Monday, 31 August 2015

Miracle? Improbably not.


To construe miracles from a probable/improbable viewpoint is an attempt to keep the problem within the naturalistic domain. Where else would Richard Dawkins atheist bus be going, the one with the slogan There’s probably no God so everything is permitted’. No, that was the troika and it left in the 19th.century.

Staying within the naturalistic domain is like the Mulla Nasrudin looking for the keys that he lost in his house, under the street lamp, there being no light in his house. Sali sin ser notado / estando ya mi casa sosegada. Is the divine that you might meet the immanent duck or the transcendent rabbit or is there a Monist duck-rabbit? Henry Corbin is constantly telling us in his study of Ibn-Arabi that the saint is not a monist as though to retrospectively protect him from the literalists. One recollects that he had to hightail it out of Morocco or was it Egypt. ‘You can’t handle the truth’ is not a plea that those book-lovers would have accepted. Make a parcel of it and tie it with a bow.


It's no go the Yogi-man, it's no go Blavatsky,
All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi.
(from Bagpipe Music by Louis MacNeice
Bagpipe Music)

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Probability or Improbability of Miracles


How probable or improbable is it that a man should walk on water or be raised from the dead or be bilocated? I suggest that those events are neither probable nor improbable but a matter of pure will on the part of the divine. The improbable happens, a man may win the lotto twice or be struck by lightening more than once but class A miracles are a matter of fiat or ‘sankalpa’. They cannot otherwise happen. In the Hindu tradition they are spoken of as leelas and mahimas/ sportive events and showing of power. Whately has it that they are ways of stimulating belief in non-demonstrative truth.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

'Permit me to demur Mr.Hume' said Dr.Whately


EXPERIENCE.—This word, in its strict sense, applies to what has occurred within a person's own knowledge. Experience, in this sense, of course, relates to the past alone. Thus it is that a man knows by experience what sufferings he has undergone in some disease, or what height the tide reached at a certain time and place.
More frequently the word is used to denote that Judgment which is derived from experience in the primary sense, by reasoning from that, in combination with other data. Thus, a man may assert, on the ground of Experience, that he was cured of a disorder by such a medicine,—that that medicine is, generally, beneficial in that disorder,—that the tide may always be expected, under such circumstances, to rise to such a height. Strictly speaking, none of these can be known by Experience, but are conclusions derived from Experience. It is in this sense only that Experience can be applied to the future, or, which comes to the same thing, to any general fact; as, e. g. when it is said that we know by Experience that water exposed to a certain temperature will freeze.
There are again two different applications of the word {see Book III. § 10,) which, when not carefully distinguished, lead in practice to the same confusion as the employment of it in two senses; viz. we sometimes understand our own personal experience; sometimes, general Experience. Hume has availed himself of this (practical) ambiguity, in his Essay on Miracles; in which he observes, that we have experience of the frequent falsity of Testimony, but that the occurrence of a miracle is contrary to our Experience, and is consequently what no testimony ought to be allowed to establish. Now had he explained whose Experience he meant, the argument would have come to nothing: if he means the Experience of mankind universally, i. e, that a Miracle has never come under the Experience of any one, this is palpably begging the question: if he means the Experience of each individual who has never himself witnessed a Miracle, this would establish a rule, {viz. that we are to believe nothing of which we have not ourselves experienced the like,) which it would argue insanity to act upon. Not only was the King of Bantam justified (as Hume himself admits) in listening to no evidence for the existence of Ice, but no one would be authorized on this principle to expect his own death. His Experience informs him, directly, only that others have died. Every disease under which he himself may have labored, his Experience must have told him has not terminated fatally; if he is to judge strictly of the future by the past, according to this rule, what should hinder him from expecting the like of all future diseases ?
Some have never been struck with this consequence of Hume's principles; and some have even failed to perceive it when pointed out: but if the reader thinks it worth his while to consult the author, he will see that his principles, according to his own account of them, are such as I have stated.
Perhaps however he meant, if indeed he had any distinct meaning, something intermediate between universal, and individual experience; viz. the Experience of the generality, as to what is common and of ordinary occurrence; in which sense the maxim will only amount to this, that false Testimony is a thing of common occurrence, and that Miracles are not; an obvious truth, indeed ; but too general to authorize, of itself) a conclusion in any particular case In any other individual question, as to the admissibility of evidence, it would be reckoned absurd to consider merely the average chances for the truth of Testimony in the abstract without inquiring what the Testimony is, in the f articular instance before us. As if e. g. any one had maintained that no testimony could establish Columbus's account of the discovery of America, because it is more common for travellers to lie, than for new Continents to be discovered. See Historic Doubts relative to Napoleon Bonaparte.
It is to be observed by the way, that there is yet an additional ambiguity in the entire phrase " contrary to experience;" in one sense, a miracle, or any other event, may be called contrary to the experience of any one who has never witnessed the like; as the freezing of water was to that of the King of Bantam; in another and stricter sense, that only is contrary to a man's experience, which he knows by experience not to be true; as if one should be told of an in&llible remedy for some disorder, he having seen it administered without effect. No testimony can establish what is, in this latter sense^ contrary to experience. We need not wonder that ordinary minds should be bewildered by a sophistical employment of such a mass of ambiguities.
Such reasonings as these are accounted ingenious and profound, on account of the Subject on which they are employed; if applied to the ordinary affairs of life, they would be deemed unworthy of serious notice.
The reader is not to suppose that the refutation of Hume's Essay on Miracles was my object in this Article.
That might have been sufficiently accomplished, in the way of a reductio ad absurdum," by mere reference to the case of the King of Bantam adduced by the author himself But this celebrated Essay, though it has often perhaps contributed to the amusement of an anti-christian sophist at the expense of those unable to expose its fallacy, never probably made one convert The author himself seems plainly to have meant it as a specimen of his ingenuity in arguing on a given hypothesis; for he disputes against miracles as against the Course of Nature; whereas, according to him, there is no such thing as a Course of Nature; his skepticism extends to the whole external world;—to every thing, except the ideas or impressions on the mind of the individual; so that a miracle which is believed, has, in that circumstance alone, on his principles, as much reality as any thing can have.
But my object has been to point out, by the use of this example, the fallacies and blunders which may result from inattention to the ambiguity of the word " Experience :" and this cannot be done by a mere indirect argument; which refutes indeed, but does not explain^ an error.
(from alphabetical appendix to Elements of Logic by Dr.Richard Whately)




Friday, 28 August 2015

Gotcha Mr. Hume said Dr. Whately


Here Dr. Whately is exercising his red biro on Mr. Hume in the matter of distribution. The latter has treated (some) testimony as though it were any testimony whatever.

There is an argument against miracles by the well-known Mr. Hume, which has perplexed many persons, and which exactly corresponds to the above. It may be stated thus: “Testimony is a kind of evidence more likely to be false, that a miracle to be true; “ (or, as it may be expressed in other words, we have reason to expect that a witness should lie, than that a miracle should occur) “ the evidence on which the Christian miracles are believed, is testimony; therefore the evidence on which the Christian miracles are believed is more likely to be false than a miracle is to be true.”

Here it is evident that what is spoken of in the first of these Premises, is, “some testimony; not “all testimony,” (or any whatever,) and by “a witness” we understand “some witness,” not, “every witness”: so that this apparent argument has exactly the same fault as the one above.
(from Elements of Logic Bk.1 Section 4 )

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Whately on the suppression of reason


Whately on the suppression of the exercise of reason

Many people are led into the error of fancying that an irrational faith is even firmer than a rational one, by mistaking for a firm belief, a firm resolution of the will to believe. They seem to imagine that faith can be made firm only by a sort of brute force upon the understanding, and by brow-beating, as it were, their own minds, and those of others, into implicit submission. Now you never see traces of this kind of violence in the case of other truths which men really believe most firmly. You never hear a man protesting with great vehemence, that he is convinced that the angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles, or that the earth is round like a ball, and not fiat, like a platter; and denouncing all who cannot see the proof. Good proof satisfies the mind of itself, and excludes reasonable doubt without any violent effort. When you are sure that the door is strong enough to keep out the intruder, you sit quietly by your fireside, and let him kick his heels against it till he is tired. But if you rushed over and clapped your back and shoulders to the bolt, that would imply that the door is really weak, or, at least that your faith in it is weak that is, that you had not full confidence in its strength.
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Thursday, 20 August 2015

Whately's Evidences



A consistent theme of Whately’s is ‘evidences’. A couple of his books that I’ve come across are composed of annotations appended to what he considers seminal texts. Generally these annotations are chapter length reflections on the previous chapter of the mother text. Paley’s A View of the Evidences of Christianity is one and Bacon’s Essays is the other.

Evidences is the short form of ‘evidences for the truth of the Christian religion’ or a quasi-rational justification. Though he is represented as having been at odds with John Henry Newman even while the latter was in his Anglican phase I find that both of them really did not believe that there were knock-down demonstrative proofs available in the domain of religion. In the early working out of what later became the illative sense Newman spoke of implicit reasoning and they both would I think have recognised that a prior cultivation of the heart was necessary for the living reception of ‘evidences’. For Whately the fact of miracles was central for faith. Without miracles the establishment of the faith as a world-wide phenomenon would be impossible. Google have his Easy Lessons on Christian Evidences with several chapters on that theme. His amusing retorsion on/of/to Hume on miracles cf. Doubts Relative to Napoleon Buonaparte is quite serious in intent.

Men were not to become his disciples in consequence of their knowing and perceiving the truth of what He taught, but in consequence of their having sufficient candour to receive the evidence which his miracles afforded, and being so thoroughly of the Truth as to give themselves up to follow wherever that should lead, in opposition to any prejudices or inclinations of their own; and then knowledge of the truth was to be their reward. There is not necessarily any moral virtue in receiving truth; for it may happen that our interest, or our wishes, are in the same direction; or it may be forced upon us by evidence as irresistible as that of a mathematical demonstration. The virtue consists in being a sincere votary of Truth;—what our Lord calls being 'of the Truth,'—rejecting 'the hidden things of dishonesty,' and carefully guarding against every undue bias. Every one wishes to have Truth on his side; but it is not every one that sincerely wishes to he on the side of Truth.
(from annotation to Bacon’s Essay Of Truth)

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Archbishop of Dublin Richard Whately - Elements of Rhetoric


Archbishop of Dublin Richard Whately (1787 - 1863) is probably better known in America for his Elements of Rhetoric (1828) which was influential there. In Ireland his philanthropic, ecumenical and educational work is remembered. Monies that were gathered in Calcutta, - yes, for that, - he disbursed often using Catholic priests as his agents. He was in favour of the endowment of the Maynooth seminary and the establishment of the National School system for which he produced a work entitled Easy Lessons on Money Matters. I must have a look at that. He was against transportation and slavery. So good a man was he that his opposite number the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Paul Cullen thought it was some kind of proselytising cuteness. Lawn sleeves are deep you know.

All this I have but recently learned for to admit the truth my Holmesian lumber room has never had to have History pushed out for there was not much there to begin with. Twas in the Britannica article on ‘Rhetoric’ that I first came across a mention of him and his treatise. Having read it as far as Part IV on Elocution I can report that it is a fine book evincing the valuable character of perspicuity.

The finding of arguments to prove a given point, and the skillful arrangement of them may be considered as the immediate and proper province of Rhetoric and of that alone.

He writes of the address to the Understanding to produce conviction and then of the address to the Will to produce persuasion . Next he considers the aspects of Style such as perspicuity, energy and elegance. His hints on the achievement of effective communication are precise and as befitting a Divine of the old school are illustrated by quotations from the Greek which remains reproachfully untranslated. Of the sometimes conflicting objectives of conciseness, energy and perspicuity he writes:

wavering between the demands of Perspicuity and of Energy, (of which the former of course requires the first care, lest he should fail of both,) and doubting whether the phrase which has the most of forcible brevity, will be readily taken in, it may be recommended to use both expressions; — first to expand the sense, sufficiently to be clearly understood, and then to contract it into the most compendious and striking form. This expedient might seem at first sight the most decidedly adverse to the brevity recommended; but it will be found in practice, that the addition of a compressed and pithy expression of the sentiment, which has been already stated at greater length, will produce the effect of brevity. For it is to be remembered that it is not on account of the actual number of words that diffuseness is to be condemned, (unless one were limited to a certain space, or time,) but to avoid the flatness and tediousness resulting from ill; so that if this appearance can be obviated by the insertion of such an abridged repetition as is here recommended, which adds poignancy and spirit to the whole. Conciseness will be, practically, promoted by the addition. The hearers will be struck by the forcibleness of the sentence which they will have been prepared to comprehend ; they will understand the longer expression, and remember the shorter. But the force will, in general, be totally destroyed, or much enfeebled, if the order be reversed ; — if the brief expression be put first, and afterwards expanded and explained ; for it loses much of its force if it be not clearly understood the moment it is uttered; and if it be, there is no need of the subsequent expansion. 

Apart from 'Rhetoric’ the only other book of Whately’s that I have read is his retorsion of Hume on Miracles - Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Buonaparte. It’s available in a clean epub/kindle format on Gutenberg Project. Brilliant, succinct, concise and to the point. Tutt, tutt superfluity of expression. It requires a separate post.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Note on Lily Dale (The Small House at Allington by Trollope)


In some of the reviews I read of The Small House at Allington people expressed a dislike for the Lily Dale character forgetting that sudden falling in love had the character of a religious conversion for a virginal young girl of barely 20. It was and still is for some an abyss of abandonment and of total surrender spiritual and physical. One thinks of Natasha and Kitty in the novels of Tolstoy. Where is the book entitled Literary Blackguards of the 19th. Century? The irritation with Lilly is generated out of an impatience with her declining to ‘move on’. Her family expresses that very same attitude but such betrayals take years out of a person’s life. By the time she is 25 and has dandled a couple of Bell’s babies enough healing will have taken place for her to come back to life again.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Trollope as Comfort Food


Reading The Small House after The Way the pattern is clear. Marriage for love and money is the ideal but in a pinch money will do. Keep the money within the family by marrying your first cousin seems to have been a common thing in Victorian times. That may be harsh as respectable girls did not move around much back then and cousins were ‘safe’ and did not require chaperoning. You might say that it solidifies blood ties leading to a congealed social order but then consider that the great disruptor Charles Darwin married his first cousin.

I’m only just a little way into The Small House and the Trollope Two Step is evident. There is a machinating elder, a handsome but weak fiancée, the rejected suitor, a calculating suitor, the mother who is also an attractive widow and the good honourable man who cannot broach his heart’s wish until he achieves an income of several hundred pounds a year.

Why doesn’t this matter? There’s comfort reading as well as comfort food and the same qualities are valued. It fills, it tastes good, milky of human kindness and certainly Trollope gets the macaroni cheese novel award. The writing is excellent but nothing jumps out at you as especially insightful. In noticing everything he notices nothing in particular but the plenum is there right down to the fractals. I see the garden of ‘The Big House’ and the sportive garden of ‘The Small House’ and the bridge between the two, young John Eames the hobbledehoy and Lily who has yet to suffer.

There will be pudding, tapioca with I think a spoonful of blackcurrant jam. That is the Trollope surprise. Now read on:

Sunday, 2 August 2015

The Complete Essays of Michel de Montaigne trans. M.A. Screech


A good find: The Complete Essays of Montaigne translated by Professor Michael Screech (euro 7). Excellent brisk, crisp, plain non-olde yet not demotic. It stands a better chance of being thoroughly read by me anyway who up till now have dipped in the font and given myself a hurried sprinkle.

There is a good introduction in which he discusses the cliche of Montaigne as a man too wide awake to be a sincere believer. A translation of the natural theology of Raymond Sebond which was Montaigne's first book is Screech's evidence for a complete rebuttal of this naive view and
It is perfectly clear that Professor Screech was right to insist that the received opinion of Montaigne as ironic sceptic is correct as far as it goes but it exists alongside a strong religious faith. 'What do I know' his question to himself could receive a comprehensive answer - I am uncertain where that is a rational stance but I accept the mysteries of religion and the deliverances of the true faith.

The intellectual of the present day often lacks the basic knowledge which allows him to understand the difference between a universal and a particular scepticism. Their particular mansion has a ground floor and a basement and no more. Everything is reduced to the single plane of empirical evidence and rumbles and scurrying below. As an example of ambivalence I recently read of the person who believed that her departed friend was in heaven but was still sad about that. Could she really believe that her friend was in heaven and be sad? Probably in much the same way as if her good friend has relocated to Japan where she had a very good job. Such is our fallen nature!
(This could make a good jumping off point for a discussion of the difference between faith and 'belief' as used in modern epistemology.)

It isn't that this is a conscious distortion, it's more of a non-culpable ignorance. I challenged a professor on his capacity to asses Christianity and his response was that he was happy enough with the knowledge gained from his Christian relatives. You take your native informants where you can find them. Enter the tooth fairy. Why should they spend any time whatever getting to know that which they reject outright? That it makes the reading of History, Literature and Philosophy a journey in terra incognita is a trade off they can live with.