Friday, July 27, 2012

Universals and an Argument for the Existence of God: More on Edward Feser's The Last Superstition an Unpublishable Review, part 2

This post is the second installment in a review of Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition, a polemic against the New Atheists, their movement and their beliefs. In this installment I discuss Feser's presentation of an argument for the existence of God based on the existence of universals or abstract objects.

Universals are properties or features common to many individual things or concrete particulars, as philosophers call them. An example makes this a whole lot clearer. Bob is a tall human being with a limp. Bob is the particular thing that instantiates (are instances of), exemplifies (are examples of), partakes of, or participates in certain attributes or features which are not strictly parts of himself, and in his case these are the properties humanity, tallness, and gimpiness (the limp being not a thing that Bob has like a coin in his pocket but a feature or aspect of Bob’s gait which itself a property of Bob). Now, there are philosophers who think these features are real aspects or features of the world, and others who deny this. There are so many subtle distinctions among the different beliefs one can have about these supposed features of the world, and the reasons for and against each such position, that even the most basic introduction to the question takes about 65 pages in Michael Loux’s excellent introductory volume Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction (which I highly recommend). So it is difficult for Feser, and it is more difficult for me, to provide any fair, balanced, and complete explanation of this issue. So, I will settle for a link to this excellent article by one of my former teachers on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Properties and the following brief categorization of the views. Some of my terminology is standard, but I'm not sure about the term "conceptualism", and I make no attempt to comprehensively describe the alternative positions.

Features of concrete particulars are real properties that are shared among these particulars.

Two subcategories of Realism are Platonism and Aristotelianism.

These features are real properties that exist independently of the individuals that have them.

These features are real properties shared by individuals but they depend on those individuals and cannot exist without any instantiations.

There are no such features; there are no shared properties that particulars instantiate.

Two (non-exhaustive) subcategories of Nominalism are trope theory and conceptualism. This is not all the ways one could be a nominalist, but they are worthy of mention given Feser's argument.

Trope theory
There are features that particulars have, but these features are themselves individual or particular (so there is no such thing as a redness that is shared among all red things, but each individual red thing has its own particular redness).

There are no universal features of particulars; categorizations of particulars under the same type (red things) is only an idea in people’s minds. There is no external or real feature of the world that justifies the categorization into types of things; the categorization is taken as basic.

My point here is not really to attack or defend these positions, but to note the distinction between different positions that Feser does not distinguish and which lead to incoherence in his conclusions.

Feser argues for the existence of abstract objects, universals, that exist independently of their instantiations. Feser presents a set of arguments for Platonism, ignores the arguments for the other side, and fails to distinguish different attitudes towards universals which, if noted, would undermine his conclusions. Feser talks about the reasons for the reality of universals but almost none of the problems with them. Presenting only the arguments for your own side but not addressing the arguments for the other side is like claiming to have won a basketball game while only mentioning your team’s score. Yeah, a hundred points is a lot, but. . .

More problematic is Feser’s incoherent view of universals. His arguments for the existence of universals focus on the Platonic notion of abstract objects (the famous Platonic Forms) that exist independently of any instantiation of them. Feser recognizes there are problems with this view and endorses an Aristotelian account of universals without noting that his arguments for them are inconsistent with the Aristotelian concept of them. He can either have the arguments he provides or he can have the Aristotelian he tries to draw from those arguments, not both.

I will attempt to support the above claims in the following post. First, I will outline the Augustinian argument Feser backhandedly endorses. Then I will explain why the premises are actually inconsistent with his Aristotelian account of universals. Then I will show why this argument does not prove the existence of God because treating universals as ideas in God’s mind does not resolve the difficulties in the concept of universals.

Feser introduces the following Augustinian argument for the existence of God as one Alvin Plantinga says must be taken seriously. I assume this means that Feser also thinks it is sound, but there are two levels of plausible deniability here. First, saying that Plantinga endorses it does not mean Feser endorses it. Second, saying that we should take the argument seriously is not the same as saying it is sound. Still, if we are not to think the argument is sound, then Feser is just jerking us around. So, I'm going to assume Feser is not jerking us around. Here's the Augustinian argument following my own standardization.

1. If universals exist, they must exist either as abstract objects, universals that depend for their existence on their instances, concepts in imperfect or in perfect minds.
2. Universals exist.
3. Universals cannot exist as abstract objects.
4. Universals cannot exist as universals that depend for their existence on their instances.
5. Universals cannot exist as concepts in imperfect minds.
6. Therefore universals must exist as concepts in perfect minds.

An abstract object is an object that exists in some Platonic third realm, as a kind of individual thing that exists in the abstract. Potential examples of abstract objects include the number 1, the meaning of sentences, propositions, perfect geometrical figures. The first premise obviously looks a bit like a false dilemma. Why think these are the only ways that universals might exist? I include these because they are the views that Feser implicitly or explicitly argues about. Feser runs together the Platonist and Aristotelian accounts of universals, but I will treat them as distinct since Feser’s failure to distinguish them undermines his argument.

I should take a moment to define the terms I introduced: “perfect minds” and “imperfect minds”. An imperfect mind is either a finite mind, such as a human one, that cannot cover the entirety of the universe in both time and space, or that cannot conceive all possible propositions or all possible mathematical truths. I also wanted to convey the problem that a finite mind might make mistakes in its categorization of objects into groups, and that this could cause problems if one tries to define the existence of properties as being only concepts in minds (thus, an infinite but still fallible mind will not do the trick). If a mind failed to adopt a grouping that we intuitively take to be legitimate, then the property at issue would not exist, and that’s clearly not an acceptable result. So we need to distinguish the kind of mind we have and the kind of mind God is purported to have. There may well be only the one perfect mind, or there may be an infinite number, but I’m not concerned with that claim because I don’t think ultimately solving the problem of universals by appeal to any perfect mind is going to work.

Feser argued for premise 2, the existence of universals, at some length in an earlier chapter of the book. In particular, Feser argues for Platonism. Platonic objects are abstract entities that exist independently of any instances, that can exist without instances. For example, if all physical triangles are imperfect in some way (the angles total something very slightly different from 180 degrees), but triangularity is still real, then triangularity exist independently of any instance. Feser argues for the this view of universals as things that exist independently of any instances. Hence, Feser, in his argument for the existence of universals, argues for a particular view of them, and that I indicate in premise 4.

What are Feser’s arguments for the existence of Platonic universals? There are several, but they all focus on the truth value of claims that Feser thinks can only make sense if universals exist independently of their instances. For example, mathematics, geometry and logic are thought to involve true statements yet none of the terms need refer to any physical existents. If so, then these entities exist independently of their instances (since they exist but possibly have no instances). There are difficult and complex arguments in many areas of philosophy (philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of language) that dispute Feser’s claims, so it is not easy to be as sanguine as Feser that we should accept the conclusions. Nonetheless, I will not worry about these arguments since I am not writing a metaphysics textbook.

Feser does acknowledge that there are problems with Platonism, problems that may or may not be debilitating, and then claims that Aristotelianism provides a better account of universals. Now, these forms of realism about universals are inconsistent with respect to the existence of uninstantiated universals. Platonism says that these abstract objects exist, independently of their instances, in a third realm distinct from our minds and from the physical world. This view causes all sorts of ontological and epistemic problems. By contrast, Aristotelianism says that there are no uninstantiated universals. So, if you argue for the existence of uninstantiated universals, you cannot then take those arguments to support Aristotelianism. If Aristotelianism is the correct view of universals, then it cannot be because the arguments Feser presents are convincing. Still, in chapter 2 of his book, Feser endorses an Aristotelian account of universals despite having just made arguments against it (by arguing for the existence of uninstantiated universals). Perhaps it is because of this inconsistency that Feser then almost-endorses the Augustinian argument for the existence of God. He may be unhappy with the earlier realist solutions to the problem of universals and adopts a different one, especially since he thinks it can be used to prove the existence of God. And if he endorsed either of the other two views of the universals, he would not be able to use them to attempt to prove the existence of God.

In short, Feser thinks we have to accept that there are universals and he thinks that they must exist independently of their instances, so he needs an account of universals that does not endorse either Platonism or Aristotelianism. Existing as ideas in God’s mind is, then, Feser’s way out of his dilemma. If universals are concepts that exist in God’s mind, then they can be objective (God’s mind being perfect after all) and real without entailing all that problematic stuff about a Two Worlds ontology that Plato had. Plus, they get to exist even if there are no instances since God can think about things that do not exist. The problem is that this “solution” contains the worst aspects of Platonism and conceptualism.

Here are some problems with universals that Feser's solution does not actually solve.

One problem for Platonism is how finite, physical, limited minds can gain information about the world of abstract universals. If these items exist in a Platonic heaven (i.e. without any instances), how could we come in contact with them, how could we know they exist, how could we know facts about reality that depend on them? Plato offers only metaphors (the myth of the cave, the divided line, etc.) in trying to explain how we know them. Other Platonists, such as Kurt Godel and Gottlob Frege, have not been much more help. However, as problematic as Platonism is, placing the ideas in God’s mind does not solve these problems. God’s mind is at least as inaccessible as Plato’s heaven. We have no more access to God’s mind than we do to Plato’s world of the Forms, so Feser’s solution does not solve problems of knowledge for universals.

Feser thinks that communication would be impossible if there were not Platonic universals that constitute the meanings of at least some of our terms. There certainly is a good case to make that nominalism can provide no adequate substitute for cases of apparent abstract reference (e.g. “Blue is a friendlier color than red.”) If universals are ideas in God’s mind, however, communication becomes again mysterious. Communication would only be possible if we could refer to ideas in God’s mind. Yet, since we lack any access to God’s mind, these ideas cannot show how communication is possible. It’s mysterious enough how I could refer to an idea in someone else’s mind; it is completely mind-boggling to consider how I could refer to an idea in God’s mind. The degree of difficulty involved in referring to ideas in God’s mind is so great that it would seem to be impossible. Hence, on Feser’s Augustinian proposal, communication is apparently impossible.

Since universals must exist objectively in order to allow for communication, knowledge and the rest, we have to ask: Are God’s ideas objective? One might think so, but answering this question raises a parallel to the classic Euthyphro dilemma (are actions good because the gods love them or do the gods love them because they are good?). Do objects instantiate the universals they do because God conceives of them as doing so? Does God impose universals on the world by his choice? If so, then God can have no reason for ordering the universals as he/she does. (If Fido was a dog this morning could God make Fido a cat this afternoon if God only changed the way he conceived of Fido?) Or does God conceive things as he/she does because they are objectively like that? It’s obvious that if we are to take God’s conceptions as objective, they must be based on an independently existing reality, on independently existing universals. If not, then the distribution of universals to objects must be completely arbitrary and God must have no reason for conceiving of objects as he/she does.

Similarity/one over many:
The problem that universals are primarily introduced to solve, that objects appear to be similar or resemble each other in certain respects, is not really solved by appeal to ideas in God’s mind. Do objects resemble each other because God conceives them as similar, or does God conceive them as similar because they bear an objective resemblance to each other? If we take the former answer, God’s categorizations must be brute unexplainable facts (which is the same answer the nominalist gives, so there is no advantage for the Augustinian here). The answer must again be, for reasons given above, that God must recognize objective resemblances rather than create resemblances. Hence, we must have some other view of the similarity objects appear to have to each other.

This is not to say that the other solutions to the problem of universals are good, but trying to solve the problem by appeal to God does not help matters. It’s possible that one could solve these problems by fiat, and simply claim that the nature of God’s mind is such that these problems are solved. But if you allow that then you might as well allow the Platonist or the conceptualist to solve the problems in the same way. Ultimately, you get nowhere by appeal to God to solve this problem.

In sum, Feser argues that there must be universals understood as Platonic, abstract objects. Then he claims that the best view is Aristotelianism about universals which entails that universals are not Platonic, abstract objects. Then he presents an argument for the existence of God as ideas (and hence not universals or abstract objects) that exist in God’s mind. Thus, according to Feser, universals are apparently all of the following: abstract objects that exist independently of any instance (Platonism), universal resemblances that depend for their existence on their instances (Aristotelianism), and ideas in the mind of God (and hence not independent entities). Feser seems to settle on the last response, but that response does not seem to resolve any problem that universals might be introduced to solve.

One of the oddest facts about Feser’s discussion of nominalism and realism about universals was the weight he placed on it. Somehow nominalism is to blame for the excesses of liberalism, atheism, the sexual revolution, the murdering of millions of helpless babies, and, no doubt the Holocaust and the evil that is Def Leppard too. This is a peculiar stance since some of the most cogent nominalist positions were put forward by theists (most famously, William of Ockham) and many contemporary atheist and materialist philosophers are realists. Bertrand Russell was perhaps the 20th century’s most famous atheist and also a realist (at least in his Problems of Philosophy). Most importantly, there seem no links of entailment or likelihood between any of the supposed social ills and the philosophy of nominalism; nor do there appear to be particular historical connections among them. What could the belief that there are no universals have to do with immorality? Perhaps Feser believes that nominalism entails moral nihilism or relativism, but you can still believe there are individual good or bad actions (tropes), just that there are no universals that explain a resemblances among them. Even if one particular argument that God exists would be rejected by nominalists, it does not immediately follow that they reject the existence of God. So, even if nominalists reject Feser's arguments, there is no necessary connection between nominalism and any moral ills at all.

Since this post has been technical and mostly no fun at all, I wanted to give one more example of the conservadroid mind at work for its sheer humor value. In his second chapter, on the topic of the ancient Greeks, before talking about the universals which are important to the arguments I just discussed, Feser mentions Socrates and his execution. His thoughts on Socrates and the analogy to contemporary politics and society once again indicate the peculiar sense of persecution and victimization so often found on the political right in America. Feser writes,

Socrates (469-399 B.C.) vigorously opposed the Sophists and the moral corruption they had fostered within the Athens of his day. . . When put on trial by a jury of 500 of his fellow citizens for purportedly denying the gods of the city and replacing them with new ones, and in general corrupting the youth . . . he defended himself, Plato tells us, by claiming that he was divinely called to lead others to the improvement of their souls. Naturally, this democratic assembly had him executed. (Today, they’d probably just denounce him as a “neo-con” or part of the “religious right” and haul him off for multicultural sensitivity training.) (p. 31)

Just to get this straight, Feser is claiming that the great iconoclastic thinker Socrates, who was executed for his heretical views on the polis and the nature of the gods, is the equivalent of the religious right, who ran all of the Bush domestic policy and are one of the most powerful domestic interest groups in American politics, and the neo-cons, who ran American foreign policy for the entire Bush era (and who not only have not been reeducated but have, despite demonstrable falsehoods that led the U.S. into a war in Iraq, remained mysteriously unindicted) Let’s just have a little comparison of Socrates, the religious right, the neo-cons, and the new atheist movement.

Accused of atheism and impiety


Religious right
No; they’re the ones making these accusations

New atheists

Had no political power

No—they had a prominent role American foreign policy for years

Religious right
No—one of the most powerful interests in American politics

New atheists
Yes; just for example, there is only one openly non-theist in Congress

Represented a minority opinion

Maybe, but not really in political circles

Religious right
Yes, the religious right is not a majority, but Christians are a majority and the religious right is disproportionately influential because they are seen as representing Christians

New atheists

Committed to critical thought, doubt, and questioning established beliefs


Religious right
It is to laugh.

New atheists

Argued for inconvenient truths that those in power did not want to hear


Religious right
Is that milk coming out of your nose?

New atheists

Said that the gods spoke to him to encourage him to tell the truth

No; pretty clear they have no divine mandate to tell the truth

Religious right
Yes; they claim a direct line to the divine, but not in any way Socrates would recognize*

New atheists
No but they do see themselves as bringing the truth to people

Was executed for his ‘crimes’

No; strangely unindicted for potential war-crimes

Religious right
No; historically these are the executors not the executes

New atheists
Not lately

So, Feser’s sense of persecution is so strong that he perceives the most politically powerful elements of America, with which he is aligned, as being powerless, besieged by political correctness and crushed under the boot-heel of postmodernist literary theorists and Michael Moore (also on p. 31). Compared to this, the dissociation from reality of Feser’s religious views is fairly mundane stuff.

*In contrast to the contemporary religious right, Socrates never relies on divine inspiration for any of his claims. In the Ion Socrates ridiculed the poets for their inability to defend their beliefs, ironically suggested they must be divinely inspired. Have you ever seen a cogent defense of the religious right’s views? Must be divine inspiration. Socrates doesn’t claim divine knowledge; in fact he denies that anyone has divine knowledge.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Atheism and Dogmatism

Reading an issue of Smithsonian magazine the other day, I came across a strange article on an artist (Barbara Kruger) bringing some important message to our politicians in Washington. Apparently an artist was going to fix our broken political system by bringing a one-word message to our politicians (appropriately contextualized in some visual image). Here’s the first paragraph:

Barbara Kruger is heading to Washington bearing the single word that has the power to shake the seat of government to its roots and cleave its sclerotic, deep-frozen deadlock.

It’s hard to imagine a more pompous, even delusional, idea than that one word can change the reasoning of our elected representatives without, presumably, changing their various interests and incentives. So, what is this magic word? I had to read all the way to the end of the article to find out, but you, dear reader, get the answer immediately:

The magic word with the secret power that is like garlic to Dracula in a town full of partisans. The word is “DOUBT”.

To this I reply with William Butler Yeats’, The Second Coming:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

I realize the point of this article is to advertise some museum’s artistic installation (the Hirschhorn in Washington, D.C.; I recommend avoiding it), and that no rational being could actually believe that one word could change the world. There was adequate reason to doubt the seriousness of the author when he/she describes part of the installation:

It was up there, dominating the top of the work, a line written in the biggest, boldest, baddest letters. The central stack of words is superimposed over the brooding eyes and the advancing shoes of a man in what looks like a black-and-white movie still. His head is exploding into what looks like a blank white mushroom cloud, and on the cloud is written: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face forever.”

The author (Ron Rosenbaum) asks Kruger, the artist: “Where’d you get that quote?”

Let us get this straight, the Smithsonian glossy advertisement for various allegedly publicly funded museums hires someone who does not remember, or never knew, the most famous quotation from 1984? And the artist so awes him that we will rush to be told that that George Orwell fella was really onto something there. It’s obvious that we’re not going to get an informed and intelligent description of how art can change the world. Nonetheless, the article slouches towards its ending:

With the absence of doubt, each side clings to its values, devaluing the other side’s values, making any cooperation an act of betrayal.

But do they revalue their own values in devaluing the other side’s valuation of its own values? This is false equivalence and “both-sides-do-it-ism”. The Democrats and Republicans are each equally certain of their own beliefs and each equal in refusing to compromise with the other.

Quickly, then, why is it stupid to think that this one-word art exhibit will completely alter partisanship in Washington, D.C.?

• It’s not true that both sides do refuse to cooperate. Obama borrowed virtually every major public policy that Republicans espoused just a few short years or even months before, and yet somehow the Republicans managed to vehemently oppose their own ideas (both individually and collectively). The refusal to cooperate is almost entirely on one side.

• There is absolutely no reason to think that any change in politicians’ level of certainty will materially affect their behavior. Even if they are not absolutely sure they are correct, they might still oppose each other in just as partisan manner as before they were less certain.

• It is unrealistic to think that people’s behavior will change without some change in their underlying system of beliefs, their interests and allegiances, the interests and allegiances of their constituents, and the incentives for their behavior. It doesn’t matter much how certain politicians are that they are correct, they will still act the same way if they will get voted out of office for not acting that way.

• Less certainty on the part of the Democrats, assuming that is even possible, especially might lead them to give in even more to the Republicans. The best lacking all conviction is as much a part of the problem as the worst being full of passionate intensity. Excessive uncertainty can lead to paralysis just as much as partisanship can.

It is nothing more than a fantasy that politicians will change their behavior based on a single word no matter how artistically presented.

But all of that is not my present point. My point is to critique the final absurdity of the article:

The conversation about doubt turned to agnosticism, the ultimate doubt.
She made clear there’s an important distinction between being an atheist and being an agnostic, as she is: Atheists don’t doubt! “Atheists have the ferociousness [what, ferocity ain’t a word no more?] of true believers – which sort of undermines their position!” she said.

“In this country,” she added, “it’s easier to be a pedophile than an agnostic.”

Indeed, I sh*t not upon thee, good reader. This is Kruger’s claim, and most self-evidently true it is. Pedophiles frequently announce their pedophilia proudly during interviews with national magazines. It is also obvious that agnostics are thrown in prison for decades, cast out of decent society (assuming they are no longer pursuing successful football coaching careers or being on uncomfortably close terms with those who are), labeled as child predators and sometimes rendered homeless by virtue of restrictions on living within a given distance of anything that might conceivably ever attract a child. And, finally, we know that agnostics in prison are highly likely to be killed or assaulted by other prisoners who were agnosticized as children. Nothing really compares to the ostracism of an agnostic in American society. It’s worse than the Bataan death march! [This is a private joke based on a This Modern World cartoon by Tom Tomorrow that I have never been able to find online.]

Unless she’s talking about being a Catholic priest, in which case being agnostic would be problematic.

Overlooking the absurd persecution complex, we note that Kruger is making a category mistake. She thinks that our society continually demands certainty of us when, in reality, no certainty is possible on this issue. She thinks that atheists, by claiming to believe that there is no god, must be dogmatic in their adherence to their belief, and the only way to maintain the proper humble attitude towards our lack of knowledge is to remain agnostic. Let’s use the term ‘Dogmatism’ for the attitude of certainty, closed-mindedness, unwillingness to countenance evidence against one’s position or revise one’s belief given evidence, and willingness to force one’s beliefs on others (by, for example, legislating public displays of fealty to one’s belief system as fundamentalist Christians tend to do). But dogmatism is not a part of atheism any more or less than it is part of theism or agnosticism. Dogmatism is not a belief, or even a system of belief, but an attitude toward belief and so it is logically independent of whatever belief one has. One can be a dogmatic theist, atheist, or, even, agnostic.

People who become atheists (or ‘deconvert’) have often done so precisely because they were open-minded and willing to revise their beliefs when they realized the evidence did not support them. It’s a stretch to imagine that once this deconversion occurred, atheists suddenly became closed-minded. Saying one does not (and perhaps cannot) know that God exists does evince uncertainty about the existence of God, but one might also feel subjectively so certain that we cannot know that God exists that one does not consider counterevidence (that we do know that God exists or that God does not). Contrariwise, we could be perfectly undogmatic in our theism or atheism. A theist who was willing to revise her believe in light of evidence could be much less dogmatic than Kruger, who appears happy to generalize about all who disagree with her on the basis of no evidence at all. Who then is the dogmatist—the atheist or the agnostic who vilifies her without evidence?

This story would be funny were it not so commonplace a view. Some months ago my mother-in-law announced during a discussion of religion that she “could stand to have an agnostic in the family but never an atheist.” Since I thought I’d made it fairly clear that I was an atheist, I found this a bit disconcerting. I have even harbored suspicions that her husband was an atheist. So why did she say this? (Was I being excommunicated?) I never found out precisely, but I think it was for the same reasons Kruger gives. She thinks that atheists are just as dogmatic as the most fundamentalist Christian, and, possibly based on stereotypes of atheists one finds in the press (especially among the Fox-newsians), that atheists are contemptuous of ordinary Americans.

In short, it’s not just an artist with an inflated ego and a penchant for inappropriate analogies who thinks atheists are all dogmatic. It appears to be one of the common, and undeserved, pictures of us, and that image provokes significant dislike among even thoughtful people. Indeed, dogmatism is so contrary to ideals of tolerance and understanding in the liberal mind that considering atheism to exemplify that dogmatism provides reason enough to reject it for those among us who most value tolerance and pluralism. I do not see a solution to this problem when few mainstream figures are free to make the case for atheism, to show that atheists are reasonable and rational people, and, generally, to provide living counterexamples to the stereotype of the close-minded atheist. Those, such as Richard Dawkins, whose main public role is to argue for atheism are easily caricatured as strident, anti-religious fundamentalists simply because they only appear in public in the role of atheists. Many public figures are atheists, but, aside from youtube videos, they never get much chance to talk about it on television—bad for ratings, no doubt—and thus the atheist struggle for recognition proceeds without much in the way of a mainstream media voice and with little opportunity for the ordinary people to see atheists as reasonable people much like themselves.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Fantasy Fiction: A Fray of Antagonists

With the recent success of certain epic fantasy novels, I thought I would try my hand at the genre.

Sir Anton van Pulowicz took one last look at the army just coming into view over the horizon. He turned back to the castle and canvassed its defenses. Its walls were massive and substantial enough to withstand a long bombardment; they were well-perforated with arrow slits from which archers could pepper any attacking army. Its moat was deep and murky, with ripples across the surface from unknown creatures moving just beneath. All of these defenses would do little good against a determined attack given how badly outnumbered defenders were. If the invading army planned a long siege, the castle had few enough provisions and no hope of relief.

Anton nodded at the gate guards and paced over the moat’s drawbridge, marched past the portcullis, and stalked through the tunnel beneath the murder holes. His stride halted abruptly in the audience chamber. Long-buried memories suddenly flooded his consciousness. The castle at Hauxford had been the site of both his greatest triumph and his greatest loss.

As a youth, barely out of his teens, he had won the joust and the melee during the great tournament of Hauxford. His victory led to his knighting by the Viscount de Crowsey, but when he went to celebrate his victory, he found his love, the maid Ysmene, kissing his cousin Galabrad, her gown badly askew. Anton had turned on his heel and joined the campaign against the Pursanii during the War of Convictions. He could not count the compromises he had made in service of the crown’s extermination of the natives of Pursane. Yet his loyalty to the king had been rewarded with higher and higher offices, and now he had been given command of the garrison at Hauxford. Had he not been so driven by anger and jealousy, he never would have embarked on that genocidal course in the first place. But, after he embarked on the campaign, his honor would not let him betray his vow to his sovereign.

Reliving that fateful morning and the purity of his victory reminded him of hope and innocence. This time he would not let bitterness cloud his judgment. With little hope of relief, Anton needs must avoid a siege. The invading army was led by Manard O’Lethe, a veritable giant of a man, brutal but vain. If Anton could tempt Manard, Man to his few friends, into single combat, Anton was sure he could emerge victorious, if perhaps not whole. Anton had watched Man fight, had fought beside him for years until the deplorable affair of drunken Le Vint and his accident at dinner with the goat cheese and makerouns. Man was overconfident, too aggressive, and telegraphed his blows; he relied too much on his enormous size and strength advantage. That alone was enough to destroy most men. Stepping into a circle with the giant was often so terrifying that the battle was won before the first blow was struck.

However, there was one thing Anton was good at, and that was killing men. Perhaps even Man. If he could somehow prod O’Lethe into single combat, Anton could save the garrison. He did not like to think about the sacrifice he might have to make to survive such a battle, but it would be worth it if he could save his hold on Hauxford and his recruits.

First, though, he needed a shield. His own had been smashed to flinders in the last battle as they retreated to Hauxford manor. His audience chambered was festooned with the detritus of a decade of military campaigns and tournaments. Anton looked over the escutcheons and weapons hanging on the wall. He could not even remember how he had acquired most of them. An enormous black blade carved with indecipherable runes, nearly as tall as Anton, hung behind the dais. To the left hung the Three Hearts and Three Lions shield of the Son of the Carl of Holger. Farther to the left hung another shield, seven stars and seven stones and one white tree. To the right hung a lion rampant on red and gold. To the right hung the de Crowsey rooster, rampant on a red background, the Bantam of the Bloodfields. He took down the de Crowsey rooster, a reminder that he had unhorsed the viscount’s son in that long-ago tournament. Anton’s wearing this shield would enrage O’Lethe. O’Lethe had always contended that Anton had not deserved the victory. This shield and, perhaps some needling about O’Lethe’s role in the affair of the makerouns, would be enough to push O’Lethe beyond reason. O’Lethe’s well-known failures of self-control was Anton’s only hope to save his keep and his people.

Anton secured the shield on his arm and went to stand beside the murky moat to await the arrival of the advancing army.

Then he was eaten by a crocodile.

What do you think? Another 10,000 pages or so and I've got a million dollar fantasy epic?

Monday, July 2, 2012

One Angry Philosopher

Last week I was summoned for jury duty and so I had to sit for 3-4 hours reading a book while other people were actually asked to serve on juries, so it was not a tremendous imposition on me (although I did have to get a substitute to administer a test for me). I even got to bring home a “Juror” sticker to put on my 2-year-old’s shirt. He loves stickers, and I liked the idea that people might think he had actually served on a jury. I imagine he would be an improvement on the average American.

Still, there was one thing that bothered me about the experience. They administered a swearing-in for the group to swear an oath to do our duties as jurors. You can probably guess how my story ends. The oath basically said that jurors would do their best to uphold their responsibility as jurors, be without bias in decision, etc. “so help me God.”

Obviously, then, when we were asked to say “I do”, I couldn’t affirm that. Nobody paid any attention to me, and probably most of the people were only half listening anyway. In some sense the swearing-in was just a meaningless formality, but it illustrates how pervasive religion is in important aspects of American public life. Moreover, the addition, “So help me God,” is otiose or nonsensical.

First, it’s clearly unnecessary. The oath has only to do with doing one’s epistemic best. The oath is a deontological construct put purely in terms of internal strivings of the agent, not in terms of consequences or actual reality. If the oath were to discover the truth, or render an accurate verdict, that might reasonably be thought to require God’s aid since we have no absolute certainty about the criminal or direct access to the criminal act. But the oath was given reasonably in terms of trying to uphold our responsibilities as jurors, and we don’t need God’s help to do that.

In fact, second, it doesn’t even make sense to ask God for help in doing that. If we are not already doing our best, then God cannot make it so that we are doing our best because then God would be doing that for us. If God is required to assist us, then we clearly have not done our best and have failed in our oath and no action on God’s part can make it so that we tried any harder to fulfill our obligations. If on the other hand, we are doing our best, then God’s assistance is completely unnecessary for we have already fulfilled our oath. It is not even logically possible to ask for God’s help in fulfilling this oath since the oath is to do something that is entirely, and necessarily, under our, and only our, control.
Perhaps my argument is unfair to theists. Christians tend to think of God as a stern but loving father who approves of good moral behavior and frowns on immoral behavior, and so God’s influence operates indirectly through our own beliefs and attitudes given God’s approval or disapproval. God’s presence is more like the presence of our parents (deceased or not) whose standards we try to live up to. Perhaps, then, the reference to God is primarily there not as a literal request to God to help us accomplish something that is completely and only within our power. Instead, this admonition is to request God to be present in our minds so that God’s peering over our shoulder encourages us to do our best.

However, either God is not present, and the idea of God is what pushes us to do our best, or God is present, and our fear of God influences us to try just a little harder. If it’s the former, then appeal to God could be nothing more than a reminder to focus on our idea of God, and that idea then helps us to try harder. If it is our idea of God that allows us to do our best, then God is not necessary for that. If it’s the latter, if we are calling on God to be actually present in our minds exerting some influence over us, then we have given up the idea of our own autonomy and responsibility.

I won’t review the role of religion in public life and the rather obvious violation of separation of church and state involved. But what I always find disturbing is the degree to which the public utterances and affirmations of faith are fundamentally senseless. People who believe should be the ones most disturbed by the nonsensical nature of the oath. Unsurprisingly, however, no one really thinks about what they are saying. The fact that the oath mentions God is enough to keep the religious happy, and not enough to upset the vast majority who take it to be a meaningless formality. This episode just illustrates one more way in which people are expected to abide by an inherently nonsensical religion without question.