Sunday, March 30, 2008

Symmetry arguments for Platonists?

The Epicurean symmetry argument says that death is not to be feared since post mortem time is not relevantly different from pre-natal time. And since no one thinks they were harmed in the time before their birth so no one should think that they will be harmed in the time after their death. The Epicureans team this with the further thought that death is the end of one’s existence just as birth was the beginning to explain why it is that neither of these times can include any harms.

The pseudo-Platonic dialogue Axiochus has an interesting spin on this argument. It is an odd work, to be sure, which seems to lump together Epicurean, Cynic, and Platonist elements into a therapeutic programme. But it seems to me that some elements which might seem incompatible are in fact not necessarily so. One of these is the clear appearance of a version of the symmetry argument at 365d–e which is followed by some grand Platonist rhetoric about the immortality of the soul. Here is Hershbell’s translation of 365d–366a:

“In your distraction, Axiochus, you're confusing sensibility with insensibilty, without realising it. What you say and do involves internal self-contradiction; you don't realise that you're simultaneously upset by your loss of sensations and pained by your decay and the loss of your pleasures—as if by dying you entered into another life, instead of lapsing into the utter insensibility that existed before your birth. Just as during the government of Draco or Cleisthenes there was nothing bad at all that concerned you (because you did not exist then for it to concern you), nor will anything bad happen to you after your death (because you will not exist later for it to concern you).

“Away, then, with all such nonsense! Keep in mind: once the compound is dissolved and the soul has been settled in its proper place, the body which remains, being earthly and irrational, is not the human person. For each of us is a soul, an immortal living being locked up in a mortal prison; and Nature has fashioned this tent for suffering—its pleasures are superficial, fleeting, and mixed with many pains; but its pains are undiluted, long lasting, and without any share of pleasure. And while the soul is forced to share with the sense organs their diseases and inflammations and the other internal ills of the body (since it is disturbed among its pores), it longs for its native heavenly aether, nay, thirsts after it, striving upwards in hopes of feasting and dancing there. Thus being released from upwards in hopes of feasting and dancing there. Thus being released from life is a transition from something bad to something good.”

You might think that here we have an odd combination of Epicurean and Platonist arguments. And in a way that is right. But I suspect that some attempt has been made to render the Epicurean argument consistent with Platonist dualism. First, it is true even on the Platonist view that the person concerned was not ‘around’ in the time of Draco and will not be around after death. This is not, of course, for the reasons the Epicureans think this is true: namely that the soul is mortal and does not pre-exist the living body. Rather, it is because – as Socrates points our here – the soul is only temporarily imprisoned in a body during life and when liberated spends its time not in the world of Draco or Cleisthenes, but in its proper heavenly place.

Second, and similarly, since perception is made the result of this enforced incarnation then a Platonist can equally accept on his own dualist terms the Epicurean notion that before birth and after death there is no perception.

The tricky phrase for this interpretation of course is the supposed explanation for why post mortem time cannot be bad: ‘because you will not exist later for it to concern you’ (366e2; the parallel claim about pre-natal time is at 366d8) since it is claimed only a few lines later that ‘we are each of us a soul’ (366e6) and since the soul is immortal, each of us is immortal.

But perhaps Socrates is deliberately attempting to move the ailing Axiochus from a common-sense notion of his identity (he is Axiochus, born on such and such a date etc.) to a new and surprising sense of his identity (he is an immortal soul…) Certainly 366e6: ‘For we are each of us a soul’ sounds like a grand announcement, which is fleshed out further in what is to come. And it is certainly helpful, in that case, that Axiochus could go back with this new-found identification of his self with an immortal soul and see that the symmetry argument is still just as relevant.

Also, the phrases at 366d8 and e2 which are generally translated using the English ‘exist’ can perhaps be read in a less determinate way so as to lessen any explicit inconsistency. (Forgive the transliteration…I can’t get Greek to work on this machine.)

366d8: archên gar ouk ês, peri hon an ên

366e2: su gar ouk esêi peri hon estai

I wonder whether 366d8, for example, can be read as follows: ‘For in the beginning you were not such as it could concern you’; and e2 could be ‘for you will not be such as it will concern you’. Both these claims could be asserted without qualms by a dualist who accepts an immortal soul.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Sucking up...

We've given in and bought a Dyson. Lovely it is too. Younger daughter decided immediately it looks like a space ship, which I suppose is pretty cool for a hoover. I wondered for a while about the rechargeable, hand-held ones that look like a big gun from the Alien films*, but didn't succumb. Real willpower that.

I had to take old dead hoover to the WEEE recycling centre near Milton (great name; less exciting when you get there). I left it alongside a phalanx of other dead hoovers, including a number of formerly natty Dysons (mostly the older candy-coloured ones...). They looked quite sad, all in a row, but anything of them that can be salvaged and repaired will be.

* That reminds me. I would like to have the Alien films on DVD but they insisted on putting out a set of the four films under the name: The Alien Quadrilogy. Quadrilogy? WTF? There's a perfectly good word for a four-work sequence alreadys without the need to bastardise Latin and Greek like that. (Or perhaps, on second thoughts, the hybridity of the title is a deliberate nod to part of a motif of the films themselves... No, surely not: it was just a cock-up.) Anyway, as a result I can't buy them. Damn.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Some Easter thoughts

Tomorrow will be Easter Sunday and today it is snowing. Aggressively. It's a nice feeling, though, as if this really is the last throes of Winter before we can get on with some warmer and sunnier weather.

Perhaps because it is the Easter weekend, there has been a lot on the news about the Catholic church's displeasure that the PM is reluctant to allow his MPs a 'free vote' on a new embryology bill which would include measures licensing the creation of 'hybrid' embryos. (It looks now as if he might give in.) Anyway, I certainly don't share the Archbishop of Canterbury's certainty that such a bill would be a 'monstrous attack on human rights, human dignity and human life' (extracts from his sermon can be read here). But I did think it worth looking at the HFEA's consultation report, which seems to have been conspicuously absent from much of the discussion in the last couple of days. The full report can be read here, and it's rather interesting. In particular, it gives a clear and detailed account of the current state of scientific research and useful comparisons with similar legislation in other countries.

Also, Appendix D (p. 63ff.) gives data from written responses to the consultation. Now, I don't know who actually responds to these -- I imagine it is not an entirely representative slice of the population since people are more likely to reply if they have strong views one way or another and particularly wish to influence the process, but it's worth a look. Most respondents expressed the view that licensing such research would not be permissible and -- this is the most interesting bit for me -- many of them tried to offer a reason why.
The graph puts them in the following categories:

Life is sacred
'Yuck' responses
Human dignity
Slippery slope
Unconvinced by science
Safety risks
Potentiality of the embryo
Playing God

The first four tend to be the most popular. I'm not quite sure what to make of them, but I'm pretty sure that a 'Yuck' response can't really be a particularly persuasive argument against chaging scientific research (unless, I suppose, the people concerned were all emotivists...).

Monday, March 17, 2008

Philosophers behaving badly

Those classical types could certainly be rude about one another. Here's the latest gem I've discovered, perhaps paying back Epicurus for his cute aphorism about 'spitting on the good'.

The second-century Platonist Calvenus Taurus seems to have been particularly attached to anti-Epicurean anti-hedonist agenda of an extreme kind. Certainly, the terms of his attacks on Epicurus as reported by Aulus Gellius NA 9.5 are uncompromising:

Taurus autem noster, quotiens facta mentio Epicuri erat, in ore atque in lingua habebat verba haec Hieroclis Stoici, viri sancti et gravis: ἡδονὴ τέλος, πόρνης δόγμα· οὐκ ἔστιν πρόνοια, οὐδὲ πόρνης δόγμα.

But our own Taurus, whenever he made mention of Epicurus would have on the tip of his tongue this phrase of the Stoic Hierocles, a pious and serious man: ‘That pleasure is the goal of life is the dogma of a whore; that there is no providence is not even the dogma of a whore’.


Sunday, March 16, 2008

Saturday science...

Yesterday was fun. Cambridge was full of eager families joining in the excellent Science Week activities. Because of the kids' particular current enthusiasms we concentrated on the stuff in the Sedgwick museum -- real dinosaur bones (an allosaurus foot and arm were the highlights) and lots of fun geology stuff including a model erupting volcano. (Crowd pictured...)

This annual event really is excellent, and the volunteers -- many of them students -- were superb too. It's not east, I imagine, to field questions from toddlers, keen kids and pushy parents, as well as the familiar Cambridge eccentrics. But the ones we met managed still to sound enthusiastic and happy to share their interests. Our kids, anyway, loved it.

And it sets a very high standard for the first 'Festival of Ideas' -- the university's equivalent to the science week festival but concentrating on arts, humanities and social sciences, coming up 22 October - 2 November later this year.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Shurely Shome Mishtake?

Our former Dear Leader, 'Tony' Blair, is to teach a seminar at Yale next year on faith and globalisation. Here's the BBC report. Good grief. And here's the press release from Yale. The best part is here, quoting Yale's President:
"As the world continues to become increasingly inter-dependent, it is essential that we explore how religious values can be channeled toward reconciliation rather than polarization. Mr. Blair has demonstrated outstanding leadership in these areas and is especially qualified to bring his perspective to bear."
I wonder what he is referring to as evidence of TB's outstanding leadership in these areas. I hope he's thinking more of Northern Ireland. Then again, TB strikes me as someone who seems not to be able to distinguish holding a belief sincerely from holding a true belief, so it might be just the seminar to enrol in. Say at the end of your paper that you really felt you were doing the right thing and you're bound to get an A.

Friday, March 07, 2008

RIP Gary Gygax

Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons, died this week, which reminded me of what a great hobby those games are. I must have spent a lot of time between the ages of about 8 and 14 playing RPGs: not just D&D, but also RuneQuest, Warhammer FRP, Traveller (that one was really good), one based in the US in the 1920s, Call of Cthulhu etc., and I had a great time. Yes, it was a bit geeky. Yes, perhaps we should have been outside kicking footballs or each other rather than rolling odd dice and pretending to be other people, but it was creative and sociable and it involved all sorts of numerical and linguistic skills. I don't think it can quite be matched by the more recent online variants. There was a brief unfortunate incident when an RE teacher at school tried to claim that it was a form of satanism, but we got over that relatively quickly...

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Heracles and the kids from Fame...

Some more thoughts about ponos and pleasure. I've been looking again at Xenophon Mem. 2.1, the bit with Prodicus' story of the choice of Heracles. It seems to me that in his attempt to persuade Aristippus of the importance of virtue and self-control, Socrates is in danger of failing to register clearly a distinction between pleasure taking in hard work or self-denial and pleasure won as a result of hard work and self-denial.

At 2.1.18-20 Socrates appears to be emphasising the latter option: pleasures are like the animals caught after a long day of difficult hunting (18), a reward for a period of hardship and, more importantly, the goal for which that hardship is undertaken. At 2.1.20 Socrates quotes a nice tag from Epicharmus to help make the point:
τῶν πόνων πωλοῦσιν ἡμῖν πάντα τἀγάθ’ οἱ θεοί.

The gods sell us all good things in exchange for our toils.
It's like the line from the beginning of Fame: 'You want the good? Well, the good costs. And right here's where you start paying... in sweat.' And that's the main thrust of the last speech given by personified Virtue at the end of this dialogue: training and exertion, a refusal to gratify desires immediately, is a way to ensure the eventual enjoyment of more pleasure than would be won in a profligate life. Pain and toil itself is not good, but it can be used to get what you really want.

But there is another strand to Socrates' argument even here (2.1.19):
καὶ τὰ μὲν τοιαῦτα ἆθλα τῶν πόνων μικροῦ τινος ἄξιά ἐστι, τοὺς δὲ πονοῦντας ἵνα φίλους ἀγαθοὺς κτήσωνται, ἢ ὅπως ἐχθροὺς χειρώσωνται, ἢ ἵνα δυνατοὶ γενόμενοι καὶ τοῖς σώμασι καὶ ταῖς ψυχαῖς καὶ τὸν ἑαυτῶν οἶκον καλῶς οἰκῶσι καὶ τοὺς φίλους εὖ ποιῶσι καὶ τὴν πατρίδα εὐεργετῶσι, πῶς οὐκ οἴεσθαι χρὴ τούτους καὶ πονεῖν ἡδέως εἰς τὰ τοιαῦτα καὶ ζῆν εὐφραινομένους, ἀγαμένους μὲν ἑαυτούς, ἐπαινουμένους δὲ καὶ ζηλουμένους ὑπὸ τῶν ἄλλων;

These rewards from effort (ponoi) are worth little. But those people who toil (ponountas) in order to acquire good friends or to do down their enemies, or to become powerful in body and soul, and who run their household well and do well by their friends and benefit their country, how should we not think that these people toil in pleasure (ponein hēdeōs) for such goals and live joyfully (euphrainomenous), being contented themselves and being praised and envied by others?
The contrast mentioned at the beginning of the quotation is between these serious goals and the goal of hunting in the previous paragraph. The goals detailed here are worth a lifetime of effort since they are most valuable and lasting. What's most interesting, though, is the passage in bold since this seems to say that the very effort involved in itself a source of pleasure. It is not merely that the goal of being envied or having a well-run house and good friends is a source of pleasure worth purchasing in exchange for some toils. Socrates is surely being deliberately paradoxial by asserting that toil itself can be done in a pleasant way (ponein hēdeōs), and this is just the sort of thing that seems to have been attractive to the Cynics.

I'm not sure that Socrates here sees the distinction between ponos being itself pleasant and ponos being a means to greater pleasure in the long-run. At least, if he does see it he is not concerned to make much of it. Either way, he will have some ammunition against Aristippus and will be able to offer some argument against his chosen way of life which deals in terms which Aristippus himself might agree are valuable.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Eurosong fever

Come on, UK, it's time for us to make up our minds over which act we are to send as a sacrificial victim to the Eurovision Song Contest in Belgrade. The choices are here for you to listen to, but it's not a great bunch. I reckon Michelle Gayle is the least awful but we'll still get no votes. Probably something to do with us invading various countries recently.
Ireland, however, have got the right idea. It might not be 'My lovely horse', but this is about what the competition deserves.