Monday, September 28, 2015

Quote of the Week

Until quite recently, Islamic philosophy was regarded as a fringe phenomenon in the broad scope of the history of philosophy, worthy of inclusion only to the extent  that it played a role in the transmission and transformation of the Greek heritage before its final appropriation by the Latin philosophers and theologians from the thirteenth century onwards. While the absence of verifiable contacts between the principal proponents of Islamic and Christian philosophy after Averroes' death in 1198 CE may have legitimated the delegation of the study of the subsequent Islamic tradition to the orientaists, this was often coupled with the more derogatory thesis that there simply was no philosophical activity worthy of the name in the Arabic language after Averroes' allegedly unsuccessful attempt to defend philosophy against Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī's (d. 1111 CE) fatal blow dealt in his critical Tahāfut al-falāsifa.

It has since been conclusively shown that Ghazālī did not put an end to the development of philosophical thought in the Islamic world, either single-handedly or as the spearhead of a wider opposition from orthodox theologians. In fact, the contrary consensus is beginning to emerge according to which he may not even have intended anything of the sort. Instead, Ghazālī has been argued to have knowingly incorporated a great amount of philosophical material, not to mention the philosophical method of rigorous argumentation, into this own though, and to have been followed in this by Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī,another highly venerated Sunnī theologian. Thus, although self-proclaimed philosophers may have grown rare in the subsequent centuries of Islamic thought, philosophical activity prospered in Sunnī thological writing and teaching, quite likely down to our era.

On the other hand, Iran has fostered a thriving philosophical tradition through to the present day. In the light of our increasing knowledge of the development of this field of intellectual activity, it seems a safe estimate to say that post-Avicennian Islamic philosophers were not afraid of making departures comparable in extent to their early modern European peers. This is especially evident in the thought of Suhrawardī and Mullā Ṣadrā whose revisions of received views will be our major concern in the following. Nevertheless, the strictly philosophical value of this tradition is sometimes still obscured  by the fact that some of its most prominent Western scholars have tended to emphasize other, more mystical aspects of the philosophers' thoughts.

Jari Kaukua
Self-Awareness in Islamic Philosophy: Avicenna and Beyond

Jim's comments: The first paragraph is in accord with my own experience. I wrote one of my Master's theses on Islamic philosophy, and planned to do my Ph.D. on it as well -- specifically on the influence of Alexander of Aphrodisias's philosophy of mind on medieval Islamic philosophy of mind, particularly in al-Andalus. That's when I started writing this blog, and that's why I called it Agent Intellect, which is a term that comes from all these texts, commentaries, and commentaries on commentaries. The medievalist at my school was strongly encouraging me in this direction. But then a couple of "old-school" historians of philosophy let it be known (to him, and thus indirectly to me) that they would not accept my Doctoral candidacy if I applied to do it on Islamic philosophy. I've always suspected -- and that's all it is, a suspicion -- that they didn't think Islamic philosophy had anything of value to offer: the Muslims allegedly just held on to the great philosophies of the ancients, making a few developments here and there, but mostly just writing commentaries. I have a 1968 book on my shelves called Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature. About three pages include Muslim and Arabic contributions to this process, which is just mind-boggling: they should make up 75% of the book.

I think after 9/11 Westerners were desperate to find good things in Islam, and this has resulted in the pendulum swinging to the other end. Now we have people implying that medieval Islam represented all that was good and right in the world until Western civilization came along and wrecked it. I guess this is understandable, but it is, at best, an extreme exaggeration. For example, there was a traveling museum exhibit ten years ago or so that was on Islamic inventions (it started off at 20, then went up to 100 I think). The problem was almost none of the inventions were Islamic. They were inventions from various people groups all over the world who were conquered by Muslims and had their inventions "appropriated". What the museum directors meant to say was inventions that came to Western Europe via Islam, but that wouldn't have portrayed Islam as positively as they wanted (not to mention that the inventions would have got to Europe eventually, even without the Islamic intervention). When people learn that they're being fed half-truths like this, they tend to take other reports of the positive aspects of Islam with a grain of salt. So we need to balance it out by recognizing the real contributions Islam has made to medieval philosophy and science without going overboard by representing medieval Islam as some sort of Golden Age of intellectualism that was just as impressive as the contributions of Western civilization and Christianity.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Quote of the Week

Chastity is the most unpopular of the Christian virtues. There is no getting away from it: the old Christian rule is, "Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence." Now this is so difficult and so contrary to our instincts, that obviously either Christianity is wrong or our sexual instinct, as it now is, has gone wrong. One or the other. Of course, being a Christian, I think it is the instinct which has gone wrong.

But I have other reasons for thinking so. The biological purpose of sex is children, just as the biological purpose of eating is to repair the body. Now if we eat whenever we feel inclined and just as much as we want, it is quite true that most of us will eat too much: but not terrifically too much. One man may eat enough for two, but he does not eat enough for ten. The appetite goes a little beyond its biological purpose, but not enormously. But if a healthy young man indulged his sexual appetite whenever he felt inclined, and if each act produced a baby, then in ten years he might easily populate a small village. This appetite is in ludicrous and preposterous excess of its function.

Or take it another way. You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act -- that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us?

One critic said that if he found a country in which such striptease acts with food were popular, he would conclude that the people of that country were starving. He meant, of course, to imply that such things as the strip-tease act resulted not from sexual corruption but from sexual starvation. I agree with him that if, in some strange land, we found that similar acts with mutton chops were popular, one of the possible explanations which would occur to me would be famine. But the next step would be to test our hypothesis by finding out whether, in fact, much or little food was being consumed in that country. If the evidence showed that a good deal was being eaten, then of course we should have to abandon the hypothesis of starvation and try to think of another one. In the same way, before accepting sexual starvation as the cause of the strip-tease, we should have to look for evidence that there is in fact more sexual abstinence in our age than in those ages when things like the strip-tease were unknown. But surely there is no such evidence. Contraceptives have made sexual indulgence far less costly within marriage and far safer outside it than ever before, and public opinion is less hostile to illicit unions and even to perversion than it has been since Pagan times. Nor is the hypothesis of "starvation" the only one we can imagine. Everyone knows that the sexual appetite, like our other appetites, grows by indulgence. Starving men may think much about food, but so do gluttons; the gorged, as well as the famished, like titillations.

C.S. Lewis
"Sexual Morality" (chapter 5 of Christian Behavior)
Mere Christianity


Monday, September 14, 2015

Quote of the Week

It's not that science can't remind us of, or call attention to, modal truths that would be accessible without science. The surest proof of a possibility is an actuality. It would have been a lot harder to come up with a dream argument for skepticism if people didn't dream, or an argument from the possibility of hallucination if people didn't have non-veridical experience. But it would only have been more difficult. The possibilities upon which the arguments trade are real whether or not they ever materialize. The possibility that the neural activity associated with mental states differs from creature to creature, and even person to person, is (and was always obviously) real whether or not the possibilities materialize.

Indeed, after all of the empirical data are in, we might ask again: What distinctively philosophical  questions will be, or even could be, answered by science? What distinctively philosophical  controversies will be advanced, let alone settled? Suppose that we have obtained exhaustive correlations of the sort described above. Are we any closer to answering any of the following? Can you even imagine any empirical research that would shed light on any of the following?

(1) Are knowledge arguments for substance/property/fact/event dualism sound?

(2) Are there important distinctions to be made between substance/property/fact/event dualism? Is there such a thing as substance? What is the connection between differences between kinds of substances and kinds of properties exemplified by substance? What is the difference between a mental property and a physical property? What is the distinction between an event and a fact?

(3) Is functionalism a plausible account of the nature of mental states?

(4) On a functionalist account of mind, should we identify mental states with that which "realizes" the functional state (i.e. plays the functional role) or should we identify mental states with the exemplification of the second-order functional property?

(5) Do we "fix the reference" of predicate expressions picking out kinds of mental states with definite descriptions that nevertheless do not capture the meaning of the predicate expressions, or shall we view terms for kinds of mental states as having the meaning of definite descriptions? If either, what are the relevant definite descriptions?

(6) Should we be internalists or externalists about the identity conditions for mental states? If brain states are intentional (representational) what makes them intentional? Is it some feature intrinsic to the states, or has it more to do with the causal origin of the states. [sic] If the latter, why were we trusting first-person reports of mental states in trying to correlate neural activity with, say, desires or fears? Why would anyone have privileged introspective access to the character of a mental state whose identity conditions involve facts that are clearly the purview of empirical science?

Do any of the philosophers partnering with cognitive science think that they'll get any useful information from empirical science that will help them answer any of the above questions?

Don't misunderstand me. Many of the answers to these philosophical questions will clarify important empirical questions that someone might be interested in answering. If you decide that functionalism is true, you will probably need to turn to empirical science to discover what takes the value of the variable used in the specification of the functional state. If you become really interested in that question, then by all means stop doing philosophy for a while and do (or consult) the relevant empirical research. Alternatively, you could view your task qua philosopher as finished once you've come up with your functionalist analysis, content then to let the chips fall where they may with respect to the hard-wiring of the brain or the nature of a Cartesian ego.

If we decide that either mental predicate expressions, physical predicate expressions, or both have their reference fixed, or meaning given, by definite descriptions, and we can isolate the relevant definite descriptions, it may turn out that only the cognitive scientist can tell you whether or not the predicate expressions have an extension, and if they do what that extension is. I've already implied that I think it wildly implausible to suppose that our grasp of pain is somehow indirect (is "by description"), at least as we actually have an experience of pain of which we are consciously aware -- we'll talk about this issue in more detail shortly. I cant see how it can possibly turn that "is in pain" fails to pick out a property. Any view that allows for such a possibility is for that reason an implausible view. It's hardly the case, for example, that I think of being in pain as the property I typically exemplify when I'm bleeding all over the floor, or the property exemplification of which causes me to grimace, complain, answer questions in certain ways, or what have you. If such a view were correct, then, to be sure, it would be a matter of empirical investigation as to what that property is, and it might turn out in humans to be a pattern of neurons firing. When I think of Jack the Ripper, I think of a person who is causally responsible for certain atrocities committed at the end of the nineteenth century and there are any number of people who might turn out to be the referent of "Jack the Ripper." But I already know what property I'm talking about when I talk about pain. I don't pick it out via some metaproperty it exemplifies.

Richard Fumerton
Knowledge, Thought, and the Case for Dualism
(Cambridge Studies in Philosophy)

Friday, September 11, 2015


Not much to say really that I haven't said before: see herehere, and here.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Quote of the Week

Fifteen minutes later I breached the border of the woods and came back to colony ground to find four werewolves in a semicircle and Hiram Yoder standing silently at their focus. I dropped to the ground.

The werewolves didn't notice me; they were entirely intent on Yoder, who continued to stand stock-still. Two of the werewolves had spears trained on him, ready to run him through if he moved. He didn't. All four of them clicked and hissed, the hisses falling in and out of my sonic range; this was why Jane heard them before the rest of us did.

One of the werewolves came forward to Yoder, hissing and clicking at him, stocky and muscular where Yoder was tall and trim. It had a simple stone knife in one hand. It reached out a claw and poked Yoder hard in the chest; Yoder took it and stood there, silently. The thing grabbed his right arm and began to sniff and examine it; Yoder offered no resistance. Yoder was a Mennonite, a pacifist.

The werewolf suddenly struck Yoder hard on the arm, perhaps testing him. Yoder staggered a bit from the blow but stood his ground. The werewolf let out a rapid series of chirps and then the others did, too; I suspected they were laughing.

The werewolf raked his claws across Yoder's face, shredding the man's right cheek with an audible scraping sound. Blood poured down Yoder's face; he involuntarily clutched it with his hand. The werewolf cooed and stared at Yoder, its four eyes unblinking, waiting to see what he would do.

Yoder dropped his hand from his ruined face and looked directly at the werewolf. He slowly turned his head to offer his other cheek.

The werewolf stepped away from Yoder and back toward its own, chirping. The two who had spears trained on Yoder let them drop slightly. I breathed a sigh of relief and looked down for a second, registering my own cold sweat. Yoder had kept himself alive by not offering resistance; the creatures, whatever else they were, were smart enough to see that he was not a threat.

I raised my head again to see one of the werewolves staring directly at me.

It let out a trilling cry. The werewolf closest to Yoder glanced over at me, snarled and drove his stone knife into Yoder. Yoder stiffened. I raised my rifle and shot the werewolf in the head. It fell; the other werewolves bolted back into the woods.

I ran over to Yoder, who had collapsed on the ground, and was pawing gingerly at the stone knife. "Don't touch it," I said. If the knife had nicked any major blood vessels, pulling it out could cause him to bleed out.

"It hurts," Yoder said. He looked up at me and smiled, gritting his teeth. "Well, it almost worked."

"It did work," I said. "I'm sorry, Hiram. This wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for me."

"Not your fault," Hiram said. "I saw you drop and hide. Saw you give me a chance. You did the right thing." He reached out toward the corpse of the werewolf, touching the sprawled leg. "Wish you didn't have to shoot it," he said.

"I'm sorry," I said again. Hiram didn't have anything more to say.

John Scalzi
The Last Colony