January 2008

Mug shot of Sextus EmpiricusIn pursuit of a mind untroubled by bothersome knowledge, Pyrrhonian skeptics, such as Sextus Empiricus, employed various arguments designed to bring about suspension of judgment.  One such argument is to be found in the second of the Five Modes of late Pyrrhonism.  Sextus presents this argument in the fifteenth chapter of his Outlines of Pyrrhonism.

The mode based upon regress ad infinitum is that whereby we assert that the thing adduced as a proof of the matter proposed needs a further proof, and this again another, and so on ad infinitum, so that the consequence is suspension [of judgment], as we posses no starting point for our argument.

    The argument could be rendered thus:

1. For any given belief, a proof is required for that belief to be justified (assumed).

2. However, for every proof given, yet another proof is required for that proof to be justified; leading to vicious infinite regress of proofs.

3. An infinite regress of proofs provides no basis for justification since it is impossible to determine if every belief in the series is justified.

4. Therefore, it is impossible to justify any given belief and so one should suspend judgment.

            Sextus goes on to anticipate and reject two possible solutions to the problem of an infinite regress: these are expressed in the fourth and fifth modes, in which the former is concerned with circular reasoning and the latter is concerned with hypotheses (assumptions of knowledge).

            As to the initial argument, it does appear to be valid given the skeptic’s criteria of justification.  Furthermore, the third premise seems to be quite self-evident.  It does not seem possible to provide individual justifications for an infinite series of beliefs; at least, not in a finite measure of time (which would unfortunately describe the lifespan of all known human beings).  A criticism of the argument must therefore focus upon the first two premises, both of which are based upon a certain assumption of justification.

            Adopting circular reasoning would be one way of rejecting the second premise.  As stated above, Sextus anticipates this objection in the fourth mode:

The Mode of circular reasoning is the form used when the proof itself which ought to establish the matter of inquiry requires confirmation derived from that matter; in this case, being unable to assume either in order to establish the other, we suspend judgment on both.

To illustrate the point very simply:

1. Sextus Empiricus’ arguments for skepticism are irrefutable (how do you know that?).

2. Because he is the most persuasive skeptic in history (how do you know that?)

3. Because his arguments for skepticism are irrefutable.

            While this example is quite simple, it does demonstrate that circular reasoning is patently absurd.  One can prove anything by begging the question.  Likewise, one can justify any claim to knowledge if they are allowed to engage in a vicious circle of justifications.

            Assuming a belief (hypothesis) to be true would be another way of avoiding an infinite regress.  Sextus deals with this in the fifth Mode:

We have the Mode based on hypothesis when the Dogmatists, being forced to recede ad infinitum, take as their starting-point something which they do not establish by argument but claim to assume as granted simply and without demonstration.

            Under this scheme, an infinite regress can be avoided by digging one’s epistemological heels into a belief that requires no justification.  Sextus assumes that this position is invalid since the hypothesizer provides no argument or demonstration for the belief to which he holds.  This seems to be a valid objection to a whole assortment of unjustified beliefs.  Take, for example, the belief that I am Napoleon Bonaparte.  Using the logic of the hypothesizer, could I not simply assert this belief firmly and with no justification?  One can see why Sextus considers this position to be untenable.

            What about other beliefs though?  There are certainly beliefs that seem to be more reasonable that the one given above.  Take, for example, the belief that I am presently sitting before my computer typing this post.  Must this belief be ‘proven’ somehow before it can count as knowledge?  Sextus would say ‘yes’, but there are many who would disagree with him.  This leads us to examine the epistemological assumption that underlies the first premise of the infinite regress argument.           

            Sextus merely assumes that every belief requires some form of proof before it can be justified and count as knowledge.  Deductive certainty, however, is an incredibly high standard of justification.  Given his assumption, one can see how it would be impossible to know almost anything.  But do we have to grant his assumption?  Do we have to explain how we have knowledge of some specific thing for that knowledge to be justified?  If so, would it not be reasonable to ask the skeptic how he knows that we do not have knowledge of a specific item?

            It is at this point that the skeptic would probably launch into various arguments attacking the reliability of the senses; such as “How do you know that you are not dreaming?” or “How do you know that you are not insane or a brain in a vat?”  However, the hypothesizer may respond that just because something is logically possible, this does not mean that it is reasonable to believe it.  It is logically possible that a teddy bear is orbiting Mars or that the moon is actually made of green cheese, but this does not mean that I am required to believe these things to be so, or that it would be reasonable to do so.  Likewise, it may be logically possible that I am merely dreaming that I am typing this post or that I am insane, but the skeptic must provide me with good reasons to believe these things.  And I think that this is something that Sextus, for all his mighty modes, fails to provide.

            Therefore, the infinite regress argument of the skeptic is as only as powerful as its underlying assumption.  If deductive certainty is the required justification for knowledge, then we indeed know very little.  However, if certainty is not required, then the second Mode is unpersuasive.  It all depends upon who shoulders the burden of proof.

Top Ten Posts for January, 2008

Here are the Top Ten most visited posts on Quadrivium for January, 2008:

  1. Monty Python’s Parody of Knighthood (Part 1): How Monty Python and the Holy Grail humorously skewers the ideals of Arthurian chivalry.
  2. Observation: A funny essay on the art of people watching.
  3. What is Christian Art?: Is there such a thing as “Christian” art and how does one recognize it?
  4. Is Fantasy Escapism?: Is fantasy literature (LOTR, Narnia, etc.) an attempt to escape reality, or does it communicate reality better than any other genre?
  5. Stephen Pinker and the Morality of a Meat Machine: Admiring Stephen Pinker’s awesome ‘do, and examining his not-so-awesome materialistic foundation for ethics.
  6. The Economics of Art: A rejoinder to post 3 that takes a different approach to the idea of “Christian” art and the concept of ‘art’ altogether.
  7. Pinball Brain: A post that ponders the perpetually preoccupied mind and what to do about it.
  8. America the Dim-Witted: A collection of stupid warning labels…need I say more?
  9. The Conflict of Christianity and Culture: A post that examines the underlying causes of modern Christianity’s estrangement from culture.
  10. April 22: Pregnancy and childbirth…from the dad’s perspective.

 T. S. Eliot 

(Read Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3)

“The Wasteland”, by T. S. Eliot, is considered by many to be the most famous modernist work ever published.  Within the chaotic lines of this poem Eliot seeks to portray the sense of decadence, decline, and despair that characterizes the post-war West.  This work was highly influential, and it injected its nihilistic themes into the cultural bloodstream.  “The Wasteland” would come to influence many subsequent works of literature; including the two novels which have already been addressed.

With his description of London as the “unreal city” (Line 60) whose population has been undone by death, Eliot clearly portrays the despair experienced by the British after the war.  The city is not only inhabited by the clotted river of sighing masses which flows through its fog-covered streets, but by the ghostly memories of soldiers like “Stetson” who lost their lives during the war.  What happened to the corpse planted in Stetson’s garden (the millions who died in the war)?  What ghastly fruit will come of it?  From his vantage point, Eliot saw Western culture crumbling into “a heap of broken images” (Line 22), yet within the fractured and fragmented lines of The Waste Land, Eliot at times seems to hint at an answer.

Similar to The Sound and the Fury, “The Wasteland” attempts to convey the nihilism of its day through its very form and style.  By its disjointed lines and multiple obscure references, the poem presents an age in which spiritual and existential certainty has been replaced by “a handful of dust” (Line 30).  I must confess that the first time I read this “The Wasteland” I was quite baffled and a bit annoyed by the sheer amount of references.  However, each time I read the poem the more I discovered that the references themselves convey one of this work’s most powerful messages.  

The Wasteland

Nearly all of the quotes and allusions are derived from renowned Western literature.  Shakespeare, Dante, St. Augustine, and the Bible all make appearances, along with many other famous works.  It is as though Eliot was seeking to gather the ruins of Western civilization and piece them back together again (however disfigured the finished product may be).  The numerous references of “The Wasteland” reinforce Eliot’s message that the modern age has lost its soul, and that the only redemption for it will be found in a return to the eternal truths to which these references adhere.

Standing in the background of this poem is the Fisher King, a mythical figure from Arthurian legend.  His impotence (see Jake above) represents the sterility of the age, and his only hope is that someone will ask him what it is that ails him.  In “The Wasteland”, Eliot is emphasizing the fact that the problem for modern man is not to be found in the lack of abundant answers, but in the lack of the proper questions.  The age that produced World War I could not fix its own problems; only a return to the wisdom that had preceded it offered any hope.

All of these works communicate a powerful truth: that in his rise to power and scientific prowess, mankind lost his way.  Confusion reigns and his tower is left to crumbleThis is nihilism: the disintegration of all value; the fatal mistake of forgetting that the most precious things that a man possesses are not those things which can be stuffed in a pantry, stored in a bank account, or measured in a test tube.  Yet, as Eliot perceived, there is hope: escape from the maze of meaninglessness is not found by pressing forward into the darkness, but by following the breadcrumbs of antiquity back to the entrance…and to escape.

William Faulkner(Continued from Part 1 and Part 2.  Read more in Part 4)

The Sound and the Fury also foreshadows its theme by means of a literary reference it its title; in this case, Macbeth’s desperate testimony to the futility of life.  Within this novel, William Faulkner expresses the dissolution of value for modern man and his descent into existential nihilism.  By adopting the unique (and sometimes confusing) perspective of the mentally-handicapped Benjy, Faulkner explores life as “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Time is a key motif within The Sound and the Fury.  Benjy has no sense of it, Quentin is obsessed with it, and Mr. Compson seeks to explain it out of existence.  Indeed, the nature and perception of time is probably the most important key to understanding the nihilistic concepts that permeate the book.  Until the twentieth century (which brought Einstein’s relativity theory), Newtonian time was the great constant: linear, immutable, and persistent as it flowed like a river from past, present, to future.

Mr. Compson is the perfect representation of the modern undermining of traditional thought.  At the start of “Quentin’s Section” of the book, we are presented with Quentin’s memory of his father glibly explaining “the position of mechanical hands on an arbitrary dial.” (Faulkner 77)  In essence, Mr. Compson is stating that what we call “time” is nothing but human convention, a thing that we ourselves have invented measurement for and in which we anchor our daily existence.  One can hear in his words the echo of the Logical Positivist’s of the day, as they dismiss God, morality, and all metaphysical inquiry as nothing more than ludicrous linguistics.

Quentin, the recipient of Mr. Compson’s doleful pontifications, stands in sharp contrast to his father.  He represents the traditional values which have crumbled due to the influence of modern ideology.  Quentin is quite obviously obsessed with time; he is a traditional moralist and must have an absolute standard to sustain his reality.  However, he perceives that the world in which he lives does not conform to his ideals and (to his horror) neither does he, himself.  In the end, Quentin smashes his watch in the morning and drowns himself in the afternoon.  He believes that his view of reality is not feasible, but chooses to die rather than face a world that has failed to conform to his wishes.

Benjy’s character represents a chaotic fusion of the two aforementioned characters.  He is the modern man who must face reality after the traditional views of it have been destroyed (Quentin’s suicide) and the modern views of it have been found wanting (Mr. Compson’s drinking himself to death).  Benjy is neither obsessed with time, nor does he attempt to explain it away; he is simply oblivious to it.  His section is a confused string of random memories and experiences without any consistent order or logical coherence.  What does Benjy do?  He moans.  He moans in “utter horror; shock; agony eyeless, tongueless; just sound.” (320)  He is a man drowning in the despair of nihilism, unable to assign any transcendent meaning to his suffering but feeling the harsh and visceral reality of it nonetheless.

Faulkner’s answers are elusive.  Indeed, the only hint at a resolution is found in the final section of the book when Dilsey takes Benjy and Luster to church.  There, while listening to the passionate Easter sermon of a visiting minister, Dilsey has a somewhat mystical experience and finds comfort in her troubles.  Faulkner, by his reference to the Resurrection of Christ, is telling that a jettisoning of the past age and its truths is not the answer, but rather a realization of something worth keeping: namely, hope in redemption and new life.

All quotations taken from:  Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Vintage. 1990

book_glasses1.jpgI have been listening to a series of lectures on church history and I am sad to admit that I did not know a lot of this before now.  I did not learn about the history of the church at the local public school I went to, even though many events played key roles in society.  I did not learn about Constantine and his famous vision of “in this sign conquer”.  I did not learn about Erasmus, Luther, or even Nero.  Most of the church history that I know, I have learned from my husband and from my own studies.  So my question is this: whose responsibility is it to teach church history? 

Does the responsibility rest solely on the family?  If so, what should parents be doing to educate themselves?

What about the church?  If so, in what setting?  Sunday School?  The sermons? 

What about school or society?  Should all history be taught, regardless of apparent religious content?

Or is it all three?  In what environment should we learn church history?  Should we expect a podium and a 30 minute lecture every time or is there a way to incorporate the facts and lessons of history into everyday life?  I would love to hear your opinion on this.

Ernest Hemingway(Continued from an Part 1.  Read more in Part 3, and Part 4)

The Sun Also Rises is a novel about those most impacted by the Great War: the individuals who made up the aptly named “lost generation”.  World War I took nearly 9 million lives, but it ruined the lives of many more who survived.  Hemingway’s story of Jake and his post-war companions presents more than just an interesting account of Parisian social life and Spanish bull fighting; it demonstrates the incredible toll that the war took upon those who were most intimately involved in it.  For them, the effects of the war never ended.

Hemingway gives a wink and nod in his title to anyone familiar with the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes.  Within its ancient pages we find a story of existential angst as presented through the eyes of a Jewish king who was repeatedly frustrated in his attempts to find meaning in life.  Ecclesiastes’ theme “vanity of vanities” perfectly elucidates Hemingway’s novel.  The characters in his book fly from one diversion to the next, but never to anything substantial.

Jake and Brett represent the two paths down which the worldview of nihilism can lead and the diverging experiences of Europe and America after the war.  Jake’s impotence is an important symbol within The Sun Also Rises.  It represents the loss of ideological life that resulted from World War I.  In his outward appearance Jake looks perfectly healthy, but he has lost something vital: the ability to consummate passion and impart life.  This is a strong comparison to post-war Europe: it had survived the Great War, but it had come out of it vitally wounded.  No one could pretend any longer that things were alright with the world.  A society that had produced such atrocities was fundamentally broken.  “Enlightened” Europe had entered the war ideologically robust; it had emerged sterile.

Brett is the antithesis of Jake and the “Americanized” nihilist of the novel.  This may come as a surprise to some readers due to the fact that Brett seems to be the most vivacious and care-free character of the book.  However, a closer reading will reveal that this is nothing more than a veneer to cover the inward angst that she is experiencing.  “I’ve got to do something,” she tells Jake as he walks her to Romero, “I’ve got to do something I really want to do.  I’ve lost my self-respect.” (187)  A few sentences later she bemoans the fact that she “can’t stay tight all the time”. (187)  Alcohol is her panacea to a painful existence.

Brett is the quintessential nihilist-turned-hedonist.  Traditional values are shattered, nihilism ensues, and hedonism is embraced as the existential life-raft to keep from going under.  Thus Brett becomes an excellent picture of the “booming twenties”: an era of music, art, excitement, and despair. 

It is interesting to note that Hemingway does not seem to extend any hope at the end of his novel.  Brett remains a devoted pleasure seeker and Jake seems to adopt the same artificial and shallow set of values that “the Count” (67) has embraced.  However, this is consistent with the cyclical emphasis of the novel: “The sun also arises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to his place where he arose.” (Ecclesiastes 1:5)

 All quotations taken from:   Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Scribner, 2003

Momma called the doctor and the Doctor said…

“No, OZ never did give nothin’ to the Tin Man, that didn’t, didn’t already have.”Dr. Bombay

Much like the Tin Man they found today that I do actually have a heart.  It’s right where it is supposed to be and is doing all the things it is supposed to do.  So I’m wondering if maybe I’m actually the Scarecrow, “If I only had a brain?”  Cause the thoughts that I’d be thinkin’ while-a drivin’ in ma’ Lincoln if I only had a brain… or the winning Power Ball lottery ticket from this week.

They “STILL” don’t know why my legs look like Charlie Brown’s Macy’s Day Parade balloon legs.  At this point I would consider taking a stick pin to them but what happens if they take off like a balloon.  I can see me bouncing off the walls, ceiling, taking a few laps around the ceiling fan and sputtering to a halt on the piano.  I can hear my daughter Elizabeth now, “Do it again Daddy, do it again!” 

              Technology is wonderful, I got to watch my heart in action today, amazing.  Well, I mean, I didn’t actually see my heart (that would have been messy) but I saw an image of my heart.  You know, a sonogram, just like they do with babies.  And yes, I did have her check, and no, I am not pregnant (it just looks like I am) thank you very much.  I tried to get her to make me an audio recording of that rhythm, it sounded just like conga line music… bum bum   bum bum   bum   ba!  bum bum   bum bum   bum   ba!  Wait, scratch that, I can’t dance, I’m Baptist. (And possibly a little too nerdy) So why did you email me?  What do you want?  Come on chop, chop I haven’t got all morning.  Hummm?  What’s that?  Oh!  Yea, I’m emailing you aren’t I?       

Ok, one more thing and I’ll be done. (yep, I’m Baptist alright)

When they were taking all my information they have one of those talking scales and all it said was “Uncle! Uncle!”  But they said my weight was normal… for someone 7’ 1” tall. 

Then came the questions: 

 “Do you smoke?”


“Do you drink?”

“Is this a trick question?

“I mean do you drink alcoholic beverages?”


“Do you take drugs, illegal drugs?


“Do you exercise?”

“No, I kicked the habit years ago.”

“And it shows.”

“Thank you for noticing.”

“Hard not to, twins?

“Why yes, a boy and a girl.”

“How far along?

“Fourteen years.”

“That long?  I wouldn’t have guessed more than the second trimester.”

“Oh you mean that!”

“Yea! that!”

“I’m rather attached to that, it may not be fly but it is phat!” 

(I think I impressed her with my knowledge of pop culture terms and Ebonics.  But then again I also left an impression on the chair in which I was sitting.”uncle! uncle!”)

Say Goodnight Gracie,

“Goodnight Mrs. Calabash where ever you are!”

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