Saturday, November 28, 2015

Verbal Disputes

A purely verbal dispute is of course a dispute that arises solely from a misunderstanding about the meaning of words, where there is no difference of view as to facts between the disputants : the sort of dispute which the Scholastics sought to avoid by enforcing the maxim, Initium disputandi, definitio nominis. Logicians have held the most widely divergent views about the extent of such disputes, some maintaining, with Locke, "that the greatest part of the disputes in the world are merely verbal," others, with De Quincey, that "they have never in the whole course of their lives met with such a thing as a merely verbal dispute." The truth lies much nearer the latter extreme than the former, for when different people attach different meanings to the same term the cause of such difference of usage will almost invariably be found to be a difference of view about facts.

Peter Coffey, The Science of Logic: An Inquiry into the Principles of Accurate Thought and Scientific Method, Volume I: Conception, Judgment, and Inference, Peter Smith (New York: 1938) p. 103.

Anyone who has engaged in a significant number of arguments realizes just how much effort has to go into getting onto the same terminological page even in fairly simple arguments. But for all that, I incline to the De Quincey view myself. In general, I think, verbal disputes, to the extent that they exist, tend to be about stipulations or about classifications. But arguments about purely stipulated labels, while all about words, can generally be traced to a difference in views about how language works or about how most people will interpret it or about what would be most practically useful; and disputes about classification are never merely verbal, since they are about how facts fit with other facts. If you have a "purely verbal dispute" it always seems to be a sign that the parties involved have only argued even their own positions very superficially. If people are not on the same page, there are generally identifiable reasons why they are not; it's just that finding them requires tracing back the argument to its roots. If this weren't the case, one would expect verbal disputes to be resolvable by bare agreement to use words in the same way; but in fact the resolution of verbal disputes always requires a better understanding of the issues at stake.

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Master of Ballantrae


Opening Passage: There are two different versions of The Master of Ballantrae, one of which, the original, jumps directly into the story and the other of which has a preface describing how the author received the 'manuscript', which Stevenson later added as a sort of tribute to a friend. Mine was in the latter family, but it still makes sense to treat the opening of the work as beginning with Chapter One.

The full truth of this odd matter is what the world has long been looking for, and public curiosity is sure to welcome. It so befell that I was intimately mingled with the last years and history of the house; and there does not live one man so able as myself to make these matters plain, or so desirous to narrate them faithfully. I knew the Master; on many secret steps of his career I have an authentic memoir in my hand; I sailed with him on his last voyage almost alone; I made one upon that winter’s journey of which so many tales have gone abroad; and I was there at the man’s death. As for my late Lord Durrisdeer, I served him and loved him near twenty years; and thought more of him the more I knew of him. Altogether, I think it not fit that so much evidence should perish; the truth is a debt I owe my lord’s memory; and I think my old years will flow more smoothly, and my white hair lie quieter on the pillow, when the debt is paid.

Summary: James and Henry Durie are the two sons of Lord Durrisdeer. James is the titular Master, the villain of the piece who will drive his younger brother to near madness and death. He is the reader of the two, the one with the sharper mind; Henry is solid, with a taste for sport and the practical. But James is also the wilder of the two, overly indulged from an early age, and intelligent enough, charming enough, and strong enough of will to do as he pleases. And it is, of course, doing merely as one pleases that makes a villain.

The family is caught in the middle during the Jacobite uprising in Scotland, and like many families that were in a comfortable position, attempts as a matter of policy to hedge its bets, with one son supporting Stuart in the field and one son supporting Hanover at home, but a dispute arises over which son will do which. Reason suggests that the older son should remain at home and marry, and the younger son leave home, but the Master will have none of it: he wants the adventuresome path. It is put to the toss of a coin, and the Master wins. An irony throughout the work is that the Master refers to Henry as 'Jacob', maliciously implying that Henry has usurped the Master's place; but if so, the Master is an Esau who sold his birthright for what turned out to be insignificant after all.

Thus begins the doom of the house of Durie, although, perhaps, the Master would have doomed it either way. In any case, the Master goes off to fight for bonnie Prince Charlie and apparently dies. His fiancee marries Henry instead, and Henry himself -- well, he receives a very unfavorable reputation in the neighborhood for failing to support the uprising and is treated very poorly in his own home as his father and his wife mourn, and continue to mourn, and don't stop mourning, the fallen Master. But the Master, cat-like, has more lives than one, or, rather, a knack for turning a desperate gamble in his own favor. One of the interesting aspects of the story is the way in which the Master poisons everyone's behavior, and manages to do it, often enough, when he is at his most charming and apparently harmless. He is indeed, as Stevenson thought him, something of a devil, filled with "deadly, causeless duplicty" made all the worse by his being "bold as a lion". He repeatedly uses the decency of those around him against them, whenever he thinks it is in his interest. And it is perhaps worthwhile to remember that while most of the Master's ilk are, unlike himself, cowards, there are a very great many people in the world who thrust decent characters into bad situations in the hope that they will blackmail themselves, who provoke people into excess and then use their shame to manipulate them, and who turn loyalty into corruption and generosity into a means of parasitism.

Favorite Passage: From Chapter IX:

He was quite capable of choosing out a graceful posture, even with no one to behold him but myself, and all the more if there were any element of peril. He sat now with one knee flung across the other, his arms on his bosom, fitting the swing of the ship with an exquisite balance, such as a featherweight might overthrow. All at once I had the vision of my lord at the table, with his head upon his hands; only now, when he showed me his countenance, it was heavy with reproach. The words of my own prayer—I were liker a man if I struck this creature down—shot at the same time into my memory. I called my energies together, and (the ship then heeling downward toward my enemy) thrust at him swiftly with my foot. It was written I should have the guilt of this attempt without the profit. Whether from my own uncertainty or his incredible quickness, he escaped the thrust, leaping to his feet and catching hold at the same moment of a stay.

I do not know how long a time passed by. I lying where I was upon the deck, overcome with terror and remorse and shame: he standing with the stay in his hand, backed against the bulwarks, and regarding me with an expression singularly mingled.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.

[ADDED LATER]: I almost forgot to add that I did manage to listen to the Orson Welles & Agnes Moorehead "Master of Ballantrae" episode for the Golden Age radio program This Is My Best. It wasn't bad, but despite some excellent acting, it was a weak episode. One of the problems with it is that the story moved far too quickly. It shows, I think, that much of the strength of the book is found in its relatively leisured pace.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Cosmic Snobbery

It has always seemed to us truly extraordinary that Christians should have raised such a shriek of disgust at the "degrading" notion that man was made out of the lower animals, when the very Bible they defended described him, with splendid common sense, as made out of red mud. But it is stranger still that philosophers who have accepted in a healthier spirit the genial fact of our kinship with the other creatures, should try to revive the silly and vulgar prejudice against the animal world in order to throw discredit on the moral dignity of man or woman. To refuse to judge of souls, laws, creeds or tendencies on their own merits is the perfection of cosmic snobbery. To inquire whether a man's father did not keep a shop is far less snobbish than to inqure whether his ancestor did not keep a tail.

G. K. Chesterton, "Woman and the Philosophers," from The Speaker (26 January 1901).

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Relaxing the Bow

Now just as weariness of the body is dispelled by resting the body, so weariness of the soul must needs be remedied by resting the soul: and the soul's rest is pleasure, as stated above (I-II, 25, 2; I-II, 31, 1, ad 2). Consequently, the remedy for weariness of soul must needs consist in the application of some pleasure, by slackening the tension of the reason's study. Thus in the Conferences of the Fathers xxiv, 21, it is related of Blessed John the Evangelist, that when some people were scandalized on finding him playing together with his disciples, he is said to have told one of them who carried a bow to shoot an arrow. And when the latter had done this several times, he asked him whether he could do it indefinitely, and the man answered that if he continued doing it, the bow would break. Whence the Blessed John drew the inference that in like manner man's mind would break if its tension were never relaxed.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 2-2.168.2. Quies animae est delectatio: we could also translate it as 'The quiet of the soul is delight', and 'delight' perhaps gets us closer than 'pleasure' to what Aquinas means here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Saint Catherine of the Wheel

Today is the feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria, Virgin Martyr, patron saint of philosophers. She is one of the most popular virgin martyrs in history, and is found in endlessly many paintings, sculptures, and the like. Most of them have to do with the stories of her martyrdom, when the attempt was made to break her on the wheel -- that is, she was strapped horizontally to a wagon wheel and beaten. One would use a wheel because wheels were the most sturdy large things that you could lay horizontally like a table that would not be solid like a table. Then the person laid across it would be beaten with something heavy; since wagon wheels have a lot of empty space, the beating would be much more likely to result in broken bones than if you beat them on something solid. But in St. Catherine's case, the story goes, when they first tried to beat her, she didn't break -- the wheel did. Because of that you can almost always pick her out in paintings, because she's depicted with a wheel or a fragment of a wheel.

Another scene found in the late medieval collection of stories about saints, The Golden Legend, gives us another popular topic for painters, the Mystic Marriage. St. Catherine has a vision of some sort and has just been baptized by a priest, with the Virgin Mary as her godmother (that's a bit of long story on its own), and then the Virgin Mary says that she lacks nothing to be proper wife:

And so our Lady led her forth unto the quire door whereas she saw our Saviour Jesu Christ with a great multitude of angels, whose beauty is impossible to be thought or written of earthly creature, of whose sight this blessed virgin was I fulfilled with so great sweetness that it cannot be expressed. To whom our blessed Lady benignly said: Most sovereign honour, joy and glory be to you, King of bliss, my Lord, my God and my son, Lo! I have brought here unto your blessed presence your humble servant and ancille Katherine, which for your love hath refused all earthly things, and hath at my sending obeyed to come hither, hoping and trusting to receive that I promised to her. Then our Blessed Lord took up, his mother and said: Mother, that which pleaseth you, pleaseth me, and your desire is mine, for I desire that she be knit to me by marriage among all the virgins of the earth. And said to her Katherine, come hither to me. And as soon as she heard him name her name, so great a sweetness entered into her soul that she was all ravished, and therewith our Lord gave to her a new strength which passed nature, and said to her: Come my spouse, and give to me your hand. And there our Lord espoused her in joining himself to her by spiritual marriage, promising ever to keep her in all her life in this world, and after this life to reign perpetually in his bliss, and in token of this set a ring on her finger, which he commanded her to keep in remembrance of this, and said: Dread ye not, my dear spouse, I shall not depart from you, but always comfort and strengthen you. Then said this new spouse: O blessed Lord, I thank you with all mine heart of all your great mercies, beseeching you to make me digne and worthy to be thy servant and handmaid, and to please you whom my heart loveth and desireth above all things. And thus this glorious marriage was made, whereof all the celestial court joyed and sang this verse in heaven: Sponsus amat sponsam, salvator visitat illam, with so great melody that no heart may express ne think it.

The story is a literalization of the notion that the consecrated virgin is Spouse of Christ; but the Vision of Mystic Marriage is most closely associated with virgins who are martyrs or confessors, or who undergo extraordinary mortifications, since such women are especially united to the passion of Christ. In St. Catherine's case, of course, she was a martyr. Having such a vision is not a particularly uncommon religious experience, in fact -- there are literal dozens of cases in the calendar of saints, including a fairly well attested one by different St. Catherine, St. Catherine of Siena -- but the legend of St. Catherine of Alexandria seems to serve as the general template for the depiction of such things in art, and probably also for how the experience is interpreted.

Topsy-Turveydom of Poetry

All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry. If we paused for a moment to examine the cheapest cant phrases that pass our lips every day we should find that they were as rich and suggestive as so many sonnets. To take a single instance: we speak of a man in English social relations 'breaking the ice.' If this were expanded into a sonnet we should have before us a dark and sublime picture of an ocean of everlasting ice, the sombre and baffling mirror of the northern nature, over which men walked and danced and skated easily, but under which the living waters roared and toiled fathoms below. The world of slang is a kind of topsy-turveydom of poetry, full of blue moons and white elephants, of men losing their heads, and men whose tongues run away with them-a whole chaos of fairy tales.

G. K. Chesterton, "A Defence of Slang" in The Defendant

The Form of Traditional Consensus Gentium Arguments (II)

To add to the point about the (or at least the major) form of traditional consensus gentium arguments involving a step concerned with what is appropriate or natural to a rational being, here is a summary of it by George Hayward Joyce, SJ, from his Principles of Natural Theology (1922):

Argument from universal consent. The present argument may be said to be independent of any special system of thought. It has been employed by those whose philosophical positions are widely different. It rests simply on the principle that man's intellect is fundamentally trustworthy: that, though frequently misled in this or that particular case through accidental causes, yet the instrument itself is sound: that, of its own nature, it leads, not to error, but to truth. It follows from this, that if the human race, taken as a whole, agrees in regarding a given conclusion as certain, it is impossible to suppose that that conclusion is false. Could a general conviction of this kind be mistaken, it would argue that something is amiss with the faculty itself: that it is idle for man to search for truth, since the very organ of truth is fallacious. Pure scepticism would be the sole logical attitude. In point of fact, man cannot use his intellect without recognizing its trustworthiness. It is its own sufficient guarantee. When we judge, we do not judge blindly: we see that our judgment is true. This being premised, we urge that there is a veritable consensus among men that God exists. All races, civilized and uncivilized alike, are at one in holding that the facts of nature and the voice of conscience compel us to affirm this as certain truth. We do not, of course, mean that none are found to deny it. There is no proposition which some will not be found to question. The pragmatist denies the necessity even of the principle of contradiction. But we contend that those who admit the existence of God form so overwhelming a majority, that agnostics and atheists do not affect the moral unanimity of the race. If, then, the judgment of all mankind cannot be mistaken, we have here yet another valid proof of the existence of God.

Note two key points: the nature of human reason shows up explicitly as essential to the argument, and the claim for universality is that of "the moral unanimity of the race", not the bare agreement of everyone without exception. Walter O'Briant claims in a 1985 article that this is a divergence from the historical tradition, but provides no actual evidence of this: the people he considers as having discussed it are Plato (the Laws passage), Mill, Hume, Herbert of Cherbury, and John Calvin. Of these, Calvin certainly would have known that some people claim that God does not exist; O'Briant criticizes Mill for not getting the argument right, either (and Mill's interpretation would also have avoided the universality problem, since Mill took it as an argument to the authority of mankind generally, especially of its wisest members, which does not require that everyone without exception agree); Hume explicitly qualifies 'universal' with 'almost'; and Herbert of Cherbury is not discussed in sufficient detail to establish that he does commit to strict universality. Thus O'Briant doesn't really seem to have a case that Joyce is wrong here.

O'Briant also argues that Joyce, despite not holding to strict universality, needs it:

Joyce is hung on a dilemma of his own creation. If he uses the notion of consensus as involving merely proportionate agreement, then the belief in the existence of God becomes something about which the human intellect may in particular cases be misled. If he uses the notion of consensus as a universal agreement in P2 [There is a veritable consensus among men that God exists] , then he must deny that there can be atheists or agnostics. [Walter H. O'Briant, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion Vol. 18, No. 1/2 (1985), pp. 73-79]

But there is no real dilemma here; Joyce's argument is that those who are theists of some kind form such an overwhelming majority that 'human intellect may in particular cases be misled' cannot be an adequate explanation of the fact, although it can be an adequate explanation of the small number of atheists. (It's another question whether agnostics should be brought in at all here, since, despite the tendency to lump atheists and agnostics together, the intellectual stances are rather different.) O'Briant seems to think that "the human race, taken as a whole" requires "every human being" rather than "the human race on the whole" -- but it is clear that Joyce is explicitly arguing that the latter tells us something about the nature of human reason, and this is at least not an implausible claim. If it's true, though, then, Joyce can take the first horn of the dilemma without any problem: the argument is entirely consistent with atheists being the particular cases of error, while the general and normal operation of reason shows that these are, in fact, errors arising through accidental causes rather than through reason itself. There are questions one could certainly raise about this argument, but the universality problem is not a serious issue here. (O'Briant does hold, it should be said, that while the argument fails as a proof, it is a reason to take the existence of God as prima facie plausible -- and if he had stuck with just criticizing Joyce on the strength of the conclusion he thinks Joyce can get, instead of arguing that he is hung on a dilemma involving universality, he would have been on much stronger ground.)

It's worthwhile to compare in this regard another kind of consensus gentium argument that does not deal with the existence of God -- the consensus gentium argument that some things really are morally right or morally wrong. This argument does not require that there be no skeptics about morality or psychopaths; it just requires us to hold that the human race, generally speaking, is rational, and that human reason is basically trustworthy, so that a solid consensus is guaranteed at least to be the most reasonable interpretation of available evidence; and therefore that if there are people who diverge from a very solid consensus on this point, it is at least very likely that it is not due to superior reasoning but due to some cause of error.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

"Oh! let no time be lost"

In his review of Jane Austen's juvenilia, Chesterton marks out the door-knock scene from the fifth letter of Love and Friendship as one of the especially humorous parts of the work. And it is indeed excellent in every way. Here it is:

One Evening in December, as my Father, my Mother, and myself were arranged in social converse round our Fireside, we were, on a sudden, greatly astonished by hearing a violent knocking on the outward Door of our rustic Cot.

My Father started -- "What noise is that," (said he). "It sounds like a loud rapping at the door" -- (replied my Mother). "It does indeed," (cried I). "I am of your opinion; (said my Father) it certainly does appear to proceed from some uncommon violence exerted against our unoffending door." "Yes (exclaimed I) I cannot help thinking it must be somebody who knocks for admittance."

"That is another point (replied he); We must not pretend to determine on what motive the person may knock -- tho' that someone does rap at the door, I am partly convinced."

Here, a second tremendous rap interrupted my Father in his speech, and somewhat alarmed my Mother and me.

"Had we not better go and see who it is? (said she) The servants are out." "I think we had," (replied I).

"Certainly, (added my Father) by all means." "Shall we go now?" (said my Mother). "The sooner the better," (answered he). "Oh! let no time be lost" (cried I).

A third, more violent Rap than ever, again assaulted our ears. "I am certain there is somebody knocking at the Door," (said my Mother). "I think there must," (replied my Father). "I fancy the servants are returned; (said I) I think I hear Mary going to the Door." "I'm glad of it (cried my Father) for I long to know who it is."

Jane Austen, the first writer for Monty Python.

The Form of Traditional Consensus Gentium Arguments

Joshua Rollins on traditional consensus gentium arguments:

Here is the argument's basic form:

(UA) Belief in God is (nearly) universal.
For any given proposition P, if belief in P is (nearly) universal, P must be true (i.e,, P must obtain).
So, if belief in God is (nearly) universal, God must exist.

∴ God must exist.

The traditional formulation is perhaps the most well-known version of the common consent argument. Versions of the traditional formulation appear in Cicero's On the Nature of the Gods (book 1, section 17) and Plato's Laws (book X, 886).

I think we need to be careful about assuming that Plato's argument in Laws X is actually in this family of argument; the point being addressed in context is whether it is easy to show that gods exists, and Clinias says that it is, for two reasons: (1) the order of the world makes it obvious to the senses; and (2) Greeks and barbarians alike already accept the existence of gods. It's possible to read this as two arguments for the existence of gods; it's also possible to read it as an argument for the existence of gods and an argument that you hardly even need that; and it's also possible to read it as an argument that it's easy to show, or perhaps that it's the sort of thing that one need not worry about accepting. The Athenian agrees, but goes on to say that there are people whose corruption of mind Clinias has hardly begun to grasp. Thus one could well interpret it as just saying that since lots of people regardless of society agree that gods exist, there's not much need in the context of law to worry about defending it -- if we take that interpretation, the Athenian rejects it in the dialogue on the grounds that it underestimates how perverse atheists are, but it is in any case not in the particular family of argument identified by Rollins.

Cicero, who is presenting what he regards as Epicurus's argument, does put forward something roughly like this, but it's not the mere fact of universality that is doing the work in the Epicurean argument: it's that it is such as to suggest that the belief is not purely dependent on education and custom, and thus that it is implanted or innate in us. Then this, the claim about its entanglement with human reason, is what yields the conclusion. Cicero later in the work (book II, section 2) has his Stoic philosopher note the resilience of the belief as a confirmation: time destroys error and fiction, but belief in the gods is quite stable and resistant to change among populations. The argument too seems to be a somewhat different argument from what Rollins has in mind; for instance, this form of argument does not fall victim to the criticisms that Rollins goes on to give of the traditional argument. For instance, Rollins says, " traditionalists fallaciously presuppose that (near) consensus on any given proposition P provides proof that P is true". This is certainly false of the argument as we find it in Cicero.

It's worth noting that neither the argument as we find it in Plato (regardless of the interpretation we take) or as we find it in Cicero has any problem with the first difficulty Rollins notes: "it's highly unlikely that belief in God (or gods) was ever universal, or even nearly so". The Ciceronian version does not depend on universality, but on naturalness. And the Platonic version is presented explicitly in a context in which everyone recognizes that there are atheists -- it's just not relevant to the point at hand, which is whether atheism is a serious enough issue to address directly. And we also have to keep in mind that ancient and medieval philosophers tend not to be very strict about universality in general -- they don't treat occasional exceptions as counterexamples to universal statements as long as the exceptions can be explained by some kind of impeding or defective cause. (Their universals tend to be 'Aristotelian universals', as we call them now.) That nature occasionally produces freaks of nature, the odd lusus naturae, some preternatural phenomenon or out-of-the-ordinary monster, was an extremely common view.

I think, if we are going to talk about 'traditional formulations' of consensus gentium arguments, we should take the Ciceronian argument seriously and hold that they involve an intermediate step to what is natural or fitting to a rational creature.


St. Clement of Rome is celebrated on November 23 in the Roman calendar, on November 24 in Greek Orthodox and most Eastern Catholic calendars, and November 25 in the Russian Orthodox and Coptic calendars (although some of these celebrate according to the Julian rather than Gregorian calendar, which would put the day in December according to the Gregorian calendar). I had intended to put something up about him yesterday, but forgot; but since today is also the feast of Clement, as is tomorrow, I figure I have some leeway.

In papal lists he is sometimes placed second after Peter, sometimes third after Linus, and sometimes fourth after Linus and Anacletus; according to Tertullian, at least, Peter consecrated all three men as bishops to care for the community or communities at Rome so that he could devote himself to preaching, and Clement was the one with the most responsibility while Peter was alive. In any case, the papal lists usually follow St. Irenaeus, and that list puts the order as Peter, Linus, Anacletus, Clement. From his letter to the Corinthians (Chapter 38):

Let our whole body, then, be preserved in Christ Jesus; and let every one be subject to his neighbour, according to the special gift bestowed upon him. Let the strong not despise the weak, and let the weak show respect to the strong. Let the rich man provide for the wants of the poor; and let the poor man bless God, because He has given him one by whom his need may be supplied. Let the wise man display his wisdom, not by [mere] words, but through good deeds. Let the humble not bear testimony to himself, but leave witness to be borne to him by another. Let him that is pure in the flesh not grow proud of it, and boast, knowing that it was another who bestowed on him the gift of continence. Let us consider, then, brethren, of what matter we were made, -- who and what manner of beings we came into the world, as it were out of a sepulchre, and from utter darkness. He who made us and fashioned us, having prepared His bountiful gifts for us before we were born, introduced us into His world. Since, therefore, we receive all these things from Him, we ought for everything to give Him thanks; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

First Clement, as it is usually called, was one of the candidates for books to be part of the New Testament; this seems to have arisen because the Corinthians began to read it in their churches after having received it from Clement, and the practice spread to other churches influenced by the Corinthians. Evidence of its authenticity is quite good. The best estimates for the date it was written place it in the last decade of the first century, making it roughly contemporary with the book of Revelation.

According to a (very late) legend he was martyred by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the sea, so the symbol associated with him is the anchored cross, also known as a St. Clement's Cross. He is sometimes identified with the Clement of Philippians 4:3, and very often with the Clement mentioned in the Shepherd of Hermas. He is also sometimes said to have been a freed slave. While the testimony that he was a contemporary of the apostles is universal, what we know about his life is practically nil, beyond what we can glean from his one surviving authentic text and his appearance on the succession lists for the episcopate of Rome.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Belief and Hypothesis

There has been a correspondence in The Times about the nature of belief, or unbelief, or incidentally of make-believe. This was enriched by a somewhat pompous letter from a very superior person, who said he was entirely Modern; and proceeded to set forth as much as he could understand of the early sceptical sages of ancient Hellas, to whom I have referred; and proceeded to adorn the theme with things so exclusively modern as the exact meaning of dialectic in the dialogues of Plato. But his scepticism was much more archaic than Plato; indeed it was the sort of nihilistic nonsense that Socrates existed largely in order to chaff out of existence. The form it took here was the repeated suggestion that a Modern person cannot believe in anything except as a hypothesis. In other words, that he cannot believe in anything at all. For you cannot believe in a hypothesis; you can only give it a fair chance to prove itself a thesis that can be believed.

G. K. Chesterton, "About Relativity" in As I Was Saying

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Interrogative Interpretation of Abductive Inference

Peirce famously suggested that besides the common forms of inference, induction and deduction, there is also a third, as important, which he called abduction. One of his major motivations was an analogy with figures of the syllogism -- there are three original figures of syllogism (the Fourth is a later addition not original to Aristotle's scheme). In this analogy, deduction seemed to correspond to the First Figure and induction to correspond to the Third Figure, which left the question -- what corresponds to the Second Figure? The most famous version of this scheme of figures of reasoning is the one in which Peirce compares the forms of inference in terms of how they handle the Rule, the Case, and the Result:

Rule: All the beans in this bag are white.
Case: These beans are from this bag.
Result: These beans are white.

Rule: All the beans in this bag are white.
Result: These beans are white.
Case: These beans are from this bag.

Case: These beans are from this bag.
Result: These beans are white.
Rule: All the beans in this bag are white.

The pattern of terms in the figures of the syllogism are clearly maintained here.

But there have always been puzzles and peculiarities with how abduction actually can work. It doesn't seem to be truth-preserving, for instance. At times Peirce seems to characterize it as the rational form of guessing. Sometimes it sounds like pattern-recognition. At other times he treats it like idea-construction. He often suggested that abduction is hypothesis-making (one then uses deduction to get consequences which are tested by induction). Peirce also seems to have gone back and forth on how exactly to distinguish abduction from induction, and to have stepped away, over time, from the syllogistic analogy.

I mentioned that abduction as Peirce conceives it can't be truth-preserving: given true premises, there is no guarantee that the conclusion is true. But it is very clear that abduction as Peirce conceives has to be possibility-preserving: as long as the premises are possible (or perhaps true), they establish that the conclusion is possible. This is something that I've thought about for quite some time.*

In the recent IEP article on Peirce's Logic, Bellucci and Pietarinen note a recently discovered interpretation of abduction in a letter to Lady Welby that gives a rather different account of abduction than the standard versions.** The contrast is with modus tollens:

Modus Tollens
If A is true, C {is/is not} true.
C {is not/is} true.
Therefore A is not true.

If A is true, C {is/is not} true.
C {is/is not} true.
Therefore is A not true?

The conclusion, in other words is in 'interrogative mood', or more precisely, is equivalent to: It is to be inquired whether A is not true.

This is, I believe, closely related to the point I made above about possibility-preservation, with a particular interpretation of possibility, the one that Peirce saw as most relevant. One way to put it: if we take Diamond or weak modality to posit something for investigation or inquiry, then from the premises, an abductive inference gives us a proposition whose truth value is Diamond (interpreted as positing for investigation) rather than True.

The 'positing for investigation' is actually quite substantive, as Peirce understands it; it means that we have reason to invest resources into the inquiry -- which is indeed about what we usually mean when we say something is a possible topic for inquiry, since we don't ever take this kind of possibility to be the bare abstract possibility of being something into which some possible inquirer could possibly inquire under some possible circumstances.

* It shows up, for instance, in a Dashed Off post in July 2011. Dashed Off posts usually lag behind the original jotting of the notes by six months to a year and a half (although I sometimes clean up the notes when putting them in posts), so this is probably something I started thinking about explicitly by early 2011 at the latest.

** But looking back I see that I was aware of it several years ago; in a Dashed Off post I recorded some jotted-down notes on how abduction might be understood:

abduction as recognition of phenomena as an icon of a symbol (a likeness of a general conception) (Peirce EP 2:287)

abduction leading to conclusions in interrogative mood

abduction as concerned with economy of money, time, thought, and energy (Peirce CP 5.600)

abduction : inference through icon :: induction : inference through index :: deduction : inference through symbol

abduction as divine: NEM 3.206; CP 8.212; CP 6.476-477 MS 843.7
(cp Peirce on agapistic evolution)

abduction as guided by the notion of good

The second note explicitly identifies the interrogative mood interpretation, and the third recognizes the 'worth-the-expense' aspect of Peirce's understanding of the 'interrogative mood'. Again, there's a lag between the original notes and the Dashed Off posts, and the lags have tended to grow longer in the past few years, so this probably goes back to 2012.

This is a reason why it's handy to take notes; I would not have remembered coming across the interrogative interpretation at all. It also provides a reminder that our inquiries, if they are extensive, are often so complex that we cannot trace through everything that has been involved in them. The notes themselves are just quick snapshots; they don't record everything that was going on in my mind, and, indeed, I don't know at all what I thought about the interrogative interpretation at the time. But even so, they show that my bits-and-pieces studies of Peirce has covered ground I don't even remember covering. Peirce, I think, would be pleased at both the example and its moral.

Maronite Year IV

The Season of Announcement, the first part of the Season of the Nativity, continues with the Sunday of the Announcement to the Virgin Mary. The Second Sunday of Announcement is one of the two feasts dedicated to the Annunciation in the calendar, the other being the Feast of the Annunciation itself.

Sunday of the Announcement to the Virgin Mary
Galatians 3:15-22; Luke 1:26-38

O Isaiah, what are you saying?
A princely son is given us,
peerless counselor, mighty God,
the Father of the world to come,
and Prince of Peace of endless dominion!

God gave His promise to Abraham,
and to Abraham's Descendant;
Torah does not undo promise
but prepares the way for the faith,
which alone imparts peace and blessing.

To Nazareth did Gabriel go:
"Peace, Mary, maiden graceful-made,
blessed are you among women!
Fear not! God is gracious to you:
you shall conceive a Son, Jesus!"

Then Mary was with great wonder filled:
"I am but a girl, a maiden;
how can I bear, whom none have known?"
"O Mary, the Holy Spirit
overshadows you with great power!

"This holy offspring of your womb
shall be known as the Son of God!
With God all things are possible."
Then Mary said, "Let it be so;
I am the handmaiden of the Lord."

Thus Mary took peace from God Most High;
thus Mary gave peace to us all;
thus Mary restored Eve's children;
thus Mary gave the Descendant
who rules with the glorious promise.

With Mary we are with wonder filled!
We hide behind holy incense,
cover our heads with our prayers,
so great your peace is upon us;
we are your servants, O mighty Lord.