September 30, 2005

Remorse and Regret

There are two types of apology, and it is important to keep them separate yet recognise the importance of both. The first kind is the pure apology, in which someone expresses remorse at an action done. In this case, someone says that he or she would not have performed the action if given the chance again. The second kind of apology is sometimes called a "sham" apology, though they are very important. In this case, someone regrets the harm he or she has done to another, but still would not have acted differently. These different apologies express remorse and regret, respectively. Remorse is concerned with right versus wrong action, while regret is concerned with good versus bad consequences.

To be unbelievably simplistic for a moment, there is a different language used about actions and the consequences of actions. When making a decision, one weighs the consequences, both good and bad. The option that causes the most good and does the least bad is the right option (I told you I was being unbelievably simplistic; one may add moral goods in here so as to avoid utilitarianism). However, even though a decision may be the right decision, that is, it is the decision that is the best overall, that does not necessarily mean that it does not have bad consequences. As such, a decision may both be right and at the same time, have bad results.

There are different terms for what is felt in each of these cases. In the case where someone made the wrong decision, one expresses remorse. In this case, one often feels guilt, as one should have behaved differently. So, when one makes an apology, one is saying that he or she would not behave the same way if given the same opportunity. However, there is a lesser and still important apology. When one makes the right decision, but harms someone, one ought to feel regret for the outcome. One may still have acted the same way, but one feels compassion for others' suffering and regret for one's causal role in that pain. In this case, an apology expresses that regret.

Both kinds of apologies are important, but one must keep them separate. If one apologises in such a way that it sounds like one is expressing remorse when one is only expressing regret, one might get the response of, "So, would you do it again?". When the answer is "yes", one is likely to be greeted with anger and a charge of hypocricy. However, if one fails to apologise when one has caused harm, one comes across as cruel and perhaps even malicious. Expressing regret when performing a right action with bad results has the consequence of showing a lack of indifference and allowing the harmed party to feel less used.

How, then, should one apologise in an instance where someone has caused harm but would still have acted the same way? In these cases, the distinction between remorse and regret is very useful. We can show our concern for the feelings of others while not dishonestly saying we would have acted differently. In situations like breakups, firing employees and failing students, one may give an apology of regret that is not simply a sham apology.

September 27, 2005

On Jaywalking

I was rereading the Crito today, and I realised that the argument Socrates makes in this dialogue is one that is rarely taken seriously. Since everything that Socrates says is true (we must remember first principles), this is a problem. The argument from the Crito is that it is always unjust to harm the laws of one's country by breaking them, since one has made an agreement to follow those laws by living there. Therefore, even though Socrates did not in fact corrupt the youth, he was convicted by due proceess and it would be unjust for him to escape from prison. Socrates believed so strongly that one ought not to break the laws of one's country, that he allowed himself to be executed.

I compared this with our current approach to law. We usually don't agree in extreme cases like Socrates' that we ought to follow the law. Take the end of the film The Shawshank Redemption, for example. The situation in this film was similar to Socrates' situation: a man unjustly convicted has the opportunity to escape. Yet, in this film, we are cheering for the escapee. We do not even hold to Socrates' principle in trivial situations. Looking outside the window of the library here, I can see at least two people jaywalking. I jaywalk myself constantly. Rather than travel an extra half block to a streetlight, we will illegally run across the street. We are therefore unwilling to put in even a few seconds of effort to avoid doing what Socrates was willing to die rather than do.

I would suggest that our willingness to do willy-nilly what was a matter of life or death for Socrates is a result of our fears of unjust laws and that an absolute requirement to follow the prescriptions of law would require us to behave unjustly. Since we don't believe in an absolute duty to follow the law, we do not feel any obligation even (or perhaps especially) in trivial matters. However, I will examine two positions, by Saint Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther King that seek to reconcile the absolute prohibition against breaking the law with an absolute prohibition to do injustice even when the law commands it. Both of them took being law-abiding very seriously.

Aquinas's argument stems from his belief that there are different strata of law. These strata are the eternal law (the will of God), the natural law (what leads to the natural good) and the positive law (laws promulgated by states). These laws are not "higher laws" that trump "lower laws", as though they are somehow in conflict. Rather, an analogy can be seen in a regimen prescribed by a doctor. The art of medicine is applied in a particular case to create a regimen for a given patient. So too the natural law is applied in a particular case to create a positive law for a given state. The positive law cannot be in conflict with the natural law, any more than a particular regimen can be in conflict with the art of medicine. Therefore, an apparent positive law that violates the natural law is not really a law, for the same reason that a regimen that does not aim at health is not really a regimen. As a result, any law that commands us to do something contrary to the natural law, such as murder people, is not really a positive law and can be disobeyed in good conscience.

King's argument is quite different, but he takes obedience to the law very seriously as well. In the "Letter from Birmingham Jail", he explains how civil disobedience is not, in fact, breaking the law. Law is not simply a command not to do something; it has a penalty attached. If it were simply a command, it would just be advice. Therefore, laws are not commands but conditional statements: "If you do x, then you will suffer penalty y". As a result, he argued, one is not breaking the law, if one is willing to accept the penalty accorded to the action by law. Nor is it enough to be willing to suffer the penalty if caught. One must openly commit the action so that the state may decide what to do. In time, if enough good people are willing to go to jail as a result of unjust laws, it will shame the state into change.

How, then should one apply this to a case like jaywalking? In Aquinas's model, a positive law is a real positive law so long as it does not violate the natural law. Therefore, unless a law is commanding us to do something unjust, like turn over our children to be sacrificed, it is a real positive law. Laws that are silly, like a prohibition on drinking or green hats, are real laws and must be obeyed. Further, jaywalking laws are not silly, and most of us would admit. A complete free-for-all of pedestrians would be hazardous both to themselves and to cars. In King's model, we are breaking the law against jaywalking, as we are committing the action with the intention of not getting caught or paying a fine. This is not civil disobedience, but just lawlessness.

Socrates, Aquinas and King all has the utmost respect for the law. Socrates was willing to die rather than escape from prison after a legitimate sentence of death, and King repeatedly went to prison in order to shame lawmakers into changing the laws. Next time, when there is a crosswalk only a few feet away, perhaps all of us, myself included, ought to be more conscious of their example.

September 20, 2005

The Great Euthyphro

Plato's character of Euthyphro does not receive much praise from scholars. I have seen him variously referred to as an "idiot", as "stupid" and as a "fool". Even Socrates' prosecutors, Anytus, Meletus and Lycon, do not usually receive such contempt. The assumption is that this prophet is being presented as a bumbling idiot by Plato and that any praise that Socrates gives him is purely ironic. This is seen as evidence of Platonic and Socratic contempt for religious inspiration. However, I would suggest that this interpretation is evidence for modern contempt for religious inspiration, not Platonic or Socratic contempt. Rather, the reference to Euthyphro in Cratylus 396d as the "great Euthyphro" and Socrates' request that Euthyphro become his teacher Euthyphro 5c are at least semi-serious. Nothing that Euthyphro does in the epynomous diologue portrays Euthyphro as a fool. Instead, Euthyphro is one of Socrates' most clever interlocutors, understanding Socrates' objections and correcting his own definitions intelligently. In the essay, I will go through the four definitions of hosiotes or "holiness" (usually translated as "piety") that Euthyphro provides and how each of his definitions is a natural clarification of his position.

The first definition of "holiness" that Euthyphro provides is "what I am doing", referring to his prosecution of his own father for murder. He believes this prosecution for murder is necessary, as murder incurs significant religious pollution (take, for instance, the plague in Oedipus Tyrannus). This is usually cited as evidence of Euthyphro's dimness, as an example is a spectacularly bad definition. However, three things must be said in Euthyphro's defence. First, Socrates' question is ambiguous in Greek. He asks what to hosion is, which is a neuter substantive use of the adjective hosios or "holy". This could mean "holiness", but could also mean "the holy thing". Second, given that the topic of discussion has been largely why Euthyphro is prosecuting his own father, interpreting the question to mean what is the holy thing to do in this instance is not only a possible but even the likely way of interpreting Socrates' question. Third, pointing to an instance when asked for a definition is not necessarily a sign of foolishness. If, for example, someone were to ask me what a cat is, and I happened to have a cat handy, I'd likely simply pick up the cat and say "this is a cat". If the person were then to clarify and ask for the Linnean classification, I would clarify, but that would not make a fool for first having grabbed an available feline.

Euthyphro's second and third definitions of "holiness" are "what is loved by the gods" and then "what is loved by all the gods". The clarification is required because polytheism includes gods who disagree with each other, at times violently (for example, the entire Iliad). Euthyphro quickly makes this clarification when challenged, but his use of the phrase is not a sign a stupidity. If a leader were to say his or her job was to "benefit the citizens", one would rightly point out that citizen's interests are often in conflict, so a clarification to "benefit most of the citizens" would not be a sign of a weak mind, but rather one who is willing to clarify the fuzziness of ordinary speech.

Euthyphro's third definition, that holiness is "what is loved by all the gods" is challenged with an argument from Euthyphro 10a-d that something holy "is not being loved by those who love it because it is something loved, but it is something loved because it is being loved by them". It includes a long argument about how things are being carried because someone is carrying them and they someone is not carrying them because they are being carried. I challenge anyone to follow this argument on a first pass. This argument is the toughest argument in the Euthyphro and Euthyphro follows it through without blinking. Aside from the keen intelligence Euthyphro shows in following Socrates' argument, his claim about piety is not the claim of a fool, even if it is incorrect. Socrates' argument here points to a weakness in "divine command"-type theories, but it is hardly a knockdown argument. If he is correct, there are several other definitions that would be incorrect. For example, one could not define "food" as "something that is eaten by people" or "fun" as "something that is enjoyed by people". Socrates' argument is an argument against all passive definitions whatsoever and cannot just be used arbitrarily when one wishes to argue against divine command theory.

Euthyphro's final definition runs into problems because he backs into his third definition again. He argues that holiness is justice toward the gods. Socrates points out that this definition ends up as the same definition. Doing justice towards someone is benefiting them and people love what benefits them. Therefore, one cannot know how to be holy without knowing what the gods love, which brings us back to definition three. That Euthyphro fell into this trap, though, is not a sign of foolishness. That a definition of justice would collapse into a definition of benefit is not immediately obvious, and Euthyphro again accepts defeat here. However, it is not an ignoble defeat, and hardly one that deserves the contempt usually foisted on him. It also leaves Plato with an "out", if you will, that will serve him elsewhere, as the holy is what benefits the gods. This is an active rather than a passive definition, and while it is empty, it is at least a start.

Euthyphro then leaves. Interestingly, the verb Euthyphro uses apienai which is to go (ienai) away (ap-). Since they are already at the courthouse and since Euthyphro has yet to press his indictment, it appears he is not going to press his indictment against his father after all. Diogenes Laertius confirms this in his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Socrates persuades Euthyphro to abandon his indictment of his father. This gives us a final look at Euthyphro's character. Having been refuted, he undergoes a philosophical conversion. This is more than can be said for characters such as Alcibiades, Charmides and Critias, to name only a few. Throughout the dialogue, he appears as a keen dialectician, clever enough to quickly follow complex arguments, humble enough to abandon or correct positions when refuted, and inventive enough to provide new definitions in their place. Socrates' reference to Euthyphro as "the great Euthyphro" in the Cratylus may not be so ironic, after all.

September 13, 2005

Please and Thank You

In this essay, I intend to examine why it is that people in virtually all cultures have some variation on saying "please" and "thank you". Further, in most cultures it is considered rude not to say "please" and especially not to say "thank you". When social conventions have this sort of ubiquity, it is usually because they serve some important social function. "Please" or "thank you", like much of etiquette, are ways of preserving social status in cases that might otherwise threaten social status. In the case of "please" and "thank you", the terms mark that a gift or service is done freely and not as a result of compulsion.

In the case of "please" and "thank you", the convention arises from the dangerous position involved in any trade or gift. Often, those who have power over others are able to compel or threaten others into giving things or providing services to them. Therefore, when someone gives something to someone else, there is always the possible appearance that somehow that trade or gift was demanded of the person giving it. This is a direct threat to our status; if we do things because we are compelled, we are subordinate to those who compel us. God, for example, does not say "please". Further, it threatens to lower our status, as if we give to others who are not grateful, we appear willing to be treated as subordinates.

The terms "please" and "thank you" mark of the service or gift as a free service or gift. By this I mean free in the sense that it is not done by compulsion, not that it is done for no price. Therefore, when we say "please", we are saying that someone else is acting "at their pleasure" or freely. Literally, "please" is short for "may it please you...." When we say "thank you", we are saying that we are giving good thoughts for the other person, or holding the other person's desires in mind. "Thank" has the same etymological root as the word "think". Other languages do not have this exact etymological derivation, but the intention is usually the same, to point out that the gift or service is being given at the pleasure of the giver and not of the receiver. It is a mark that the gift or service is not a compelled gift and a sign of lower status, but is a free gift and a sign of comparable status.

"Please" and "thank you" are terms that help show others that we do not consider them as slaves or subordinates. By saying "please" and "thank you", we show others that we are concerned with their "pleasure" and that we are "thinking" of them. Using these terms, then, are very important. When other people help us they put themselves in a vulnerable position. By using these terms, we show that we do not consider them our inferiors.

September 9, 2005

Prayer and Magic

In his work On the Sacred Disease, Hippocrates (or perhaps another doctor at Cos) argues against the use of magic in medicine. A large portion of magic in Hippocrates' time was magical, using potions, chants and charms. They were the largest competitors with Hippocrates for patients, and it was important the he discredit them, both for his own sake and for the patients'. He uses two main arguments, and this essay will deal mostly with the second. First, he argues that, if magic worked, it would be under human control and therefore part of nature. Therefore, the divine knowledge to which the magicians pretended would not be divine and therefore they are frauds. The second argument is the topic of this essay. He argues that magic is, in fact, not a sign of piety but is impious. Through magic, one attempts to control the gods, using various magical rites to invoke their power. However, to try to control the gods is impious; one may ask or pray for their help, but one should not try to force their hands.

The magical rites that Hippocrates was dealing with were what we would normally consider magic. There was the use of magical words that would drive out disease; these were not in the form of requests, but were invocations of a particular god's power. Further, there were magical objects that contained a portion of a god's power. Again, this power could be used by anyone with the object, and it was not a request. Finally, there were potions in which a portion of a god's power was mixed into a substance and could then be imbibed by a patient to be healed. In all of these cases, the magician used usually mysterious (occult or hidden) knowledge to harness the power of the gods. Hippocrates argued that all of these actions are impious actions, since they are attempts to control the gods.

Hippocrates hits here upon a tension in Greek religion. Do the sacrifices to the gods force the gods to help or to forgive the petitioner, or are they a gift, providing hope that the gods will help or forgive? The difficulty is raised again by Adeimantus in Republic Book II, where he claims that an unjust person can simply use his unjust gains to pay off the gods through sacrifice and be forgiven, so injustice is better. Hippocrates' response would be that a sacrifice made as a gift to the gods in hope of forgiveness would be pious, but a sacrifice made presuming that the god would forgive would be magic, and therefore impious. There may have even been some magicians who prayed rather than claimed to control the gods, but this was very rare.

Part of the difficulty lay in how personal the gods really were. If the gods were personal, then the gods should be asked for their help, and it would be impious to try to push them around. However, if the gods were impersonal and were really some sort of divine power, then they cannot be asked for anything, but there may be some way to access this power that would take the form of magic. Often, magic springs up where the personality of the gods or God is treated metaphorically or not recognised at all. Since there is no point in asking a force for anything, any access involved control rather than petition. In Greece, exactly how metaphorical the personalities of the deities were was always a matter of debate, and people turned toward either prayer or magic depending on their answers.

I will add one short qualification here. Revealed religion changes the distinction somewhat between prayer and magic. If God promises to do something when we ask or perform a certain ritual, it is not magic even though we can count on God responding. It is much like a buzzer used to summon a nurse. The buzzer does not force the nurse to come. Rather, he or she has promised to come when we push the buzzer. Therefore, when God makes specific promises, ("Whenever two or three...", "Anything you bind on Earth...", "Do this in memory of me...", etc.), one may count on those promises without slipping into magic. This allows for the possibility of sacramental grace, for example, while still remaining in the spirit of petition rather than control. One develops no more control over God than one would over the nurse.

Hippocrates' distinction can help us discover, then, whether something is a form of magic or of prayer. It is not the form of the rite, per se, by which one can make this determination. The main distinction is between something that is done to control God or something that is done to beseech God. For those who believe in a personal deity, one should note that anything done in order to force God to do one's bidding would be magic and impious.

September 2, 2005

Journalism and Rhetoric

In Plato's Gorgias, the character of Socrates poses a serious challenge to the possibility of a craft of rhetoric as a craft of speaking about anything. His claim is that the craft one uses when speaking about a subject is the same craft by which one understands the subject. Rhetoric is therefore redundant and dangerous. It is redundant because one does not need anything above and beyond the understanding of a craft to speak about the craft . It is dangerous because it enables one to pretend understanding of a craft, falsely persuade others that they now understand that craft, and encourage speakers to seek pleasure in the audience rather than understanding. Modern journalism contains many of the same properties of Ancient rhetoric. It too claims to be a craft of speaking about anything.

The debate begins with Socrates asking Gorgias what the craft of rhetoric is. Gorgias responds by saying that it is the greatest of all crafts. Of course, Socrates is unsatisfied with this answer, so he asks of what rhetoric is a craft. Gorgias claims that it is the craft that uses only speech, not manual labour. Here is where Socrates catches Gorgias. He points out mathematics and astronomy use only words, and they are the crafts used when speaking about numbers and stars. The deeper claim here is that the craft used when speaking about a subject is the same as the craft used when understanding the subject.

Gorgias concedes Socrates' claim that astronomy is the craft used when speaking knowledgeably about a subject. Gorgias attempts two separate parries here. The first is that he says that rhetoric enables the speaker to speak about a craft persuasively even without understanding it. He gives the example of helping his brother, a doctor, persuade a recalcitrant patient to undergo treatment. He boasts that, even though neither he nor the patient know medicine, he was able to speak more persuasively than the doctor. Perhaps realising he has conceded something rather shameful sounding, he then attempts a second argument. He argues that rhetoric's specific area of expertise is the just and the unjust. This is its proper subject, as there is no other craft associated with the just and the unjust as there is with stars, and it is the topic on which rhetors spend much of their time speaking.

The conversation breaks down here, as Gorgias believes everyone knows what justice is and Socrates believes it is a specialised craft. When Gorgias's young pupil, Polus, takes over, Socrates really lets him have it (Socrates here is the most caustic and agressive he appears in any Platonic dialogue; the nastiness here is striking). Socrates bluntly claims that rhetoric is not a craft and that rhetoric is to politics what pastry baking is to medicine. When doctors speak about medicine using their medical knowledge, they know about their subject and seek to impart at least some of that knowledge to their hearers. Rhetoric allows the ignorant to persuade the ignorant, or, at best, allows the knowledgeable to persuade the ignorant without actually making them any less ignorant. How do they do so? They do so by appealing to their emotions and, moreover, by pandering to their emotions. They try to associate their desired conclusion with positive emotions while trying to associate what they are trying to argue against with negative emotions. As such, they merely have a knack for creating pleasure in their hearers at the right things, like pastry bakers pretending to be doctors, hawking their wares as medicine while only selling what is pleasant.

Let us return, then, to journalism. Journalism has many features similar to rhetoric. Newspapers and television speak about any subject they believe will be of interest to the audience, and uses the same people to do so. Many of the people involved are trained in journalism, and not in the specific topics they discuss. Is it then even plausible to believe that journalists have expertise in every subject they discuss? Even in those cases where they may do so or they are quoting experts, are they imparting understanding to the audiences or just (true) opinions? A quick look at today's front section of the National Post speaks about military strategy, trade agreements, engineering, medicine, meteorology and flying helicopters. However, the authors of these articles are neither generals, economists, engineers, doctors, meteorologists nor pilots. If they do not understand the craft they are speaking of, no one can learn anything about the craft from them either.

Journalists do, however, focus on a specific type of subject, much as Gorgias did when his hand was forced over expertise. They will focus on politics, the area of the just and the unjust. A reader should ask, then, what specific qualifications journalism gives journalists to speak about the just and the unjust. Are they, for instance, special experts on what contitutes human happiness and how to provide it? Do they know how to distribute goods appropriately? Have they worked through hours of humiliating and painful dialectic in order to carefully draw moral distinctions? Have they given any serious study to politics or to ethics at all, or do they assume that justice and injustice are things that everyone knows? Instead, journalists have no special expertise to speak about justice and injustice, except that they know how to speak persuasively. This persuasion, like all persuasion, functions by giving emotional pleasure and associating it with the desired object. It is, as Socrates said, a form of pastry baking.

If this essay sounds a little caustic, I apologise. It is hard to reflect Socrates' argument without reflecting his tone. However, his claim is an utterly devastating one concerning how we form opinions. Without actually understanding a subject, we are easy prey to those who would help us form our opinions using our emotions. As a result, there will always be emotional pastry bakers out there pretending to be doctors. In Socrates' time, it was the rhetors, and in our time, it is the journalists.

August 31, 2005

Tragic Flaws

Two summers ago, I read all of Greek tragedy for my comprehensive exams. Aside from making me incredibly depressed for a month, I realised something quite interesting: just about everything Aristotle says about tragic heroes is wrong. Aristotle had postulated the principle of the tragic flaw in tragedy. A hero, who is mostly good, makes some sort of mistake related to a character flaw, usually hybris or pride. However, from what I read, I realised that tragic heroes are almost never brought down by their flaws or by hybris. In fact, in most cases, the protagonist is actually destroyed by his or her virtues. In puzzling over this, I realised that Aristotle is, in fact, not trying to explain exactly what is happening in tragedy but what should be happening. He is answering a very specific challenge to the very existence of tragedy presented by Plato in the Republic Book III. Plato had argued that tragedy corrupted the audience. Aristotle's development of the tragic flaw is a response to this challenge.

I will begin with an example. Even Oedipus Rex, the tragedy on which Aristotle focuses, does not seem to conform to Aristotle's model. Oedipus's downfall is the result of one of his own virtues, his keen intellect and wish to investigate. Oedipus had become king of Thebes by answering the riddle of the Sphinx. His success in becoming king of Thebes and his downfall in discovering his own origins are the result of the same character trait. Aristotle identifies this trait with hybris (as does the character Tiresias in the play itself), however, there is nothing clearly proud in Oedipus's desire to discover the origin of the plague in Thebes. Oedipus is referred to literally dozens of times in the play as wishing to "see" in various forms of the verb. This curiosity and intellect is not a vice. Yet it is this curiosity and intellect that destroys him, not hubris, and when he realises this, he takes out his own eyes so as never to see again.

Oedipus Rex was the example of a tragic flaw Aristotle himself used and even this example is not very clear. It is better to look at the Poetics as a response to a challenge to tragedy by Plato. Plato charges that tragedy corrupts people by showing good people being crushed. This is especially true in tragedy where they are often crushed because they are good. This teaches the audience that they should not bother being good. If they are good, it will not benefit them, and may in fact destroy them. An example of this would be Antigone, in which Antigone's love for her family and for the gods leads to her death and the death of her betrothed. This is an intractable problem for tragedy. If one wants to evoke fear and pity, one must a) show bad people whom we should not pity being crushed, or b) show good people who should not be crushed being crushed. Either of these corrupts the audience. a) corrupts them by causing them to identify with bad characters, and b) corrupts them by teaching them goodness is of no benefit.

Aristotle's solution, then, is the "tragic flaw". In the tragic flaw a character is mostly good, but has a specific flaw that destroys him or her. This provides an escape from Plato's criticism. The hero is still greater than most of the audience members. Therefore, the audience can and should feel pity for the hero on his or her downfall. However, the hero has a flaw that causes the hero to fail. Therefore, the audience feels an appropriate moral fear that badness leads to bad results. In this way, Aristotle has threaded the dilemma raised by Plato. The audience may feel both pity and fear, and neither of them will be corrupting. On the contrary, the emotions will help people sympathise with heroes better than themselves while fearing the negative consequences of wickedness.

As such, Aristotle's analysis in the Poetics is not an accurate description of what had happened in tragedy up to that point. Rather, it is a vision of how tragedy ought to function, a vision that has been largely successful through the influence of the Poetics. He is responding specifically to a charge by Plato in the Republic, that tragedy necessarily evokes either inappropriate pity or fear. Instead, Aristotle argues that tragedy can be morally edifying as well as pleasurable.

August 29, 2005

Time Travel, Part Two

...continued from yesterday.

Another possibility for time travel of a kind is that time is, in fact, looped. Spatial closure is often cited to explain how the universe could both be finite and unbounded, as it is curved in four-dimensional space. Temporal curvature is less understandable. However, according to Lawrence Sklar, there is nothing about temporal closure that is contrary to the principles of general relativity:
"Spatial closure is one thing, but can a spacetime have closed timelike lines? Yes, at least in the sense that the spacetime can be given a description internally consistent and consistent with the field equations of general relativity". (Sklar, Space, Time and Spacetime, 303)
One does not need to abandon a causal theory of time to accept this proposition, as the loop would still be causal, and even have direction, it is just that one cause would ultimately cause its own causes. Furthermore, such a "closed" system need not be circular, such that an event must "wait" until a full cycle of all events to have its effects felt on the past. If this were the case, only our infinitely patient immortal could have any hope of affecting the past. A world could, for example, be "jug-shaped". That is, it would have a "handle" of spacetime that loops back to another point in spacetime relatively recent in the past. This possibility has been popularised in science fiction as wormholes (though the ones in science fiction tend to be spatial and not temporal).

In either of these cases, some kind of time "travel" to the past would be possible. One could accelerate to near the speed of light until enough time had passed in one's original inertial frame that one arrives before one left. As noted above, this kind of time travel and how far we consider the "distances" to be travelled is relative to our own lifespan and patience. One would not even need to use this "acceleration method" to go to the past if one were either long-lived enough to simply wait for the past to happen again, or the curvature was short enough that one could simply pass through at normal speed in a relatively short amount of time, as would be the case in a possible-world in which the universe only had a ten-year cycle or in the actual world, if there are, in fact, such "handle-shaped" anomalies yet to be discovered. Further, (and this clearly falls into the who-knows-but-we-did-after-all-manage-to-break-the-sound-barrier category of speculative science), it may even one day be possible to create such temporal anomalies, so that one could travel backwards in time, simply by "splicing" and "editing" space in such a manner that one's immediate future loops back to the desired destination in the past. In all of these "alternative geometry" cases, one would be able to travel strange paths in spacetime, such that one is able to travel to points in the past, without ever having to actually accelerate beyond the speed of light, which is rendered impossible by special relativity.

Travel to the past, even via the future, would imply what I will call the "lunch" paradox, for lack of a better term. Let us say that I discover a wormhole that can lead me back ten hours in time to before I ate lunch. At lunch that day, I had pizza, but I am a mischievous sort, and wish to change what I had for lunch to a submarine sandwich, just to see if it can be done. If I were a simple animal, who had simple desires, I would have some kind of straightforward desire like eating pizza, and would head back in time to convince myself to have that piece. Indeed, I would remember myself convincing myself to do so. However, human beings are capable of "abstract" desires, rather than specific desires. In other words, I would be capable of going back in time with the intention of changing my past, whatever it might be that I remember happening. Let us say that I remember myself convincing myself to eat pizza. In that case, I would go back and convince myself to eat a submarine sandwich. However, that would mean I would remember myself convincing myself to eat a submarine sandwich, so I would go back to convince myself to eat pizza, and so on ad infinitum. One answer is that "something" would prevent me from changing my own mind. Perhaps I would forget. Perhaps I would disobey my future self (although I would remember so disobeying if I had done so). Perhaps the wormhole would not work. However, all these answers start to look something like the Greek Fates. I cannot change the past because "something" would ultimately stop me, much as "something" caused Oedipus to marry his mother, in spite of his best intentions. There certainly does not appear to be anything in nature that would prevent me from stopping myself from eating pizza in the same way the Fates caused Oedipus to marry his mother. Lewis raises the suggestion that there is an equivocation on the meaning of "can". I "can" stop myself from eating pizza in the same way that I "can" speak Finnish, in that I have the intellectual apparatus to speak Finnish. However, this simply does not apply in my case. I have a wormhole, and I have my mischievous abstract desire. I "can" stop myself from eating pizza not in the way I "can" speak Finnish, but rather in the way I "can" speak French. In order for me to speak French, I simply need to wish to do so. I cannot be stopped from doing so by my own lack of current abilities but only if "something" stops me, and then I am back to Oedipus's Fates. It seems that certain outright contradictions would be implied if a being with such abstract desires as "I wish to change the past" would be capable of time travel.

Wells' dream of a time-ship that can simply pop in and out of time is probably absurd, as even future "time-travel" implies travelling along shorter paths in spacetime in order to create the differential in elapsed time. However, time travel would be possible in a number of ways. First, one could travel forward in time by shifting one's inertial frame to one that is nearly light speed relative to the initial frame. While travel to the past directly impossible, as that would imply superlight speeds to which it is impossible to accelerate without infinite force, one could circumvent this problem if there are in fact alternative geometries of spacetime, in which time is a closed loop, whether by simply waiting a few trillion years, by using the "acceleration method" to push oneself forward until one reaches the past, or by finding or perhaps creating singular deformations in spacetime that connect spacetime in smaller closed temporal paths that lead from the near future to the past. Such travel, though, might create incoherent paradoxes as a result of my ability to have such abstract desires as to "change the past".

August 28, 2005

Time Travel, Part One

This essay was substantially too long for a single post, so I divided it into two sections. Today's section deals with the problems special relativity poses to time travel. Tomorrow's will deal with the possiblities general relativity and alternative geometries open up for time travel.

The question of whether time travel is possible can be divided into three parts: first, whether travel into the future is possible; second, whether travel into the past is possible; and third, whether some sort of curvature of time would make travel into the past possible, since it is also our future. The first, travel into the future, is possible, since special relativity allows for the twins paradox, in which time passes much more slowly for a person who travels close to the speed of light relative to a given inertial frame. The second, travel into the past, appears to be impossible, since it would require that a body be accelerated past the speed of light. The third would be the only way to travel into the past, but it would require alternative geometries of spacetime that may or not exist, and would imply paradoxes that perhaps cannot be overcome. I will deal with each of these in turn, referring primarily to special relativity, and what it teaches us about the equivalence of inertial frames.

Time travel into the future is in some sense possible. By accelerating to high speeds and then returning to Earth, it would make our time slow down significantly. This is not "true" time travel, as envisioned by Wells, in which the traveller simply disappears at one point in time and reappears at another point in time. In some sense, we are travelling to the future all the time - travelling to high speeds would simply enable us to survive the trip past our natural life spans. An immortal being with infinite patience would not have any interest in this process. It would, however, enable a traveler to travel, say, one thousand years in only a one-year "trip". As a traveller approaches the speed of light, he or she sees the original frame of time slow down according to a Lorentz transformation, t=1/(1-v2/c2)½. As one can see, as v approaches c, the denominator approaches zero, and the time elapsed approaches infinity. If one then returned to one's original inertial frame, much more time will have passed in the original frame than in one's own. The traveller could then travel back to Earth, again slowing time relative to the traveller's frame, and would return with only a small amount of time elapsed relative to the time passed on Earth. This is known as the "twins paradox", as two twins, one of whom boards such a time-travelling space ship, and another who waits at home, would be very different ages by the time the travelling twin returned. As such, time travel to the future of a sort is possible, in the sense that a person can hasten the Earth's time relative to himself or herself, and take a shorter trip through spacetime.

Time travel to the past is more complicated and most likely impossible. Though one may be able to "slow time down" relative to oneself (or speed it up, if one somehow managed to put Earth on a spaceship and send it away very, very fast), this is far from causing time to go backwards. No matter how much one slows down time, it is just slowed down. However, looking at the original transformation, t=1/(1-v2/c2)½, one can see that if v were higher than c, the denominator would become imaginary. This would enable the traveller to travel back through time. It seems that if one had an even faster spaceship, one could leave earth and then return at an even earlier time. Unfortunately, acceleration past the speed of light is not possible, as the Lorentz transformation applies to mass as well as space and time. Let m be the mass of an object relative to a measuring frame, and let m0 be its mass relative to its own frame. In this case, m= m0/(1-v2/c2)½. Just as with time, relative mass would increase toward infinity as the object approaches the speed of light, as the denominator would approach zero. It would take an infinite amount of force, then, to accelerate an object to or past the speed of light relative to a given frame, and it is impossible to generate an infinite amount of force. Therefore, no object can travel faster than the speed of light, and travel backwards in time would be impossible through the "acceleration method" we used to travel forward in time. While an object may take an infinite amount of force to accelerate to the speed of light, analogously, an object that was already travelling faster than the speed of light would take an infinite amount of force to decelerate to c. Hence, one would need to take into account one's "starting speed". These theoretical "faster than light" particles have been called "tachyons" (from the Greek word tachys, meaning "fast"). However, no one has ever seen evidence of these tachyons, though whether this is because they do not exist or because their backwards travel makes them impossible to interact with is uncertain. Were they even to exist, it would not solve the problem that we are not ourselves travelling faster than the speed of light, and could never accelerate to such a point.

To be concluded tomorrow...

August 22, 2005

Why German Sounds Funny

Note from Daniel: I will be heading on vacation to Ottawa for the next week and will not be able to feed my cat or update the site. Fear not, though. My parents will take care of the Professor and I will start updating again August 28th.

A few years ago, I took a German class in Germany, and there was one other Anglophone in the class, Ian. Periodically, we would burst into laughter at one of the words, leaving the French and Spanish students puzzled and the German instructor annoyed. A year or so after that, I took a German class in Toronto, and the same thing happened. Occasionally, the class would burst into guffaws (later turning into stifled guffaws as the course drew on and the instructor grew more stern). This got me wondering what it was about German vocabulary that so many English speakers found amusing. It wasn't amusing in the same Beavis-and-Butthead way that the French word for "seal" or the Greek word for "flowing through" are. Rather, it was something peculiar about English that made so many German words sound amusing to Anglophone ears.

English has a peculiar historical origin. It started off as the language Anglo Saxon, virtually the same language that modern German began as. After the Norman invasion in 1066, a great deal of French mixed into the language. Later, when new words or neologisms were created, they were created from Latin and Greek roots. Over time, many of these Latin and Greek words invaded the common tongue (words such as "invaded"). This gives English four different language sources that affect the language in very different ways. Anglo Saxon and French provide the base language and Latin and Greek provide most of the neologisms.

As a result, English developed something rather unique in a language, two virtually completely distinct registers. By a register, I mean a set of vocabulary used for a particular purpose or a particular social setting. The higher register, consisting largely of Greek and Latin neologisms, is used in academic or sophisticated settings. For instance, in writing an academic paper, one is more likely to say, "The dominant Romans demoralised the conquered Gauls using intimidation techniques" than "The Roman bosses scared the Gauls by beating them up". The converse is also true. The lower register, consisting largely of Anglo Saxon and a few French words, is used in casual social situations. At a sports bar, one is more likely to say, "You really talk a lot when you're drunk", than "You are positively loquacious having imbibed such a copious quantity of intoxicants".

Using these different registers, we are able to express different intentions and even emotions. For instance, if we want to be serious, we raise our register. It shows that the fun is over, and it's time to be serious now. Conversely, if we want to set someone at ease, we lower our register, switching to Anglo-Saxon-derived words. It's a sign of relaxation. When something from one social setting is taken and suddenly thrust in to a setting where it is inappropriate, it can be a source of humour. One thing I've noted is the way that academics sometimes suddenly drop their register when they hit the punchline of their joke. It can be funny to say, "In effect, Malvolio was a big loser" at the end of a complex academic argument. What is funny is that all that complex Latinized argumentation can be reduced to a simple Anglo Saxon insult. Similarly, in casual settings, to suddenly raise the register can be amusing, especially when an Anglo Saxon and Latinized adjective are combined. I may make a joke saying my Dairy Queen ice cream cone is an example of "swirly effervescence". Effervescence is a high-register word, appropriate to seriousness and not ice cream cones. The hyperbole or exaggeration is supplied by the register shift and provides the joke.

German, on the other hand, did not form its neologisms out of Greek and Latin. Rather, German formed its neologisms out of German itself. This is the source of the humour. The roots of the German high register, that is, the roots from which German builds it academic and sophisticated language, is the same roots from which English builds its low register. As I argued above, when something from a low register is used to describe something sophisticated, humour ensues. This is precisely what Anglophones hear when they learn new words in German. Sophisticated concepts are being presented in what appear to be unsophisticated terms. It is as though the sophisticated concept is being made fun of by deliberately using unsophisticated language.

Here are two examples. Let's take the English word "hydrogen". Everyone knows that chemical elements are serious business, so it is made from a Greek root. It is made from hyder, "water", and gennao, meaning "creates". The German word for hydrogen is Wasserstoff, which means exactly what it looks like it means, "water stuff". No self-respecting chemical element would ever be called "water stuff" unless it were duly translated into Greek. As such, calling hydrogen Wasserstoff is funny. Another amusing case I encountered a few weeks ago was the Church of the Immaculate Conception. Immaculate comes from the Latin prefix in- or "not" and the participle maculatus or "stained". However, the word for "Immaculate" in German is Unbefleckte, which, once one has learned a little German grammar, literally means someone who has no flecks on her. In English, the word "fleck" is a very low register word and would never be used to describe important theological concepts. As such, the term Unbefleckte provides humour by describing solemn concepts in what sounds like flippant vocabulary.

German is not funny per se, but it can often sound so to Anglophones. The cause of this is that English uses the same linguistic roots for its low register as German does for its high register. When sophisticated or solemn concepts are described with the same roots as colloquial English, it can often provide humour. This may provide frustration to German instructors, but helps English students to understand the sophisticated possibilities of their language's German roots.

August 20, 2005

Different Natures

Many moral debates end up as debates about what is properly considered natural. However, the definition of the word "nature" shifts and swerves throughout debates in such a way that anything can be proven. The problem is that "nature" is a term with multiple meanings, and unless the term is defined carefully, debates are, quite literally, meaningless. In this essay, I will discuss the conditions of a definition necessary for a moral debate and then provide the neo-Aristotelian definition.

All of the definitions of "natural" are useful in some context, and I am not arguing that one definition is per se better than others. What I will be arguing, however, is that only certain definitions are useful to ethics, while the others are, at best, distractions and confusions. It is worth noting that, in ethics, "natural" is normally considered a good term. Very rarely does someone justify something by saying that it is not natural. Instead, when the term is invoked at all, it is almost always in praise of something. This gives us our first criterion for appropriately using the term "natural" in ethics. "Natural", if it is going to be of any use at all in ethics, must not either include or exclude all behaviour as natural.

I will go through some of the two primary rhetorical uses of the term "natural", and explain what is problematic about them. The list isn't intended to be complete.

1) Versus Supernatural. According to this definition of "natural", everything in the cosmos is natural if it is made of matter and works according to natural laws. The only things outside of the natural would be God and maybe angels. This is, of course, a useful definition of "natural" for the natural sciences. Unfortunately, it is one of the most abused definitions in ethics. By this definition, everything that happens is natural, and can be used to justify everything. In this sense, war, rape and torture are all natural, as the only criterion for being natural is that it is something that happens in the world. This definition is used to remove or lessen moral culpability from any action at all. This makes it extremely useful for rhetoric but completely useless for ethics.

2) Versus Artificial. According to this definition, trees are natural and tables are unnatural, because tables have been mixed with human artifice. In this sense, anything at all that human beings have messed with in any way is now less natural. Wood is natural material, while plastic is not, for example. This is especially prominent in arguments with regard to social construction. The hidden charge of social construction is that any action, institution or even desire is socially constructed and therefore unnatural and either bad or indifferent with respect to change. The problem here is that, when applied to human action, all action is a form of artifice. Therefore, all action and any consequence of that action become unnatural, violating the first criterion of a useful definition. This again is extremely useful to rhetoric but completely useless to ethics.

These, then, are the two uses of "natural" most common in moral debate. By switching between them, one is able to excuse or defend any action at all. It is a neat trick, and was commented on as early as Callicles in Plato's Gorgias and by Aristotle in Sophistical Refutations. I will now introduce the neo-Aristotelian definition of "natural" as an example of a definition of "natural" that does not violate the first criterion of a useful definition.

3) Actualization. This is the neo-Aristotelian definition of "natural". Each species has a number of different capacities that it can actualise, from those of processing nutrition to locomotion to creating works of art. These capacities are species-relative in a straight forwardly biological way; they are normal capacities for members of that species. In so far as anything enhances these capacities, it is natural, and in so far as anything thwarts them, it is unnatual. So, for instance, medicine that corrects damaged or defective limbs in order to walk would actually be natural rather than unnatural, while murder would be unnatural, since it destroys all the capacites of another and there are better ways to become physically fit. The natural end, then, is the actualization of these capacities. As such, it meets the first criterion of a useful definition of "natural" which is that it applies to some rather than either all or zero actions.

It is worthwhile considering the various ways in which the term "natural" is being used in ethical debate. There are several definitions floating around, and keeping clear on definitions can help us talk to rather than past each other.

August 19, 2005

Doing Wrong Willingly

Socrates is famous for the maxim that, "No one does wrong willingly". To our modern ears, this sounds incredibly strange. However, Socrates is not making a claim that is somehow simply anachronistic. His own contemporaries, such as Meno, believed that this claim was equally strange. Socrates is making a claim in some ways similar to a view held by rational psychological determinists, which I have written on here. This is the claim that we always do what we think is best, and we are never overcome by our desires. Aristotle finds this claim compelling, but ultimately disagrees with Socrates. I will explain the import of their dispute, and how Aristotle seeks to resolve the question.

Socrates' claim sounds strange to modern ears. Normally, we believe that we act according to our strongest desire, not our beliefs about what is best. It is the moderns, however, who have this wrong. Imagine our normal beliefs about lack of self-control were correct. I would believe that it is better to not smoke a cigarette. However, somehow, despite this belief, my desire would grab hold of my body, take out the cigarette, stick it in my mouth, light it and puff on it, all while my reason looks on in horror, powerless to stop my desires from moving my body around. Socrates and Aristotle both believed that behaviour like this would be dissociative. If our desire could really move our bodies around without our reason's consent, we would have the experience of watching our body be literally pushed around by desires over which we have no control. Rather, the problem is not to explain how our reason does what it thinks best without necessarily desiring it (such as in the modern problem of altruism), but to explain how we could be moved by our desires at all.

Socrates was willing to bite the bullet on this one. He believed that all vice was really a form of ignorance. If people knew what was really best, they would necessarily do it. There would be quite literally nothing that could stop them. Desire cannot move the body without reason's consent, while reason can move the body directly. Instead, people would be mistaken about the value of bodily pleasures relative to intellectual pleasures, and these mistakes would make them do things they believed were best, but are really not. As such, people who act wickedly should be taught, if possible, to act better.

Aristotle thought this had to be incorrect. He believed that the experience of loss of self-control was simply a datum of everyday life and needed to be explained, not justified. However, he wanted by-and-large to keep Socrates' position that a properly functioning reason could not be trumped by desire (though he does acknowledge that on very rare cases desire can simply grab control of the body in a dissociative way; I believe he is thinking of extreme cases here like panic in battle). Instead, what he argued was that desire, since it cannot compete with a properly functioning reason, dulls reason in the same way that alcohol dulls reason. He compares the person lacking self-control to a drunk quoting Empedocles; the drunk seems rational, but he is not. Desire, unable to compete with a properly functioning reason, liquors reason up, so to speak, and takes control while reason gazes into its cups. In this way, he tries to agree with Socrates belief that we never knowingly do wrong while accounting for the datum of loss of self-control.

Socrates and Aristotle approach the question of doing wrong willingly quite differently than moderns. There is not an independent will nor do our desires move us. Rather, the difficulty they wished to explain is how our desires could possibly move us at all. Socrates believed they couldn't and Aristotle believed they could, but neither of them believed that desires could move us despite a fully functioning reason.

August 18, 2005

The Dangerous Mule

This essay is concerned with mules. No, really. It is about the sterile offspring of horses and donkeys. The "mule question" is a fascinating and queer puzzle that deeply worried Aristotle. It is also a problem that has been almost totally forgotten about since Darwin. Before Darwin, the mule presented the first real challenge to the Aristotelean doctrine of essences of biological organisms. Since Darwin, philosphers have mainly focussed on the challenge evolution presented. By looking at his response to the mule doctrine, one can see how Aristotle might have responded to Darwin had their millenia been reversed.

Aristotle's biological theory was essentialist. Each species, including humanity, had an essence to it that didn't change over time. This was relevant to biology, as it tells us what we are looking for in biological research. It was the universal truth that could be inferred from the particular evidence. It was relevant to logic, since it told us what was properly considered a subject and what was properly considered a predicate. The Greek phrase to ti en einai, translated "essence", literally means "what it was to be". In other words, when you ask me "what I am", "human" is the truest, most specific answer I can give you. Finally, it was relevant to ethics, since each member of a species should be judged relative to the ideal capacities of a member of that species. For instance, a human being who cannot fly is not defective, but a sparrow that cannot fly is.

The mule was a threat to this conception of biology. Aristotle needed to establish a criterion according to which two organisms could be considered a part of the same species. An Ethiopian and a Greek are members of the same species, but a squirrel and a chipmunk are not. He settled on the criterion that has largely stuck in biology up to the present day, that of viable reproducibility. That is, you could recognise something as a member of a species, because it was able to make more of that species when mixed with another of its species.

This was not a completely arbitrary criterion. Aside from being the most obvious solution, Aristotle was concerned about where the essence of the baby animal would come from, that is, its formal cause. "Chipmunkness" had to get into a baby chipmunk somehow, so he believed that it would need to be from another chipmunk. Therefore, reproducibility and esssences worked hand-in-hand. Reproducibility explained where the baby's essence came from, and the natural division of essences could be discerned through reproducibility.

Enter the mule. The mule threatened to blow the whole system a part. (I have no evidence for this, but I believe Asimov was aware of this, which is why "the Mule" is a "mutant" who threatens the systematic predictions for Foundation). The mule was a sterile hybrid of a donkey and a horse. Aristotle was stuck. Donkeys and horses can't reproduce together viably, since their offspring are sterile. Therefore, donkeys and horses are different species. However, if donkeys and horses are different species, then which species is the mule? It clearly has horse parts and donkey parts, so it is not really just a horse or just a donkey. However, there cannot be a separate species of "mule" either, as they cannot reproduce at all, let alone viably. So, the mule is not essentially a horse or a donkey or a mule. Apparently the mule, then, has no essence, that is, it has no to ti en einai, since it is of no particular species.

This can't be right. The mule is walking around and braying, so it must have an essence. Aristotle had two solutions for this. His first solution doesn't work. He suggests that the mule may be an instance of the genus of which horses and donkeys are members, for our purposes, the genus equus. This creates a serious problem, though. One can say that a horse is essentially a "equus caballus" and a donkey is essentially a "equus asinus". It is the "caballus" and the "asinus" that provide the essence, though, and properly answer the question of "what it is". "Equus" is just a category according to which we group species. If a mule is just an "equus", full stop, it has no species and no essence. Worse, Aristotle is claiming that, even though it is not a member of any species it is still somehow a member of a group of species, which makes even less sense.

The second solution Aristotle gives is that the mule is just an exception to the normal regularity of nature. Aristotle occasionally does this, and it seems as though he is just throwing up his hands. However, it is an important part of Aristotle's methodology. He says that it is shameful (aischron) to treat a subject with more precision than it deserves. One should not expect a system to fit nature precisely. The mule is a case of that.

This tells us something very interesting about Aristotle sees his system of biological essences. He believes that his account is only an approximation and is willing to countenance exceptions. How, then, might he respond to Darwinian evolutionary theory? Since Darwin, many people have argued that Aristotelean essences and biology have been refuted. One of the main reasons this claim has been made is because Darwin claimed that the line between species is not sharp but blurry. However, Aristotle had already made room for the possibility of blurry interspecies lines. His doctrine of essences does not require that there be no blurring between the species, only that a discernible population that can reproduce viably exists. This is still true, and nothing about evolutionary biology shows otherwise. As such, Darwinian biology does not refute Aristotle's theory of essences.

The mule posed a great challenge to Aristotle's theory of biology. Fortunately, the problem of mules gave Aristotle the opportunity to wrestle with the fluidity of species that would not seriously resurface for over two thousand years. Because of this opportunity, it is possible to have some sense of how Aristotle might have responded to evolutionary biology.

August 17, 2005

On Modesty

The last fifty years have given us a common argument about modesty that is largely unsound. We are worried about nudity because we are ashamed of our bodies. We are ashamed of our bodies because we think our bodies are bad. Therefore, we are worried about nudity because we believe our bodies are bad. If we didn't think our bodies were bad, we'd stop worrying about nudity. The argument here is valid, but is an unsound one, since the third premise, that we are ashamed of our bodies because we think our bodies are bad, is false. In this essay, I will explain different reasons other than believing our bodies are bad for us to be ashamed of our bodies.

First, let me define shame. By shame, I simply mean embarrassment, the emotion that can make us blush or giggle. We are embarrassed when something we wanted to remain private about ourselves becomes public. Hence, shame is the emotion properly attendant on the public revelation of something we wished had been private. It is not automatically true that shame means that I believe something is bad. It simply means that I believe something is private. This can include thoughts, feelings or parts of our bodies, parts that we think are properly ours and nobody else's to know of, look at or touch without our permission. When these things are revealed to those from whom we would rather not reveal them, we are ashamed or feel embarrassed.

Why then are certain parts of our bodies something of which we are ashamed? To address this, I'd like to reflect on Scripture. I'm not making an argument dependent on Christian faith here, though. I am just using the story for its psychological insight. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve are naked before the Fall. They are without original sin and without the tendency to sin created by original sin. However, after their Fall, one of the first things they do is put on clothes. Why? Somehow the Fall has given them shame in their own bodies. Before the Fall, nudity was properly public. After the Fall, nudity was properly private. Somehow the tendency to sin is the cause of this difference. This is the psychological insight to which I was referring.

I'd suggest there are two ways in which the tendency to sin has created shame in our bodies. First, it has created the need for us to defend our bodies against unwanted sexual attention. Since fallen people now have inappropriate sexual desires, we are better able to interact with them if they are not distracted by our sexual characteristics. When we deal with people, we would normally like to be treated by them first as people, not as sexual objects. This is easier if we cover our most overtly sexual characteristics.

Second, it has created a need for privacy with respect to our own sexual desires. Our bodies, in various ways and especially for men, reflect our level of sexual arousal. However, since we now have inappropriate sexual desires at the inappropriate times, it is better for us to keep those desires private. It is good to be able to keep these desires private; in fact, a good deal of human courtship depends on keeping them private. With most of our inappropriate desires, this is not quite so clearly reflected in our bodies, but we can fairly easily hide the most overt signs of this arousal by wearing clothes. Therfore, we hide our bodies.

In conclusion, the psychological insight of Genesis is a profound one. We do not wear clothes because we believe our bodies are bad. Rather, we wear them as a result of sinful or unruly sexual desires. For these reasons, modesty is a good thing, as our sexual characteristics are best kept private. It protects us from sexual objectification and from the revelation of our own inappropriate sexual desires.

August 16, 2005

Revealed Reasons

It is a bit of a commonplace among Christians that there are two sources of truth, reason and revelation. These two sources are normally considered mutually exclusive, that is, nothing that is revealed by one is revealed by the other. However, Thomas Aquinas believed that these two sources were not, in fact, mutually exclusive. In fact, a number of the most important truths of reason, the existence of God and natural law, were deliberately revealed by God.

Thomas Aquinas's reasons were both Biblical, philosophical and traditional. Biblically, he was concerned with several passages. For the existence of God, the most important was Psalm 14:1, "The fool says in his heart, there is no God". If anyone who does not believe in God is a fool, anyone who is rational must believe in God. For natural law, he was concerned with Romans 2:14-15, "(for when Gentiles that have not the law do by nature the things of the law, these, not having the law, are the law unto themselves (15) in that they show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness therewith, and their thoughts one with another accusing or else excusing [them])" Without explicit revelation, the gentiles had access to the law by nature.

His philosophical concerns were that many philosophers had written proofs of the existence of God and natural law, especially Aristotle, that he believed were strong arguments and, were they not from reason, would have been extremely lucky guesses. His concerns from tradition were that other great theologians had attempted proofs for the existence of God, especially Augustine and Anselm (though he didn't think Anselm's proof worked). If it were impossible to gain such a truth, great theologians wouldn't search for it.

Aquinas's conclusion, then, is that God revealed to humanity things that were accessible to human reason alone. He believed that it made sense for God to do this. First, it made sense because not all human beings are philosophers or have the leisure to persue philosophy. While it may be true that the existence of God or the content of the natural law may be accessible to people after long study, not everyone has the capacity or the time for that study. Second, sin corrupts the reason, especially in matters of God and morality. When people rebel from God or desire pleasure, they are often unable or unwilling to reason properly. As such, though the existence of God and natural law may be demonstrable to a virtuous, philosophical mind with leisure, it is not available to everyone. Therefore, having the existence of God and the natural law revealed would make them more accessible to everybody.

This raises an interesting problem in cases of morality and the relationship of church and state. For Catholics and other Christians who support Aquinas' argument, the teaching of natural law are revealed by God, but are also accessible to reason. This means that attempts to promote the natural law (basically, Commandments IV-X) are not necessarily attempts to impose religious views. Catholics are encouraged to understand the natural, rational reasons behind the Church's positions on issues such as abortion or gay marriage and use these in debate. When a Catholic or other Christian does so, they enter these debates with reasons that are appropriate to public debate.

Aquinas's position on the relationship between reason and revelation in the existence of God and natural law provides an opportunity for Christians to do natural theology and ethics without feeling that they are somehow undermining the revealed character of these topics. God has written these things both in Scripture and in our hearts.

August 15, 2005

Pleasure and Aggregation

In this essay, I intend to demonstrate that hedonistic utilitarianism is not only false, but incoherent. Hedonistic utilitarianism is a version of utilitarianism, the belief that the purpose of all morality is to maximise a good, and it is called hedonistic because they believe that that good is pleasure. However, pleasure and pain cannot be aggregated in the way that utilitarians need it to be. As a result, hedonistic utilitarianism is not only false, but incoherent.

When I was a child, I remember an advertisement for Dr. Scholes' insoles. In that ad, the commentator claimed that if one added up all the pressure put on a foot during the day, it would be enough to crush a diamond. I knew even at this young age that there was something wrong here. What the commentator had done was simply take the amount of pressure put on the foot on each step and multiply it by the number of steps a person takes this day. This is, of course, nonsense. Pressure cannot be added up this way. One can step as much as one wants and one will never crush a diamond. What I had here was my first encounter with false aggregation.

Not all aggregation works the same way. Discrete objects work best. When I add three chairs to seven chairs, I get ten chairs. Sets merely merge together. For instance, if I add one pile of sand to another pile of sand, I do not get two piles of sand, but one, larger pile of sand. Incidently, this is an interesting exception to 1+1=2, as sets to not aggregate this way. Measurements of intensity do not aggregate at all. For instance, if I add the temperature of each room in my house, I will not get the total temperature of my house.

Qualia, or sense impressions, are an interesting case. Qualia are difficult to aggregate because they are meaningless without an observer. For instance, unobserved pain is meaningless. However, it is difficult to understand who observes the sum of all pleasure and pain. At first, it might seem that the answer would be "everyone". However, this answers who experiences each instance of pleasure and pain, but not who experiences the sum of all pleasure and pain. The answer here has to be "no one". However, since the sum of all pleasure and pain is felt by no one, the hedonistic utilitarian is left with one of two options. Either the sum is meaningless, or the sum is not pleasure and pain, which is uninteresting. Either way, the theory fails.

As a result, all the pleasure and pain in the world will be found in a single individual. There is no sum of all the pain and pleasure in the world with which to concern ourselves. The sum is an illusion, much like Dr. Schole's crushed diamond. Worrying about it would be irrational, much like concerning oneself with melting furniture after having added up the temperature in each room.

August 14, 2005

Friendship and Philosophy

In the dialogue Lysis, Socrates puts forward a serious problem concerning the nature of friendship. The argument was later to become extremely famous in Ancient philosophy, as the Lysis was one of the most widely copied of all Platonic dialogues. According to this argument, good people do not need friends, as people only need friends in so far as they are benefited. I will present my own argument against this position, and also Aristotle's argument.

The character Socrates worries that happy people will not need friends. He uses a fairly concise argument. People only need friends in so far as they provide benefit or sumpheron to them. However, people only need to be benefited in so far as they are lacking good things. In so far as people lack good things, they lack happiness. The happier someone is, the less things he or she needs. Therefore, the happier a person is, the less he or she needs to be benefited and the less he or she needs friends. A perfectly happy person would have no need of benefit at all, and would therefore have no need of friends at all. Therefore, only unhappy people need friends, and only in so far as they are unhappy.

My first reaction was the normal reaction to this argument, and I ask you to resist it. The immediate reaction is the response of saying that I do not love my friends only because they benefit me; friendship is about self-giving, not use. This reaction for me comes from an aversion to selfishness that I have written about here. The problem with this reaction is that it is simply not true. We do act sometimes in a selfless manner with friends, but how would our friends feel if we said that we didn't enjoy their company at all and that all the time we spent on them was toil in the service of duty? Would we want our friends not to enjoy being with us or even liking us? Moreover, most of us believe we need friends, and that having friends fills what would otherwise be some important lack in our lives. We do need friends in a very real way, and this is the intuition that Socrates is working with.

The argument I usually use against Socrates' position is that he has failed to make a distinction between intrinsic and instrumental goods, and is treating friends merely as instrumental goods. An intrinsic good is something we desire for its own sake or for no further reason. An instrumental good is something we desire because it provides us with some other benefit. If friends are merely instrumental goods, then Socrates is right. A perfectly happy person will not need any of the potential benefits provided by friends. However, if friends are intrinsic goods, then they are one of the goods that, just by having, make a happy person happy. They are one of the constituent parts of happiness, and therefore even a happy person needs them, in the sense that he or she needs to continue to possess them. Therefore, happy people need friends.

Aristotle's argument is more robust than this. He is concerned about the relationship of dependence at all. In Nicomachean Ethics I, he defines self-sufficiency as a characteristic of happiness, as it makes us less susceptible to fortune. For someone to need friends, even in the way I have argued, would mean that the happy person was dependent on another person for his or her happiness, and not self-sufficient. Rather, Aristotle argues, the happy person should have enough goodness in himself or herself to make him or her happy. The happy person would have a constant model of virtue that he or she could contemplate. Instead, he argues, virtuous friends can actually contribute to this contemplation. By being an image of one's own virtue, a friend acts as a "second self" in whom one can see one's own virtue reflected. In this way, a happy person can be self-sufficient in himself or herself, while still benefitting from seeing that virtue reflected in other virtuous people.

The Lysis introduced an entire epoch in philosophy in which the nature of friendship was a philosophical genre akin to epistemology or biology. It raises serious questions as to what we are doing when we have friends, and the attempted solutions often raise even more questions.

August 13, 2005

Respirators and Feeding Tubes

In this essay, I intend to examine the moral difference between respirators and feeding tubes. This distinction is very difficult to make, and even the Catholic Church, known for taking the conservative side on life issues, did not make any statement on the issue of feeding tubes until 1998. I will discuss the moral relevance of the distinction between ordinary and extraordinary care, and then discuss why a respirator is extraordinary care, and therefore may be withdrawn with a patient's consent, and a feeding tube is ordinary care.

The relevance of ordinary versus extraordinary care is a difficult one, and hard to apply in particular cases. It is worth understanding the reason for this distinction. The question is why starving oneself to death is a form of suicide, but refusing painful chemotherapy is not suicide. The solution has to do with the principle of double effect, which I discuss in this essay. According to the principle of double effect, if someone predicts a negative consequence to an action, but desires it neither as an end or a means, that consequence is not intended but merely foreseen. For instance, in the case of starving oneself to death, one desires to die, and the starvation is the means to that end. In the case of refusing chemotherapy, one desires to avoid the painful chemotherapy, and the death is a foreseen consequence of that refusal. However, one does not desire the death at all, either as an end or a means, so it is unintended and not suicide.

The relevance of this to ordinary and extraordinary care is that most extraordinary care is invasive and often painful. It is something that people would wish to avoid for its own sake. Part of this is the pain, but the invasion is more problematic. It is a violation of our bodily integrity to be cut up and fed chemicals. In the case of extraordinary care, it is reasonable to avoid this violation of our bodies itself, and people should have the right to refuse this care, regardless of whether or not it is life saving. This is because the patient may be intending only to avoid the violating procedure itself, and not intending suicide. However, for ordinary care, a person cannot reasonably claim that he or she is simply avoiding the care while not intending the death. For instance, someone for whom it is not painful cannot reasonably claim that he or she is willing to die to avoid the violation of having to eat. Someone who refused to eat or be washed would not be invoking the principle of double effect, but would be committing suicide.

Let us return then to respirators and feeding tubes. Do they qualify as ordinary or extraordinary care? Neither is obviously one or the other, which is why there has been so much debate. Usually, the criteria for determining extraordinary and ordinary care are commonality and degree of invasiveness. Both are now equally common, though respirators are more expensive. In terms of invasiveness, respirators are more invasive. Both use tubes, though there are different forms of feeding tubes, either oral, nasal, or abdominal. These are relatively small differences. The main reason that respirators are more invasive is that they forcibly expand and contract the lungs every few seconds. This is a constant bodily manipulation the likes of which feeding tubes do not even approach. In fact, because respirators contantly, forcibly manipulate the patient's organs, it is one of the more extraordinary forms of care there is. Feeding tubes do nothing at all like this.

Feeding tubes are less invasive then respirators, then, but do they still meet the test of being considered ordinary care? After all, they could be less invasive than respirators, but still invasive enough to qualify as extraordinary. The difficulty in deciding this is why there is still so much debate. Most arguments focus on the fact that feeding tubes require a fairly non-invasive procedure to insert and are nearly painless once inserted. In the case of abdominal tubes (the most invasive), the tube is inserted in a procedure requiring less than an hour that can be performed under local anaesthetic called a percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy. It is hard to believe that someone would be so unwilling to undergo this procedure as to be willing to die, unless that person were someone otherwise desiring death, that is, suicidal. Therefore, the principle of double effect does not apply, and the care should be considered ordinary.

Another consideration is that if feeding tubes were considered extraordinary, there would be no form of ordinary care for unconscious patients. No unconscious patient is able to swallow, and there is no other way to feed them except through a feeding tube. This however, is extremely implausible. Keeping people alive who are unconscious for a moderate to extended amount of time should not be considered an act of extraordinary medical intervention. As such, the definition of "ordinary care" must allow for some minimum standard of care for unconscious patients, and any minimum standard of care for unconscious patients would include a feeding tube. Therefore, feeding tubes must be considered a sort of ordinary care.

In conclusion, there is substantial difference between respirators and feeding tubes. Respirators are a form of extraordinary care that patients may refuse for their own sakes without committing suicide. Feeding tubes, on the other hand, are a form of ordinary care that cannot be refused without committing suicide. States that wish to disallow suicide should no more allow patients to refuse feeding tubes than to refuse other forms of nutrition and hydration.

August 12, 2005

Autonomy and Nature

In this essay, I intend to address the commonplace that moral pluralism demands a respect for autonomy. I will argue that this commonplace is nonsensicle. Instead, respect for autonomy must be rooted in a deeper theory of human nature and human value, usually one that stems from the value of reason. Since this is true, a theory respecting autonomy may require the inclusion of goods other than autonomy.

I will begin with a common argument. It is the argument that there is no moral realism, and as a result, we ought to respect the autonomy of all agents to do as they please. The response to this has become almost a commonplace itself. There are two ways to interpret the "ought" here, morally or prudentially. It cannot be treated morally, as the belief there is no moral realism entails that there is no moral requirement to respect others' decisions. Tolerance itself is a moral value, and without moral realism, it is no more immoral to whack someone on the head one doesn't like than tolerate to that person. A moral claim for tolerance from denying moral realism is self-contradictory.

Can it then be treated prudentially? A prudential preference for respecting the autonomy of others may be defended either individually or collectively. An individual prudential claim says something like, "You should tolerate others so that they will tolerate you". However, this is not true for people strong enough not to be tolerant, such as tyrants like Stalin who may want to massacre a few million Ukrainians. It would only be prudentially good for the weak, but it precisely the strong who are the most dangerous. Nor can a collective prudential claim be made, like "It would be best for all of us if we were all tolerant". In fact, collective prudential claims all suffer the same problem, they must be performed by individuals. Why should the strong individual benefit the group, if there is no moral realism and it is not in his or her own best interest? Moral irrealism, then, cannot provide sufficient support for autonomy. Either it provides no ground at all, or it provides prudential considerations that only apply to the people who are least dangerous.

Instead, one must appeal to the traditional categories of human nature. There is something about the human being that autonomy represents that it would be fundamentally disrespectful of that person to violate. Usually, this is cached out in one of two ways: either it is because autonomous actions are a manifestations of that person's reason or phronesis, or autonomous actions are a manifestation of that person's will. The relationship between these is complex, and fortunately for the purposes of this essay, I do not need to resolve it. What is important is that both of the arguments here rest on the claim that somehow the reason and the will are themselves central and identifying parts of human nature, and to disrespect them is to disrespect the agent himself or herself.

The problem for those who attempt to make autonomy the only good is that, by opening up the category of human nature and introducing moral realism, one opens up the possibility that there are goods other than autonomy that one needs to respect in order to respect an individual. This is because, if there are more parts to human beings than reason and will, there are more parts of a human being to respect than his or her autonomy. Autonomy is surely an important value, but it is not the only value, unless one wishes to claim that we are disembodied reasons and wills. Nor is there a prima facie reason to assume that autonomy is always the highest value; other values, like bodily integrity, may be more important in certain instances.

Autonomy is usually considered the highest value, especially in bioethics. This, however, is arbitrary and pandering to democratic sentiment. There is no argument for autonomy that does not include other values that may trump it in certain circumstances. This complicates moral debates, but complication is often good, especially when debates have become so one-sided.

August 11, 2005

Mortal and Venial Sin

Thomas Aquinas desired to explain how the Catholic Church's doctrine that there are mortal and venial sins could be reconciled with the Biblical verse James 2:10, "For whoever keeps the whole law, and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all". The Catholic Church teaches that there are two levels of sin, mortal sin and venial sin: a mortal sin is a sin that severs us from God's sanctifying grace, and will damn us without repentence; and a venial sin is a sin that does not sever us from God's sanctifying grace, but can lead us to mortal sin. However, this line from James claims that there are no distinctions in sins, and any sin is a violation of the whole law. This would appear to be a contradiction. Using careful distinctions, Thomas Aquinas will argue that, understood rightly, the Church's doctrine teaches that there is only one sort of sin and all sin is of equal weight.

First, he will establish the equal gravity of all mortal sins. The first distinction to be made is the difference between the gravity of the matter of a sin and the gravity of a sin. The matter of a sin is the action done. It is called the "matter" of the sin, since it is what the sin is made of, just like a wall is made of brick. So, for instance, the matter of the sin of murder is killing someone. The matter of sins comes in various degrees of severity. Killing is worse than theft, the killing of a father is worse than killing of a stranger, and beating someone with a baseball bat is worse than slapping him. This, however, is only the gravity of the matter of the sin, not the gravity of the sin itself. All mortal sins are of equal gravity, as the gravity of sins is measured by how much they separate us from God. Since there can be no worse separation than to be separated from God's sanctifying grace and to be eternally damned, all mortal sins are of equal gravity, even if their matter is not.

Second, he will establish the equality of all sins by doing something that might seem surprising. He argues that venial sins are not, strictly speaking, sins. To understand this, one must take a look at Aristotle's Prior Analytics. Aristotle discusses synonymy of language, homonymy of language and, lost to most modern linguistic analysis, paronymy of language. Paronymy is a meaning of a word that is dependant on another, more precise, use of a word. Aquinas's example is the phrase "the urine is healthy". The urine itself isn't synonymously healthy, since it is the person that has health, nor is it homonymously healthy, since to call urine "healthy" is not to have a completely unrelated meaning of "health". Instead the meaning of "healthy urine" is dependent on the meaning of "healthy person" and urine is paronymously "healthy". So too, he argues, are venial sins called "sins". They are paronymously called "sins", since they can lead us to mortal sins, the only sins that are, strictly speaking, sins. However, they are not, strictly speaking, sins themselves, since venial sins do not themselves separate us from God. It is not false to say that venial sins are sins, any more than it is false to say urine is healthy, but, strictly speaking, only mortal sins are sins.

In this way, Thomas Aquinas reconciles the doctrine of mortal and venial sin with James 2:10. His distinctions are useful. His first distinction enables us to continue to coherently rank the severity of actions without needing to rank the severity of sins, and his second distinction makes clear some of the various ways in which terms such as "sin" can be used.