29 October, 2008

Grue and instantial reasoning

In one of the Philosophy Colloquium lectures I attended in the past few weeks, "A Grue-some Riddle of Induction," the lecturer presented some of the difficulties associated with the instantial model of inductive reasoning and suggested in conclusion that reasoning from causality could be a more productive and reliable procedure. The example of the fictional attribute "grue," which is defined as an object's greenness when observed at any time before a given future date and its blueness when observed at any time after that date proves the uncertainty of instantial reasoning. Almost no one would believe that an attribute such as grue exists, but a purely instantial manner of reasoning is utterly unequipped to disprove it: is all of your predicates are drawn solely from what is observable and that "future date" in grue's definition has not yet arrived, you cannot prove that every object we see as green now is not in fact grue. Examining the riddle from the perspective of Aristotlean causality, however, seems to offer some tentative resolution, though it cannot, it seems to me, resolve the question completely.

Technically Aristotle speaks of four "causes" of being: material, form (what it is for a thing to be), goal (why it exists), and the efficient cause (the thing that causes a change [addition of an attribute to a preexisting being, creation of a being] to start). I don't find all of these equally helpful for analyzing grue, however, (though this is admittedly not something I've thought about exhaustively by any means) so I'll focus on the material cause and the efficient cause.

Considered from the point of view of the "material" of colour, grue's postion becomes more tenuous. Of course, one must first agree that colours are caused by varying wavelengths of light hitting the retina of the eye in order to come to some sort of agreement about this subject. Then, if one agrees that green and blue are caused by different wavelengths of light, one must also agree that grue would necessarily have to include in its definition a change in material. It cannot therefore be a simple substance of which green and blue are complex predicates, but must itself be a complex predicate in which exists a change from one simple attribute to another. Moreover, if there is a change, there must be some efficient cause to initiate that change. There must be some reason that the green changes to blue in order for something to be grue.

The biggest potential problem with this argument is the opportunity it allows for an opponent to claim that arguing from our knowledge of the way colours work scientifically is in fact arguing in some sense from instantial reasoning. This brings me to another point. It seems, inconviently enough, that you can't really escape from performing some degree of induction when reasoning about material things. You have to reason from what you see and experience in order to have scientific knowledge about a subject. The only substantial difference between science and mere casual observation is in the degree of rigour involved in the exploration of a thing. It is in this way, then, that I can take an example, assume some basic characteristics of this example, and then use Aristotle's method of analyzing that thing by its causes. Notice that in the previous paragraph I specifically stated that some basic agreement on the way colours work is necessary in order for a person to agree with and follow an Aristotlean argument against the concept of grue. Reasoning from instances is a necessary part of our rational life, misleading as it may occasionally be. The best we can do, I believe, at least in reasoning about material objects, is to be as careful as possible when making instantial claims, and to try to limit the number made. On that basis we can build up ideas about what we experience using other methods of reasoning, such as causality, but without agreement on the instantially-based assumptions which underly and form the foundation of our arguments, even the most well-reasoned discussion can be easily undermined and refuted.

19 October, 2008


I just wanted to mention, in case anyone hasn't already heard, that Louis and Zélie Martin, parents of my patron saint, Thérèse of Lisieux, were beatified today, Sunday, October 19, 2008. Very exciting! I may try to post something on their lives later.

03 October, 2008


By now my French class has moved beyond the Romanic period and is starting to get into the literature of the second half of the 19th century. The first important school after romanticism was realism - a movement which sought to reflect with accurate detail the materialistic bourgeouis society that had arisen in France after the decline of Napolean. The writing has, for the most part, a slightly cynical flavour. The enthusiasms of society during the French Revolution and the reign of Napolean had been disappointed when it became clear that neither would actually lead to a utopian age of liberty, equality and fraternity. The people had settled for the ideal of prosperity instead, and artists like Balzac and Flaubert, seeing the ever-present woes of poverty, injustice, and greed as breed by bourgeouis society began to use their writing as a medium for criticizing 19th century civilization.

This disillusionment produced a rather violent move away from any tendencies to romanticize life, to see the world "through a colored lens" as Zola put it, or to use exaggerated, poetic, or decorative language. Many realists, particularly Flaubert, would write and rewrite each sentence obsessively, searching for "le mot juste" - "the right word". (On second thought, the search for the right word can be frustrating enough to be a large factor in creating the authors' depression. Forget all this stuff about social ills.) The artistic code of Realism demanded rigorous, exact observation of human behavior from an authorial standpoint that was as objective as possible. Of course, this doesn't guarantee real objectivity. You tend to find quite often in realism (think Dickens, even) rather one-sided focuses on certain problems that manipulate the reader into seeing the author's view of the problem as perfectly accurate.

01 October, 2008

The American Identity?

"The symbol at once of his city and his country" (Brogan, 97). So Hugh Brogan describes Benjamin Franklin in his discussion of the awakening of the American Revolution. Franklin appears as such a symbol repeatedly throughout Brogan's book: the iconic American, not necessarily at the forefront of every action but tirelessly involved in democratic activity, and always present as the standard by which Brogan defines the American character. His biography, accentuating his move from a strictly conventional upbringing to an enlightened, freethinking independence, serves for Brogan as a roadmap of the Revolution itself. Through the metamorphosis of his own character, Franklin becomes a prophet of the evolution of "the American people as such" (Brogan 167).

Franklin's life as recounted in Brogan's text is constructed of a series of small revolutions through which he attains to ever greater independence. Of solid Puritan stock, Franklin soon rejected that stern religion for a more mild deism, though Puritan culture still influenced him enough to preserve his strong sense of moral duty. Brogan describes Franklin as a "hedonistic Puritan" whose ability to set aside the more restrictive aspects of that religion illustrates the "extraordinary transformation that was threatening Puritanism in the eighteenth century" (Brogan, 97). After a brief apprenticeship to his brother, James, he threw off this restraint as well to begin "a rapid rise to great prosperity" in Philadelphia (Brogan, 97). "Middle class to the core," Franklin achieved each success by virtue of his own work - neither by superior birth nor by preexistent wealth. His "characteristically American practicality" was to some degree necessitated by this fact (Brogan, 97). In a society where popular acclaim bring about both fame and wealth, discoveries and inventions ought to be geared to the "masses" who will appreciate useful creations to any pure science or art, Brogan invites us to infer. The independent spirit he possessed often led him to initiate private movements to accomplish what "elsewhere was left to the authorities," and this habit as well he shared with this compatriots (Brogan, 97-8).

Such is the portrait Brogan presents of Franklin, and such is the model he offers for his account of the newly developed American identity. For Brogan this identity was forged in the disasters, sufferings, and triumphs of the war itself, though it had originated long before the fateful events of 1775 (Brogan, 167). If Franklin was the "prophet of the cult of rising in the world by hard work and honest worth," the war was the trial which proved to the ordinary American just how difficult the struggle to rise in the world as a nation would be (Brogan, 97). The industry and worth of Washington, who led a bedraggled group of patriots to victory over the world's most powerful empire, is a case in point of the spirit Franklin symbolized (Brogan, 170-71). War also heightened the fervor for independence throughout America by forcing the reality of revolution into every aspect of daily life. The heroism of young Andrew Jackson and thousands other young men like him was occasioned by the struggle, and their ardor for the cause kept alive by the example of men like Washington (Brogan, 184). Moreover, by "overturning... all the old political ways and means” the war demanded that any who would perhaps have preferred neutrality make a conscious decision for or against independence; the cause of liberty was thus popularized (Brogan, 168).

For Brogan, Franklin was a character at one with the common people of America: once a rebellious apprentice himself, his bid for freedom led to an independence as substantive as that which the agitation of mobs of "saucy boys" ultimately achieved. It seems immaterial to Brogan that his portrayal of the American mob as standing in sharp contrast to the popular image of a "uniquely discriminating, moderate, politically motivated mob" puts it into contrast as well with the character of Franklin (126). The legacy of rebellion itself, of throwing off the old order in favor of the new, formed the identity of the American people. The "apprenticeship of a statesman" succeeded in Franklin's life through his refusal to submit to the bonds of a restrictive society (Brogan, 99). Likewise the motley crew of "saucy boys, Negroes and mulattoes, Irish teagues, and outlandish jack tars" was transformed into the mature American society that gave birth to the Constitution (John Adams, quoted in Brogan, 127). Revolution itself was the essence of the American character and its sustaining force by Brogan's view. It is unlikely, I believe, that Franklin would have agreed. Strong character needs to be based on something more than non-conformism, and freedom demands a strong character. "Only virtuous people," Franklin writes, "are capable of freedom" (Works of Benjamin Franklin, Sparks, 297). The admirable ethos born in eighteenth century America was connected to the people's spirit of independence, but had deeper roots than this alone. The early American's love of liberty was firmly planted in the basic conviction that "all men are created equal" and that justice laid out by our Creator gives each person the right to fight and die that these rights may endure.