Monday, 30 January 2012

Philosopher Swimmers

I suppose if we are going to look at the progress from Atheism to Theism it will make more sense to look at its usual form of Christian Theism as Deists are thin on the ground at the moment. The group that is most likely to have been swayed by intellectual or rational arguments are philosophers. I use the appelation philosopher in a broad sense to cover anyone who has reflected deeply on things. There are a few philosophers that have made the transition from atheism to christian theism among them being Alisdair MacIntyre, A.N. Flew, Mortimer Adler, Ed Feser, Peter van Inwagen, C.S.Lewis, Victor Reppert, Edith Stein, Michael Dummett, Peter Geach and Elizabeth Anscombe. The first 4 seem to have been influenced by rational, apodeictic if you will, considerations; the others passed to belief from a variety of causes as far as I can judge. The reading of St.Teresa of Avila was a factor in the conversion of Stein, mystical experience in the case of Reppert and Lewis. Anscombe claims her reading from the age of 10 to 15 was a factor which could mean lives of the saints or the Summa. I can discover nothing about Geach’s pilgrim’s progress. There does not seem to have been any intellectual argument at play in the case of Dummett only the gradual acceptance of the truth of the Catholic religion. Peter van Inwagen may have become an Episcopalian by osmosis.

By the way I am absolutely open to correction on any of this somewhat broad brush review. On the basis of this minute sample of philosopher swimmers of the Tiber or the Thames it seems that conversion induced by argument comes quite late in life, the vanity of other systems by then apparent.

Dr. Michael Sudduth is disporting himself amongst the billows of the Yamuna led by ananda itself, isn’t it. The path to Eastern religion is overwhelmingly experiential but this is another topic for another day.

Addendum 1/2/12
How could I have forgotten the names of Jacques and Raissa Maritain who were saved from the fulfilment of their suicide pact by the teaching of Henri Bergson their professor at the Sorbonne. He brought them to a sense of the absolute and some time after that great devotee of the absolute and profound anti-rationalist Leon Bloy brought them into the Catholic Church. Bloy himself through a dramatic conversion had left his own anti-Catholic past behind. Jacques Maritain is of course famous for his Thomistic writing but his thought in my view has elements of the intuitionist approach.

Addendum 2/6/12
Add Thomas Merton and Bede Griffiths to the list of those who converted to Christianity as a result of mystical experience. Both later became monks, Trappist and Benedictine respectively.

Addendum 14/8/13
Nicholas Rescher adopted the Pascalian 'fake it to make it'.

Addendum 26/8/13: From Collected Philosophical Papers of G.E.M. Anscombe:

As a result of my teen-age conversion to the Catholic Church -itself the fruit of reading done from twelve to fifteen - I read a work called Natural Theology by a nineteenth century Jesuit. I read it with great appetite and found it all convincing except for two things. One was the doctrine of scientia media, according to which God knew what anybody would have done if, e.g., he hadn't died when he did.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Lead Kindly Argument

I've had the extraordinary experience of putting a question to Brandon at Siris
that was not complicated enough for him to understand. It's based on the assertion by Julian Baggini
cif guardian
that religious people offer rational arguments for their adherence and that these arguments, Baggini maintains, are no more than rationalisations for something that has altogether more subjective grounds. Brandon contradicted this saying that there are many cases of people who have gone from atheism to theism led by purely intellectual arguments. He mentioned A.N. Flew as being one. Fair enough. I asked him who else besides Flew was so persuaded. That was the too simple question. You see I don't actually believe that there have been all that many people who have gone from atheism to theism borne along by the power of rational arguments in comparison to those that have been converted by an infusion of grace. In this game the result stands:
Holy Ghost - 6 : 5 Ways - 0

In the end 3 names were mentioned as countering Baggini's claim, Ed Feser, John Wright(science fiction writer) and A.N. Flew. There may be others. Maybe you, gentle reader, know of some more. Their testimony would be interesting to read if available.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West published in 1918 is an extraordinary work of fiction for a 25 year old. It was her second published book, the previous one being a monograph on Henry James. The novel has a brisk narrative flow and a setting that is restricted to the confines of the large Baldry residence where Kitty Baldry and her husband's cousin Jenny await his return from the war. The perfectly observed setting is disturbed by a caller, a creature of the lower orders who arrives with the most extraordinary news. Chris it seems has been shell shocked and is at present in a hospital in Boulogne. It emerges that he has fallen into a state of partial amnesia in which the last 15 years of his life have been expunged and he has only the memories that he had when he was 21. The woman who has brought the message is the one that he was in love with at that time. ‘For it is she’ we are tempted to add but in fact such states were well known at that time. He has forgotten that he is a married man and has no recollection of his wife and remembers Jenny who is the narrator only from 15 years before.

Through an unfortunate twist of fate the early love of his life has never received the letters that Chris wrote to her at the old address which is a pub run by her father on Monkey Island on the Thames near Windsor. Margaret Grey is now married herself to a valetudinarian. They are both depicted with formidable condescension which alters as the story goes on to envy of the innate nobility of Margaret and the fact that she is loved with the abandon of first love by Chris Baldry. Now she presents the picture of a middle aged woman somewhat eroded by life. Jenny thus describes her:

The bones of her cheap stays clicked as she moved. Well, she was not so bad. Her body was long and round and shapely and with a noble squareness of the shoulders; her fair hair curled diffidently about a good brow; her grey eyes, though they were remote, as if anything worth looking at in her life had kept a long way off, were full of tenderness; and though she was slender there was something about her of the draught-ox or the big trusted dog. Yet she was bad enough. She was repulsively furred with neglect and poverty; as even a good glove that has dropped down behind a bed in a hotel and has lain undisturbed for a day or two is repulsive when the chambermaid retrieves it from the dust and fluff.

The precise notation of the gradation of the social order; which West keenly felt as one reared in genteel poverty, is depicted beautifully. There are tiny indications of this. Jenny notices that some plume elements in Margaret's hat have gone astray and have been mended with adhesive. She deprecates with a refined contempt this device. A woman of that class would have no knowledge of the ways of Seccotine but a young West fearful that her gallant feathers were bedraggled might. The fiction within a fiction, the abolishing of history, the recovery of a lost love and the claims of real life are treated with mature clarity. As a writer she has that indefinable gift of narrative flow and the creation of character. It is a very short novel, 187 pages long, a novella really. Her mature work the Aubrey trilogy which begins with The Fountain Overflows published in 1957 surpasses that very high standard. If second hand prices are anything to go by it seems that she has fallen into neglect. I got my hardback copy of 'Fountain’ in an original dust jacket for €1.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Colour me Celtic: black or white = gorm no geal

duine gorm = black person in Irish
duine geal = white person.
That is in relation to persons, in relation to chromatic colour ‘gorm’ means blue and ‘geal’ means bright/light

Which is perhaps slightly interesting. People have speculated that the perception of colours evolved slowly and that the Homeric trope ‘wine-dark sea’ is an indication of this, but why shouldn’t there be a special word for a certain type of deep sea on a cloudy day that departs from the usual chromatic suggestion of wine red which of course it’s not any more than the ancient Celts thought that Negroes were the same colour as the sea.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

David Benatar's Baby

This morning I heard a philosopher wittering on about the Benatar thesis as though it were a profound challenge to our intuitions. When Wikipedia comes back look it up:childfree

Why have teachers of philosophy taken up this obvious piece of specious sophistry? I suppose it is a device to engage the interest of their charges.

David Benatar’s baby is like Schrodinger’s cat both dead and alive. For the purposes of pain he/she is alive and for the purposes of pleasure not alive. For various complex reasons D.B. urges that it would be the moral thing if the baby never was, never came into existence and never was allowed to be born if through some oversight it was conceived. Now my point is this and it’s a very simple one - how can something which doesn’t exist, which is a generalised abstract non-entity be weighed on any moral balance against any other entity, fish, flesh or good red herring.

His general thesis is one which he extrapolates from the particular thesis of the known suffering of a child that would likely be born with a serious genetic defect. The idea is that one would not consider it correct to conceive and give birth to a child that would suffer throughout a short life. To go from that case which warrants serious consideration to a general reluctance to conceive is just too big a step. You have gone from a specific definite case in which the potential harm are clear to a hypothetical unestablished abstract generalised harm. This supposed harm can simply be countered by saying what very many people would say with complete sincerity - on balance I am happy to be alive and I am glad that I was born. Here’s the great speech from Blade Runner. Even a replicant is glad to have lived.

Roy: I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I've watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die. 

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys (pt.2)


Somewhere on the Tipperary side of the Shannon the brother docked the boat and brought me to this nice pub which was made from the covered in ground floor of a ruined Georgian mansion. What sort of planning permission was required for that I wonder? Anyway such is the wreck of ancient glory that is Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys; some habitable rooms, elsewhere noble desolation. But no hyper cold Bud just tea and bread and butter. Lots of it.

There are serious structural problems. First of all length: over 636 pages in 2 Volumes. Second of all, the exclusive focus on the inner workings of the said 'Wolf', his said personal mythology, his diet, his appreciation of the Dorset countryside and so forth and his obsession with the face on the Waterloo Steps.

It was an English face; and it was also a Chinese face, a Russian face, an Indian face. It had the variableness of that Protean wine of the priestess Bacbuc. It was just the face of a man, of a mortal man against whom Providence had grown as malignant as a mad dog. And the woe upon the face was of such a character that Wolf knew at once that no conceivable social adjustments or ameliorative revolutions could ever atone for it - could ever make up for the simple irremediable fact it had been as it had been!

This face is mentioned 30 times throughout the two volumes. If somehow finger by finger volume 1 could have been pried from his hands and published on its own all would have been well because that covers the ascension of Wolf and his winning of the delightful Gerda who is a bird whistler that can fool a blackbird into response. The second volume has the descent of Wolf. He loses his mythology, Gerda loses her whistle and this reader lost his interest.

Wittgenstein was right you know - an inner state stands in need of outer criteria. Loss must be established not through telling us but by the anguish of a mood that is a reflection of what was common previously. It is the fading into the light of common day that breaks the heart. An event that would have brought joy now only reminds us of our loss. The description of the event must limn the loss without underlining and highlighting. It may be that practice in the short story develops this capacity. Powys did not do short willingly. Porius his last and most obscure novel ended up as 624 pages after losing 500 pages to the editor.

The first volume has many fine things in it such as playing hide and go seek with Gerda on Babylon Hill where he first experiences her particular gift without knowing it to be her:

He listened fascinated. That particular intonation of the blackbird's note, more full of the spirits of air and of water than any sound upon earth, has always possessed a mysterious attraction for him. It seemed to hold, in the sphere of sound, what amber paved pools surrounded by hart's tongue ferns contain in the sphere of substance. It seemed to embrace in it all the sadness that is possible to experience without crossing the subtle line into the region where sadness becomes misery.

I feel that somehow all will come right for Wolf and Gerda. It ends on a high note. Tea.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

The Art of Memory by Frances A. Yates

Henri Bergson told us that we forget nothing which seems fanciful when we may spend a morning looking for our keys. What he meant and here I am open to correction because there are opaque elements in his thought, was that we 'virtually' remember everything which is another way of saying we remember nothing if we construe memory on the model which is presented to us by the standard neuro-science of our day. Memory other that motor memory or stuff that is learnt by heart is not 'in' the brain. Where does that leave the ancient practice of memory loci as elucidated by Frances Yates in her magisterial Art of Memory?

I still can't find my keys though. I did not leave them in my usual place. They are good and lost. If I had left them in their usual locus, a place which I have by heart, then that motor connection between place and keys would allow them to merge together. So it is with information that I wish to remember. The use of a well known and gotten by heart room, to use a simple example of the Classical technique that Yates writes about, has placed on all its elements the varied items of information that may have no direct associative connection with each other. Then to recover the information I merely walk through the room picking up each item as I go. Does this not prove the associationist thesis that Bergson impugns? What he would reply to this is that what is happening is that motor memory has so to speak absorbed the item to be recalled and therefore the usual efforts to focus and condense what is virtual is obviated. Is this not the point of advertisements that by repetition make an indissoluble connection?

Now that everyone with a smart phone is a googleamus we need to ask whether the ancient skill of forgetting should be revived wherever we left it. Bacon in his 'Advancement of Learning avers:
There has been laboured and put into practice a method, which is not a lawful method, but a method of imposture, which is to deliver knowledge in such a manner, as men may speedily come to make a show of learning which have it not. Such was the travail of Raymundus Lullus in making that art which bears his name......
(quoted in The Art of Memory)

Haven't we all met them and do they not infest our centres of higher learning? I mean those rote learners by whatever means. Poetry should be learnt by heart and lectures should be orations to be most effective but what is the point of memorising the Preamble to the Brahma Sutra Bhyasa by Shankaracarya and applying over that a standard interpretation? That means you are locked into a certain unfolding. There is very little chance of a reconfiguring of the elements within it which lead to a genuine understanding.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Bergson's Cone of Memory

Bergson’s cone is fine as a representation of his thoughts on memory and by implication duration as long as we remember that his view of memory radically diverges from the accepted neuro-scientific picture of both his contemporaries and ours. Memory is stored in the brain. Lesion injury demonstrates this beyond a doubt. That is the modern position. H.B. says ‘no, it’s not and here’s why’. Now I’m not, for now, going to recapitulate the argument which supports his rebuttal but simply go on to sketch the questions which naturally occur to the reader the chief one being: if memory is not located in the brain, where is it?

Looking at the famous diagram again we find that under this new dispensation memory is entering into the plane of history where the human being dwells. This creature is connected to its own personalised cone of memory because that duration or the densification of its history is its own.

My memory is there, which conveys something of the past into the present. My mental state, as it advances on the road of time, is continually dwelling with the duration which it accumulates: it goes on increasing - rolling upon itself, as a snowball on the snow.
(from Chap.I. Creative Evolution Sony Reader pg.8)

As a speculative aside we might consider boundless ‘memory’ or consciousness as the Tailhardian noosphere impinging on the less complex elements of nature thereby creating ‘memory’. In mythic terms we are in the devic realm Mnemosyne, that of the shining ones. Don’t snort in that dismissive fashion, for Plato this was still a way of doing philosophy!

Duration is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances...... That is why our duration is irreversible. We could not live over a single moment, for we should have to begin by effacing the memory of all that had followed.
(pg. 9/10 S.R.)

When Thomas Reid said that memory was unaccountable part of what he meant was that memory could not be broken down into simpler fundamental intellectual powers in an analytical fashion. He could not account for the fact that we have memory only of the past and that we are generally barred from ‘memory’ of the future. Bergson’s account departs from the realm of common sense to that of the a posteriori transcendental. In effect he is saying : ‘We can’t be doing what we think we are doing according to neuro-science. We wouldn’t have the knowledge that we have. Here then is a better account which covers the facts.’

Yet at the same time we still want to think of memory quantitatively. After all we fill books with memories so we are inclined to think of them as being located. How do we retrieve them if not from somewhere? In another of his rather fine metaphors Bergson gives an indication of an alternative procedure. Instead of going down to the storehouse of memory with your docket:
Whenever we are trying to recover a recollection, to call up some period of our history, we become conscious of an act sui generis by which we detach ourselves from the present in order to replace ourselves, first in the past in general, then in a certain region of the past—a work of adjustment, something like the focussing of a camera. But our recollection still remains virtual; we simply prepare ourselves to receive it by adopting the appropriate attitude. Little by little it comes into view like a condensing cloud; from the virtual state it passes into the actual; and as its outlines become more distinct and its surface takes on colour, it tends to imitate perception. But it re mains attached to the past by its deepest roots, and if, when once realized, it did not retain something of its original virtuality, if, being a present state, it were not also something which stands out distinct from the present, we should never know it for a memory.

There is still the element of unaccountability in this description, that something that evades the empiric itch, that demand for evidence. We just know its a memory and not a faint perception or sensation or some will o’ the wisp that Locke and Hume chased across a quaking bog.

For Bergson memory is embedded in perception. How often have you been working on something in the house and discovered that a tool you need is in the shed. You go out there but by the time you get there other thoughts have driven the purpose of your mission from your head. Blankly you stare at the bench and tool box. No clue there. You must retrieve your steps, mentally or physically to the job until the memory of what it was you wanted can enter you. The associationist thesis is apparently supported by this procedure but Bergson insists that memory is part of our personality:

We have supposed that our entire personality, with the totality of our recollections, is present, undivided within our actual perception. Then, if this perception evokes in turn different memories, it is not by a mechanical adunction of more and more numerous elements which, while it remains itself unmoved, it attracts around it, but rather by an expansion of the entire consciousness which, spreading out over a larger area, discovers the fuller detail of its wealth. So a nebulous mass, seen through more and more powerful telescopes, resolves itself into an ever greater number of stars.

So Proust’s madeleine was not a portal that brought everything with it automatically. The life of a person has no internal logic so memories are made by one’s own personality.
- But, Proust, you know that never happened.
- Yes, certainly, but it’s really me.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

Yates throws a despairing shrug at Tolstoy when he opens The Easter Parade with
Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parent’s divorce.
The old priest’s advice to the young curate about sermons was:
- Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you have just told them.
In the end like one scrying the lees in the glass of life, the surviving sister says:
’Yes, I’m tired,’ she said. ‘And do you know a funny thing? I’m almost 50 years old and I’ve never understood anything in my whole life.’
Telling us:
The mother is ‘Pookie’. Yes, the girls Sarah and Emily are encouraged to call her that. Yates avoids the words peripatetic and peregrination in relation to the movement of Pookie about the various towns where she works in a modest capacity,certainly not as a Realtor which was plan A. The words alluded to and in general all linguistic flourishes are avoided in a controlled prose. Here’s the funeral of the father who departs early in the book:
There wasn’t much of a ceremony at the chapel. An electric organ played, a tired-looking man read a few nondenominational prayers, the casket was removed, and it was over.
Pookie is slapdash and approximate and her decline into alcoholism is mapped with precision by Yates who knew that region well. Emily the youngest daughter at Barnard College has come home for the weekend and they both are going to visit Sarah and Tony and their 3 children where they live on Long Island in a clapboard bungalow on the grounds of Tony’s fathers residence. In a nice touch we get a certain amount of real estate information.

Yates creates islands of omission. Though the word ‘snob’ is never used, Pookie is one, and her nerves dealing with Wilson in the big house lead her to babble and get drunk. Emily stays on the sherry which in that family amounts to a temperance drink.
By the time she was ready to leave at last Geoffrey Wilson had to help her to the door. It was getting dark. Emily took her arm - it felt soft and weak - and they made their way past trees and overgrown shrubbery towards the long road to the railroad station.
Actually the whole family have a problem with alcohol, even the father, though that information comes from mother and you know how alcoholics worry about other peoples drinking. Over the years the damage accumulates and the grip on things slackens. Clever Emily drifts from relationship to relationship with neurotic men. She has no luck or perhaps it is that the recapitulation of the primal family drama leads her towards older divorced men that trail issues.

I read it through at one sitting. It’s a short book, 225 pages in the Vintage Classics paperback. Now reading it again I find the low key tone just right for everyday tragedy. Excellent.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Revolutionary Road: The Movie

Should this have been done? Probably not. It wasn't genreiste enough if you'll pardon the barbaric coinage. Certain indifferent novels can be made into films that piggyback on the signs and signals that are well established. We know how to read them and their blandness is an appropriate lack of a barrier to the interpretive glossary. A good novel is its own world with its own climate and the translation to another medium leaches out the texture. They replaced the Freudian psychology of the book with visual signals. The Campbells house is furnished in shades of brown, not even good Grand Rapids whilst the Wheelers are into pale Dano-Scando. It's probably marks the difference between a comfortable sofa and a statement about your taste.

It may well come to pass and perhaps it already has, that Freudian Depth Psychology will be studied as a branch of literature or a vade mecum for 20th.Century studies. It's a verbalising technique; consider the key practice of free association. We lie down, we become embalmed in archetypal stillness which is essentially Cartesian and therefore at odds with the dissolution into imagery of film. The motivation in the book is soluble in this medium.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Thomas Reid, the unaccountable and the pramana.

The expression of unaccountability in relation to the intellectual powers of man as distinguished by Thomas Reid has a certain creative ambiguity about it. Like the famous fudging of the Anglo-Irish Agreement it allows for everyone to take whatever they want out of it and to nudge it in the direction of their predilections by 'clorification'. 'Unaccountability' might for the proponents of mysterianism be only the implicit admission that we cannot by virtue of our conceptual schema grasp what that schema is in itself. 'It outruns the mind' as it says in an Upanishad. Take it up with 'the Author of our being'; 'not my desk' in civil service jargon.

In conjunction with that you can take unaccountability as an expression of the concept of the pramana. A pramana is a valid means of knowledge which cannot be reduced to any other. Naturally different schools vary on what is fundamental and irreducible. The Advaitins recognise six pramanas. Memory is not one. Inference (anumana) cannot be reduced to perception (prataksha) or sabda (reliable witness) etc. There comes a point where the most cunning of philosophic alchemists cannot further fractionalize in the alembic of his mind the crude propositions of the laity.

Memory and belief can hold hands but are they conceptually welded.

When I believe that I washed my hands and face this morning there appears to be no necessity in the truth of this proposition. It might be, or it might not. A man may distinctly conceive it without believing it at all. How then do I come to believe it? I remember it distinctly. This is all I can say. This remembrance is an act of my mind. Is it possible that this act should be, if the act had not have happened? I confess I do not see any necessary connection between the one and the other. If any man can shew such a necessary connection, then I think that belief which we have of what we remember will be fairly accounted for, but if this cannot be done, that belief is unaccountable, and we can say no more but that it is the result of our constitution.
from EIP Essay III. i. pg.321 Sony ereader/search- distinctly. This -((the full stop is followed by a single space))

What does this have to say to the contemporary article of philosophic faith, the Justified True Belief as the touchstone of knowledge? Memory is not a valid means of knowledge on its own but it may share with the concept of the pramana a degree of irreducibility. The notion of belief that accompanies clear memory is definitive and not explanatory. Ultimately there is just memory as an element of our constitution.

For some light relief: I bet Flannery O'Connor loved this poem by Thomas Hood:

I Remember, I Remember

I remember, I remember
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn;
He never came a wink too soon
Nor brought too long a day;
But now, I often wish the night
Had borne my breath away.

I remember, I remember
The roses red and white,
The violets and the lily cups--
Those flowers made of light!
The lilacs where the robin built,
And where my brother set
The laburnum on his birthday,--
The tree is living yet!

I remember, I remember
Where I was used to swing,
And thought the air must rush as fresh
To swallows on the wing;
My spirit flew in feathers then
That is so heavy now,
The summer pools could hardly cool
The fever on my brow.

I remember, I remember
The fir-trees dark and high;
I used to think their slender tops
Were close against the sky:
It was a childish ignorance,
But now 'tis little joy
To know I'm farther off from Heaven
Than when I was a boy.