Someone being criticized on Twitter is not news

I mean, that’s obvious, right?  I don’t use it, but I know it’s a place where many people broadcast their briefly expressed (and often briefly considered) opinions, most of which are uncomplimentary to someone.  The question is what is a journalist up to when he writes a story about the non-event of someone famous receiving online criticism.

It comes in two flavors.  Sometimes a generally reliable leftist, like say J. K. Rowling or Stephen King, says something that mildly deviates from leftist orthodoxy; then fans and other observers proceed to express outrage.  The point of reporting this, presumably, is to give the impression that the criticized person is in trouble (even if nothing meaningfully bad has happened to that person yet–having people say mean things about you on the internet doesn’t count), has crossed a line and egregiously violated the community consensus and will now pay a dreadful price.  The message is:  “Watch what you say.  You don’t want to end up like this person.”

The next is a variation on the old martyr for free thought article.  You’ll remember that it used to be the case that when an academic or public intellectual caused outrage by advancing some morally reprehensible cause before its time–compulsory euthanasia, say, or taking all children from their parents at birth and assigning them to caretakers at random–they would try to make themselves look like victims by announcing that they had received “death threats”.  At this point, everyone was obliged to stop criticize their wicked proposal and start apologizing to them and praising their bravery.  I’m sure I’m not the only one to question the authenticity and seriousness of some of these “death threats”, but now there’s no need to invoke unverified menaces.  If the media wants to generate sympathy for someone, they can scroll the thousands of twitter messages mentioning that person, and find a critic who uses a racial or ethnic slur.  Probably, with so many twitter users out there, such a thing can be found.  (If not, it could always be invented.)

Of course, any internet fracas could be framed either as “martyr for free thought” or “insensitive bastard getting deserved smackdown”.  I suppose it’s possible that a critic of the media might mistake which type of manipulation the journalist meant to employ, but I think it’s usually pretty obvious.  Who is the journalist quoting most generously?  Are we given a short, poorly-phrased tweet from an anonymous critic followed by extended rebuttal and defense of free enquiry from the one criticized and his friends, or are we given many expressions of “disappointment” from named sources who know their expressions of disapproval will have elicit no criticism in turn, with only a short reply from the object of their reproval?

Book review: The Metaphysics Within Physics

The Metaphysics Within Physics
by Tim Maudlin (2007)

In this collection of essays, philosopher Tim Maudlin makes an extremely strong case against the Humean philosophy of physics.  This position, credited to Hume and popular among contemporary philosophers, posits that the universe is completely described by physical facts about localized quantities at each different place and time.  As Maudlin points out, this doesn’t match current scientific theory or practice.  The state of a system with spatially separated but entangled parts cannot be factored into purely local pieces, and science requires not only facts but also scientific laws.  Laws are not reducible to facts; if they were, they couldn’t do their work of making predictions and answering questions about counterfactual scenarios.  I have in the past distinguished the “Platonic” and “Aristotelian” ways of thinking about laws of nature:  the former speaking of them as having some independent existence, the latter regarding them as being embedded in the natures of existing things.  Maudlin is apparently a “Platonist” in that he takes laws to be completely primitive, but nearly everything he says would also be endorsed by an “Aristotelian” with the suitable reinterpretation of the idea of physical laws.

I take the polemic against the followers of Hume to be the major point of the book, but Maudlin makes several other interesting observations along the way.

He suggests that we are able to assign causality intuitively because the laws of nature approximate a particular “quasi-Newtonian” form in which separable subsystems each have their own “inertial” operation that will happen as long as nothing interferes, plus an equivalent of force laws to describe how objects can influence each other.

He argues that we have no reason to believe in “simple” properties or relations, meaning properties/relations that refer to nothing but their subjects/relata, and so we shouldn’t build our metaphysics out of these.  He proposes gauge theories as a counterexample, in which vectors on fibers at different base points can only be compared via a connection and a connecting path on the base manifold.  As a proof, this would be begging the question, because the spaces that make up the fibers in a fiber bundle usually have an inherent homogeneity to them which “simple” qualities (if any exist) would break.  However, the proposal is valuable for shifting the burden of proof.  Do we have any reason to believe in simple properties and relations?

Maudlin believes that time actually “passes”.  He’s not a presentist, so he’s not running afoul of relativity in this.  I usually say I don’t believe time passes for the same reasons Maudlin doesn’t believe that time “flows”:  what could it flow with respect to?  Doesn’t flow just mean change with respect to time?  But if “passing” isn’t the same as “flowing”, what does it involve?  Maudlin finds it difficult to explain.  It includes an asymmetry between past and future.  This is supposedly not the whole of what it means for time to pass, but Maudlin’s arguments are mostly aimed toward showing that such an asymmetry is plausible (and not reducible to differences in entropy).  I don’t have any objection to such an asymmetry, so it’s not clear how much Maudlin, who asserts that time passes, and I, who assert that it doesn’t, really disagree.

Roger Scruton on death

Saint Paul saw Christ’s sacrifice as a redemption–a way by which Christ purchased our eternal life, through taking our sins upon himself.  This idea is strange, perhaps not wholly intelligible:  for how can the suffering of the innocent pay the moral debt of the guilty?  Saint Paul also told us that now we see as through a glass darkly, but then face-to-face.  And by “then” he meant after we had passed the threshold of death.  Richard Crashaw, in a long poem inspired by Aquinas, put the thought in the following words:

Come love! Come Lord! and that long day
For which I languish, come away.
When this dry soul those eyes shall see,
And drink the unseal’d source of thee.
When Glory’s sun faith’s shades shall chase,
And for thy veil give me thy Face.

Here, it seems to me, is a way in which faith verges on hope.  We can shun death as an annihilation, or greet it as a transition.  We can see it as a loss of something precious, or as a gain of another way of being.  It is, in a sense, up to us.  When we live in full awareness and acceptance of our mortality, we see the world as making a place for us.  We open ourselves to death, and accept death as our completion.  Simone Weil puts the point in terms of the Christian myth of origins:

Man placed himself outside the current of Obedience.  God chose as his punishment labour and death.  Consequently labour and death, if Man undergoes them in a spirit of willingness, constitute a transference back into the current of Supreme Good which is Obedience to God.

The afterlife, conceived as a condition that succeeds death in time, is an absurdity.  For succession in time belongs within the causal envelope, in the spacetime continuum that is the world of nature.  If there is any message to be extracted from my arguments, it is that the idea of salvation–of a right relation with the creator–in no way requires eternal life, so conceived.  But it does require an acceptance of death, and a sense that in death we are meeting our creator, the one bound to us by covenant, to whom we must account for our faults.  We are returning to the place whence we emerged and hoping to be welcomed there.  This is a mystical thought, and there is no way of translating it into the idiom of natural science, which speaks of before and after, not of time and eternity.  Religion, as I have been considering it, does not describe the natural world but the Lebenswelt, the world of subjects, using allegories and myths in order to remind us at the deepest level of who and what we are.  And God is the all-knowing subject who welcomes us as we pass into that other domain, beyond the veil of nature.

To approach death in such a way is therefore to draw near to God:  we become, through our works of love and sacrifice, a part of the eternal order; we “pass over” into that other place, so that death is no longer a threat to us.  The veil to which Crashaw refers, that hides the face of God, is the “fallen world”, the world of objectified being.  The life of prayer rescues us from the Fall and prepares us for a death that we can meaningfully see as a redemption, since it unites us with the soul of the world.

— from The Soul of the World (2014)



Book review: The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy

The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy
by Ernst Cassirer (1963)

Historians of Renaissance and early modern philosophy often try to give a unity to their subjects by framing the creative elements of these periods as engaging in a revolt against “scholasticism”.  However, this only gives as much intelligibility to the Renaissance as is granted to its foil, and historians usually assign scholasticism any negative quality needed to keep the narrative going;  it can be mindlessly dogmatic or aridly intellectual or both at once, despising all nature or assigning fanciful hierarchies within it, servile or unfaithful to Aristotle, holding an opinion of man that is irrationally low (when the opponent is humanism) or high (when the opponent is science).  Cassirer tries to fit his study into this standard narrative, but he provides a great deal of interesting material, so that a more interesting story begins to emerge.

Cassirer’s exemplary Renaissance philosopher is Nicholas of Cusa, the idiosyncratic Christian neo-Platonist who smashed the medievals’ hierarchical universe to stress the incomparability of God, the Absolute and Infinite, the confluence of opposites.  He imagined the Earth in motion (which he seems to suggest is relative) in an infinite universe with no center but God, a physical infinity to which corresponds the intentional infinity of the human mind–whose operation is now conceived primarily in terms of measuring and comparing.  From Cusanus, Cassirer expands to cover a number of other characters:  Platonists like Marsilio Ficino and his Florentine Academy, humanists like Petrarch and Pico della Mirandola, proto-Hegelians like Charles de Bovillus, and those climbing toward a scientific approach to nature like Leonardo and Galileo.

Several things become clear.  The recovery of Plato’s dialogs made Plato a rallying point against Aristotle for a rather diverse group of thinkers.  Why should this be?  Petrarch’s preference for Plato over Aristotle and his scholastic followers was primarily aesthetic and therefor frivolous.  Most of the others had disagreements with Aristotle but ones that hardly seem to take them outside of the orbit of scholasticism, i.e. not farther from Aquinas or Ockham than these two are from each other.  One often encounters an assumption that separation from scholasticism means approach to secularism, an assumption popular because it is so congenial to both secularists and scholastics.  I’ll  therefore mention that most of these thinkers gave every impression of being ardent Christians.  And yet, they did consider themselves at war with the Aristotelian schoolmen.

Then Cassirer, in the final chapter, gives a revealing fact.

To understand the transformation that takes place with the beginning of the philosophy of the Renaissance, we must keep in mind this opposition, this tension, which already existed in the medieval system of life and learning.  Despite all the attacks it had suffered in the classical systems of Scholasticism, the theoretical foundation of Averroism seemed to be completely unshaken in the 14th and 15th centuries.  For a long time, it was the reigning doctrine in the Italian universities.  In the actual academic citadel of Scholastic studies, in Padua, Averroistic doctrine maintained itself into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  But gradually, a counter movement emerges ever more clearly.  Characteristically, this counter movement is by no means restricted to the environs of the school, but rather receives its strongest impulses from other quarters.  The men of the new humanistic ideal of culture and of personality are the first to sound the call to do battle against Averroism.  Here, too, Petrarch leads the way…The artist and virtuoso who rediscovered the inexhaustible wealth and value of ‘individuality’ now sets up his defenses against a philosophy that considers individuality to be something merely casual, something purely ‘accidental’.  And Augustine becomes his guide in this battle.

Well, if Averroism dominated the Italian universities (a fact which is new to me), and that’s what the humanists meant by “Aristotelianism”, then it becomes very clear how the writings of Plato–with their support for personal immaterial immortality–could serve as a philosophical rallying point to the opposition, and also how a literary movement devoted to individuality would be so adamantly a part of this opposition.  Replace “the Renaissance was a rebellion against scholasticism/medievalism” with “the Renaissance was a rebellion against Averroism”.  It would take a good deal of confirming evidence before we believe it (and Cassirer continues with citations to attacks on Averroism from many of the Renaissance greats from Cusanus on), but at least this new narrative makes sense.

The last chapter (which is by far the best of the book) also relates the Renaissance’s stumbling toward the scientific method.  The misfires are particularly informative.  One finds that prizing experience over a priori reasoning isn’t enough, at least given a medieval credulity to reports and a tendency to express observations in magical categories.  A commitment to a believe in a universal rational order of the universe isn’t enough; that led to painstakingly systemized astrology.  (Astrology made a big comeback in the High Middle Ages / Renaissance with the influx of pagan and Muslim learning.  Once again, the Church and the humanists were on the same side in the fight against it.)  Cassirer thinks what was missing was a mathematical approach to nature, and this came from scientist-artist like Leonardo da Vinci and their attention to form.  However, if focus on form is what you want, then Aristotle is your man.  And yet, the great men of the scientific revolution like Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler were Platonists.  What gives?

The main difference between Plato and Aristotle is that the former makes the intelligibility of the world transcendent, the latter immanent.  Imagine you were Galileo trying to understand how bodies fall.  For an Aristotelian, action follows being.  To learn how a body falls, you must first ask what is the nature of that body, given by its substantial form.  You would not expect there to be a general rule about how things fall, because different things have different natures and hence different principles of motion.  (cf. Nancy Cartwright’s “dappled world”)  The idea of general laws of motion is much more natural in a Platonic/transcendent framework.

So there’s a story that makes quite a bit more sense than the standard story.  The fight against Averroism promoted Platonism, and Platonism gave us science.  That’s the intellectual story of the Renaissance.