligation at all -- he still has the same obligation throughout. Further, the real problem with the sea captain's final belief is not that he fails to believe in accordance with the evidence; it is that, thinking he had an obligation, one he actually had, he deliberately tried to convince himself that he didn't. This is where the appearance of the case being one of 'ethics of belief' comes from; it is the unethical nature of the motivation on which he is trying to convince himself not to believe what he does. But this is not about the belief; this is about trying to give yourself a belief with a motivation that is already and independently unethical.

And if we needed another reason to be skeptical of this commonly repeated case, the case is poorly suited just in itself for showing that Clifford's principle (it is wrong to believe on insufficient evidence) is true, because very little evidence is actually mentioned -- the ship is old, not all that well built, and has needed repairs before, and, on the other side, that she has gone safely through a lot of voyages and weathered a lot of storms. Everything else is just referred to as doubt and suspicion. Evidence doesn't play much of a role at all in our assessment of the moral situation -- indeed, once the sea captain has significant doubts, he already has at least some responsibility to double-check and take precautionary steps, even if he's nervously overreading the evidence and a more reasonable assessment of the ship would judge it to be just fine.

Thus the belief, as such, is irrelevant to the moral judgment; the evidence is not given much of a role in the scenario; and the ethical features of the scenario are not strongly tied to either. It's just a poor case.

A Moment's Monument

The Sonnet
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti


A sonnet is a moment's monument, —
Memorial from the soul's eternity
To one dead, deathless hour. Look that it be,
Whether for lustral rite or dire portent,
Of its own arduous fullness reverent;
Carve it in ivory or in ebony,
As Day or Night may rule; and let Time see
Its flowering crest impearled and orient.

A sonnet is a coin: its face reveals
The soul, — its converse to what Power 'tis due, —
Whether for tribute to the august appeals
Of Life, or dower in Love's high retinue,
It serve; or, 'mid the dark wharf's cavernous breath,
In Charon's palm it pay the toll to Death.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Neuroscience and the Microprocessor

A very interesting paper: Eric Jonas & Konrad Paul Kording, Could a Neuroscientist Understand a Microprocessor? (PDF).

Neuroscience is held back by the fact that it is hard to evaluate if a conclusion is correct; the complexity of the systems under study and their experimental inaccessability make the assessment of algorithmic and data analytic technqiues challenging at best. We thus argue for testing approaches using known artifacts, where the correct interpretation is known. Here we present a microprocessor platform as one such test case. We find that many approaches in neuroscience, when used naïvely, fall short of producing a meaningful understanding.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Lady Mary Shepherd Philosophy Salon

I recently came across a blog by Liba Kaucky called The Lady Mary Shepherd Philosophy Salon, which is devoted to discussion of Shepherd's philosophy. Definitely worth checking out if you are interested in various aspects of Shepherd's work.

Poetry and Prose

Freedom is fullness, especially fullness of life; and a full vessel is more rounded and complete than an empty one, and not less so. To vary Browning's phrase, we find in prose the broken arcs, in poetry the perfect round. Prose is not the freedom of poetry; rather prose is the fragments of poetry. Prose, at least in the prosaic sense, is poetry interrupted, held up and cut off from its course; the chariot of Phoebus stopped by a block in the Strand. But when it begins to move again at all, I think we shall find certain old-fashioned things move with it, such as repetition and even measure, rhythm and even rhyme.

G. K. Chesterton, "The Slavery of Free Verse", Fancies Versus Fads.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Rainbow in the Sky

In addition to being the memorial of St. Robert Bellarmine, it is also the memorial of St. Hildegard von Bingen, Doctor of the Church, the Sibyl of the Rhine.

From her work explaining the Athanasian Creed (as translated by Nathaniel Campbell):

But God was mindful of the oath he made by the rainbow that he placed in the clouds of the sky (cf. Gen. 9:13-17) when he willed his Son—signified by the rainbow—to be born of untainted virginal nature. He overcame all of his enemies with a powerful assault, as those humans were destroyed by the water of the flood (cf. Gen. 7)—but to a new age of humankind, restored by the water of baptism, Christ appeared like a rainbow in the clouds to reign within the Church. Indeed, the Church of God was joined to the Son of God as circumcision was to the law, whose keeping was a forerunner and prefiguration of the Church. But the new age, gilded by the Church’s ornament, shall never be chided for any fault at all. Moreover, like the rainbow it will never fade from the sky, and when it will be suppressed with fear to the point that it can scarcely see through a single eye, it will again be restored in the Son of God, just as it will also be restored at the time of the son of perdition (II Thess. 2:3). The various colors of the rainbow also signify the powers and virtues of the thousands of saints—in fire’s heat chastity and continence, in purple the martyrs’ martyrdom, in hyacinth-blue the teaching of our ancestors, and in green the virtues of the saints’ good works, which come forth as beams breathed forth by the Son of God like rays from the sun.

Bellarmine

Today is the memorial of St. Roberto Bellarmino, S.J., Doctor of the Church, the great polemicist of the Counter-Reformation.

He has an interesting passage in the Controversies in which he summarizes the travails of the Church using the Apostles' Creed. I'm not sure how hard it should be pressed as an intended historical thesis of how things have to unfold (since he clearly thinks there is overlap, and does regard all points as being under continual attack to varying degrees), rather than as an account of the thoroughness with which the Church is attacked on points of doctrine, which has its own natural order, but it does a good job of giving a sense of his sense of the spiritual war. It helps to know first the ordering of the articles, in their traditional enumeration.

1. I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
2. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
3. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
4. Under Pontius Pilate, He was crucified, died, and was buried.
5. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again.
6. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
7. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
8. I believe in the Holy Spirit,
9. the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints,
10. the forgiveness of sins,
11. the resurrection of the body,
12. and the life everlasting.

The enemy of the human race, although otherwise he is wont to be totally perverse and a disturber of good order, still he wishes to attack the truth of the Catholic Church not without a certain orderly procedure. Therefore, in the first two centuries from the foundation of the Christian Church, he was totally occupied in trying to destroy the first article in the Apostles' Creed. For what else did they want--the Simonians, the Menandrians, the Basilidians, the Valentinists, the Marcionists, the Manichaeans, and the whole school of the Gnostics--except that there is not one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth? But when he did not succeed in that, again at a later time about 200 years after the Lord, the devil established a new front, and he began to attack the second article of the Creed in which the divinity of Christ our Lord is explained....

...But since even then the gates of hell could not prevail against the Church, the devil, now taking a new third approach, began to oppose with even greater strength the third and at the same time the fourth, the fifth, the sixth and the seventh articles, because they have a certain connection and relationship with each other.

Therefore he stirred up Nestorius and Theodore of Mopsuestia after the year 400....

All of these, even though different among themselves and using contrary tactics and tricks, strove to destroy and overturn the last five articles of the Apostolic Creed concerning the one and the same mystery of the divine Incarnation, and also of the passion, of the resurrection and of his coming to judge the living and the dead.

He then assigns the schism between East and West to the attack on the eighth article, on the Holy Spirit, and then continues:

But certainly, when our cunning enemy realized that he was accomplishing very little by attacking those articles of faith, which pertain to the divine persons, he then dedicated himself completely to upset and destroy the truths concerning the Church and the sacraments. These two articles -- I believe in the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints and the forgiveness of sins, with all of his tricks and efforts, with the power of hell he has tried to pervert, and he is still trying even to this day; this has been his strategy since the year one thousand down to the present day; his forces have often been changed, increased and renewed -- by the Berengarians, Petrohrussians, Waldensians, Albigensians, Wycliffites, Hussites, Lutherans, Zwinglians, Confessionists and Anabaptists.

And here we still are, I suppose, still fighting the Battle over the Forgiveness of Sins in the longest and most subtle war.

[St. Robert Cardinal Bellarmine, S. J., Controversies of the Christian Faith, Baker, tr. Keep the Faith Inc., pp. 17-19.]

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Dilemma of All Human Philosophizing

It is a bold undertaking to pick out a single pair of concepts from a closed system in order to get to the bottom of them. For the "organon" of philosophy is one, and the individual concepts that we may isolate are so intertwined that each sheds light on the others and none can be treated exhaustively outside of its context.

Such is the dilemma of all human philosophizing: truth is but one, yet for us it falls into truths (plural) that we must master step by step. At some point we must plunge in to discover a greater expanse; yet when this broader horizon does appear, a new depth will open up at our point of entry.

[Edith Stein, Potency and Act, Redmond, tr., ICS Publications (Washington, DC: 2009) p. 5.]

Friday, September 15, 2017

Vehement Fire of Charity

Today is the feast of St. Catherine of Genoa, who devoted her life to the sick and ran a hospital. She died in 1510. Her most famous and lasting work, however, is her Treatise on Purgatory, which is probably the most important early modern discussion of the doctrine. It appeared, four decades after her death, in a book about her life; the authenticity of the attribution to her has occasionally been denied, but the evidence, such as it is, tends to favor it, and there is no particular reason other than the work's late public appearance to reject it. It is usually thought, however, to have had some redaction by others, probably at least organizational. From the Treatise on Purgatory, chapter III:

And because there is no good except by participation with God, who, to the irrational creatures imparts Himself as He wills and in accordance with His divine decree, and never withdraws from them, but to the rational soul He imparts Himself more or less, according as He finds her more or less freed from the hindrances of sin, it follows that when he finds a soul that is returning to the purity and simplicity in which she was created, He increases in her the beatific instinct and kindles in her a fire of charity so powerful and vehement that it is insupportable to the soul to find any obstacle between her and her final end; and the clearer vision she has of these obstacles the greater is her pain.

Since the souls in Purgatory are freed from the guilt of sin, there is no barrier between them and God save only the pains they suffer, which delay the satisfaction of their desire.

[St. Catherine of Genoa and Don Cattaneo Marabotto, The Spiritual Doctrine of Saint Catherine of Genoa, TAN (Rockford, IL: 1989) pp. 303-304.]

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Opinio Copiae inter Maximas Causas Inopiae Est

John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women, Chapter 1:

I have dwelt so much on the difficulties which at present obstruct any real knowledge by men of the true nature of women, because in this as in so many other things "opinio copiae inter maximas causas inopiae est"; and there is little chance of reasonable thinking on the matter while people flatter themselves that they perfectly understand a subject of which most men know absolutely nothing, and of which it is at present impossible that any man, or all men taken together, should have knowledge which can qualify them to lay down the law to women as to what is, or is not, their vocation. Happily, no such knowledge is necessary for any practical purpose connected with the position of women is relation to society and life. For, according to all the principles involved in modern society, the question rests with women themselves — to be decided by their own experience, and by the use of their own faculties. There are no means of finding what either one person or many can do, but by trying — and no means by which anyone else can discover for them what it is for their happiness to do or leave undone.

Opinio copiae inter maximas causas inopiae est means 'One of the biggest reasons for being impoverished is thinking you have a lot' (literally, 'belief in abundance is among the greatest causes for scarcity', or 'the idea that one is wealthy is one of the major causes of poverty'). It is a quotation of Francis Bacon, in particular from the preface of the Instauratio Magna; Bacon is talking about knowledge, which is why it comes up here; what Mill says immediately after this is entirely in line with the meaning of the saying. It's worth quoting in context, since Mill is likely assuming that the whole passage would be called to mind by his quotation of the key part:

It seems to me that men do not rightly understand either their store or their strength, but overrate the one and underrate the other. Hence it follows that either from an extravagant estimate of the value of the arts which they possess they seek no further, or else from too mean an estimate of their own powers they spend their strength in small matters and never put it fairly to the trial in those which go to the main. These are as the pillars of fate set in the path of knowledge, for men have neither desire nor hope to encourage them to penetrate further. And since opinion of store is one of the chief causes of want, and satisfaction with the present induces neglect of provision for the future, it becomes a thing not only useful, but absolutely necessary, that the excess of honor and admiration with which our existing stock of inventions is regarded be in the very entrance and threshold of the work, and that frankly and without circumlocution stripped off, and men be duly warned not to exaggerate or make too much of them.

Bacon is concerned with arguing for the importance of doing more along the line of what we call scientific inquiry; this, of course, is not the kind of argument Mill is making. But Mill would see less of a division between what we call scientific matters and political or ethical matters than most people would today; political progress would not be sharply divided by him from scientific progress. Thus it's probably not just incidental that he is quoting philosophy of science in a discussion of government. And the basic line of thought has parallel -- before you could have reasonable thought, men would have to recognize that they really know nothing, and therefore need to learn. But in the political context there is an option that does not exist in the context Bacon is discussing: it is not actually necessary for men to learn all they need to know in order to lay down the law for how women should be women -- they can let the experts decide, namely, the women themselves.

David J. Riesbeck has a very nice little paper on the fact that the Latin quotation has often been mistranslated in notes to editions of The Subjection of Women, and why that matters for interpretation of Mill's argument.