A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

TOF in the Big Apple

L. Statistician to the Stars; C. yr.obt. svt.; R. Philosophical rock star

TOF wandered into NYC on this past Saturday to attend a free symposium about Thomas Aquinas & Philosophical Realism, the price being within his range.  One of the featured speakers was the estimable philosopher Ed Feser.  TOF's Faithful Reader may recall that that the good Doctor provided philosophical review of TOF's soon-to-be-beloved-classic "Places Where the Roads Don't Go," which features a philosopher as one of its characters. (A computer scientist and a topologist round out the major characters.) Dr. Ed allowed as how TOF did not screw up the philosophy stuff too badly.

Also present in the audience was Wm. M. Briggs, the famed Statistician to the Stars, who has left an account of the symposium on his own blog at the link just given. The esteemed Dr. Briggs, whose name is William but calls himself Matt, is a post-Bayesian who delights in skewering various statistical studies in what are puckishly called the social "sciences."  TOF, in his secret identity, exercises his way kool mind powers as Ye Olde Statistician when in puckish mood, but is merely a poor, simple-minded quality engineer.

Thus the blogging mojo concentrated in one spot nearly reached critical mass. Curiously, two guys who comment on Ed's blog were also present, and both were named Matt. What is the probability of that, you may ask. Don't ask, since there ain't such a thing absent a model.

As Faithful Reader can discern from the photograph above, both Matt and Ed have the height on TOF.  But, aha!, TOF has them beat on the other two dimensions.

The symposium was held in the Catholic Center at New York University hard by Washington Square and Greenwich Village. The Center is run by Dominicans. TOF is more accustomed to Franciscans in brown robes, so all those white robes made him nervous wondering where the torture chambers were hidden.  Or perhaps the albino assassins...?  But no, the albino assassins are run out of another Order.

Dr. Briggs has a more detailed review of the proceedings and interested readers are referred there, but a few observations follow.

The first speaker was James Brent, O.P. (Order of Preachers), from The Catholic University of America, who spoke on “The Principle of Non-Contradiction Yesterday, Today, and Forever.”  He was in favor of it, which was a relief. But it is astonishing how many Late Moderns buy into the ancient Greek and medieval muslim notion that humans are in general incapable of knowing Truth. This is only one of the many mice nibbling at the foundations of Western Civilization these days. Fr. Brent's talk was given in the form of a dialectic Question, a joy of clarity and logic.

The second speaker, Dr. Candace Vogler, made a case that notions of natural teleology have been creeping back into late modern discourse. Not the true quill, of course, and philosophers always have to give things a new name to prove they are not just repeating the ancients, but it has been coming up more and more in various guises. Of course, in the sciences one finds teleology constantly denied and constantly relied upon: attractor basins, equilibrium states, completion, adaptation, and so on. Dr. Vogler didn't mention such things, but they came irresistibly to the mind of TOF.

Dr. Ed Feser gave a marvelous presentation on what sounded like an all-purpose cosmological argument. The part where the divine attributes clicked into place one after the other was mathematically elegant.  Afterward, TOF went up and got Ed's autograph on two of his books that TOF just happened to have brought with him. (He also gave Matt and Ed autographed copies of The January Dancer.) 

Dr. John Haldane was the final speaker and addressed the question of philosophical realism per se, distinguishing several cases and raising the possibility that Thomas was not a realist in the pure sense. Then he looked up and said, Don't worry.  Derrida has not just slouched into the room.  

In between, TOF and the Incomparable Marge had lunch with the impeccably dressed Statistician to the Stars and his Number One son.  Three-piece suit, pocket square, fedora.  He lacked only a silver-headed walking stick and kid gloves. Sure and it was enough to make TOF wish he had dressed up, or at least brought his shillelagh. We repaired to a nearby pub which, ominously, was empty at lunch time. Fortunately, the food was good, and the place filled up as time went on. TOF ordered a Guinness, which started a stampede for the black gold.

After the symposium, TOF and the Marge went over to St. Joseph for mass. Good organ, real pipes as far as TOF could tell, and not a single Marty Haugen ditty to be heard. The cantor (a Dominican) was in good voice. 

After the mass we connected with Julio, a friend we have not seen in a while, and hunted up dinner at a place called McCoy at the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal streets.  Can't get more Village than that. Along the way there, the Marge saved TOF's life again, for he twisted his ankle on one of those curb cuts designed to aid wheelchairs and a staggering step allowed TOF to grab hold of the Marge and not fall to the pavement and perhaps damage the concrete.  

The place was also empty when we arrived, but the food turned out to be both outstanding and sufficient and again we were simply ahead of the curve. TOF had the yellow-fin tuna. Julio used to get us tickets to the opera, but he thinks the Met has gone downhill in the past few years. They have not run a Gilbert and Sullivan play in a while.

A long drive back to Rath UaFhloinn and enough time to rise early the next day and head to Cherry Hill for a brief appearance at Philcon. But that is a tale for another day.


  1. Wait! When were you there?

    I finished my panels at 1400 and we guys decamped whence to Delaware.

    Nary a Flynn did I see.


  2. Never before was there such a concentration of raw blogging power!

  3. Are you really Ye Olde Statistician? If so you have been somewhat disingenuous. Are you also Ye Olde Topologist?

    Wm (Scotian)

  4. Ah ha - so you're YOS! One less mystery to keep me up all night. And yes - the blogging power is daunting - but as I said on Wm Briggs' blog, I would have been even more gobsmacked if D B Hart were present . . . can't have everything.

  5. Maybe I just read too much TOF, but I'm surprised anyone is surprised that TOF is YOS, since it didn't seem such a very secret identity (although I suppose people say the same thing about Clark Kent, who nonetheless does well enough). I always thought it was probably just to cut down on potential search engine confusion (or potential trolls that one can never get rid of).

  6. Ye Olde Topologist sometimes emerges when the subject is topology. Once or twice I have been Ye Olde Curmudgeon when in a curmudgeonly mood. Just once though TOF would like to be Ye Young something or other.:-(

  7. This does not quite excuse you for referring to yourself as a different person since as YOS you said "Ken: I’m not sure of YOT’s point there, but, in France during Blaise Pascal’s life Roman Catholicism reigned supreme." on Briggs' website. I've enjoyed our debates but I can't help but be disillusioned. :-(

    1. Alas, that was Ken who wrote that, and YOS was merely replying to it.

    2. Yes, you are right, I misread it (at the time as well) but you are still not forgiven. Don't worry though, I don't hold grudges. :-) On a different note, in my youth I read a lot of science fiction but the only thing of yours appears to be Fallen Angels. In my senior years I have stopped reading fiction altogether. I wonder if this is a common trend.

  8. "[...] medieval muslim notion that humans are in general incapable of knowing Truth."

    Good sir,

    this is gross generalization. to be sure, a certain dominant school of theology did (and still does) hold that. but the majority of Muslim philosophers no doubt rejected that position.

    1. Hence, medieval muslim. There were few faylasuf, or philosophers; and they were regarded with suspicion by the theologians, the mutakalimun. The irony is that kalam was not accepted by the mujtihad, the traditional scholars if ijtihad. The ash'ari were deeply suspicious of human reason. The mu'tazilites were not; but the mu'tazilites were marginalized in the middle ages, like the Moists in China vis a vis the Confucian legists. Nowadays, of course, the House of Submission has had a long interaction with Western Christendom and has absorbed all sorts of lessons.

    2. Good sir,

      few? what are you going to tell me next? the old orientalist fiction that Ghazali dealt a death blow to philosophy in the Islamic world? good sir, i can suggest a couple of articles if you'd like that will (hopefully) rid you of this false belief (if you indeed hold it).

      kalam wasn't accepted by the mujtahid? it wasn't only by certain jurists of a certain legal school. ijtihad is the practice independent reasoning in legal matters, and many an Ash'arite (belonging to a different legal school) himself practiced it. the same is true for legal scholars belonging to different theological schools (e.g., Mu'tazilites or Maturidis, or Twelver-Shi'ism) and different legal schools. it's way too complicated than what you're saying.

    3. the old orientalist fiction that Ghazali dealt a death blow to philosophy in the Islamic world

      No one person can claim credit for closing the gates of ijtihād, but writing a book titled "The Destruction of Philosophy" is a possible clue. And as far as Science is concerned, denying that fire can burn cotton is a tolerably potent obstacle. It would be more correct to say that philosophy never really got a grip in the House of Submission. (It was always referred to as "Greek studies" or "foreign studies" and was never taught in the schools.) Ghazali was more a symptom than a cause.

      Al-Ghazali had at least respected the use of logic, demolishing philosophy with the tools of philosophy. But ibn Taymiyyah, rejected philosophy and logic as contaminating faith, and his student, al-Suyuti, renowned for his spirituality, eliminated the profession of mutakalimun and the discipline of kalam (theology). "Thus the gates of ijtihād were closed," writes writes Najah Kadhim, "creating a mentality throughout Muslim society which took every word of Holy Qur’an at face value."

      There is never just one thing. Ghazali also, almost single-handedly, transformed Islam from the religion of the elite colonizing imperialist ruling class to a genuinely popular religion of the masses. And then, too, we must take note of the Turkish and Mongol invasions with their concomitant destruction of the infrastructure (such as the irrigation canals in Mesopotamia), the dismantling of the old Arab Caliphate into warring states, the oppression of People of the Book, and a decidedly horse-nomad attitude toward natural philosophy.

      What btw is "orientalist fiction"?

    4. Good sir,

      "No one person can claim credit for closing the gates of ijtihād, but writing a book titled "The Destruction of Philosophy" is a possible clue."

      Ghazali's book had nothing to do with the closing of ijtihad, as it addressed a different set of issues, i.e., his book addressed philosophical and theological issues, ijtihad concerns legal issues. 'destruction of philosophy' is a terrible translation too; a better one is 'incoherence of the philosophers'. a still better one would be 'precipitance of the philosophers', as Ghazali's stated aim in that book was to show that the philosophers "jumped the gun", as they say, on many a topic, concluding to their views to hastily. he didn't even take issue with the discipline of philosophy per se (as is especially evident in his later lesser known but important works). in fact, he was criticized by his contemporaries for being way too influenced by the Islamic philosophers (which he was)). all this is pretty much well known in contemporary scholarship. getting back to ijtihad, even the whole notion of a closing of the gates of ijtihad controversial as it is again based on old oritietalist prejudices about things muslim (e.g., see W. Hallaq, "Was the Gate of Ijtihad Closed?", International Journal of Middle East Studies, 16, 1 (1984), 3-41, and the sources therein).

    5. "It would be more correct to say that philosophy never really got a grip in the House of Submission. (It was always referred to as "Greek studies" or "foreign studies" and was never taught in the schools.)"

      this couldn't be farther from the truth. i'm not even going to cite the plethora of evidence but only address the purported evidence you've presented for your claim. it wasn't always, and by everyone, referred as 'Greek studies' or 'foreign studies'. but only sometimes but certain people (unsurprisingly, by people hostile to it). besides that, it went by either the name of falsafa or, especially after Avicenna - *the* Philosopher in the Islamic tradition - it was referred to simply as 'hikmah', which means wisdom. this was the standard term for it.

      "Al-Ghazali had at least respected the use of logic, demolishing philosophy with the tools of philosophy."

      he more than just respected logic, and didn't demolish anything. he was in fact deeply influenced by all its branches (just off top of my head, see (1) Frank, R.M., 1992, Creation and the Cosmic System: Al-Ghazâlî & Avicenna, Heidelberg: C. Winter; (2) al-Akiti, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Falsafa: Al-Ghazâlî's Madnûn, Tahâfut, and Maqâsid" in Avicenna and His Legacy: A Golden Age of Science and Philosophy, Y.T. Langermann (ed.), Turnhout (Bel.): Brepols, pp. 51–100; (3) F. Griffel, Al-Ghazâlî's Philosophical Theology, New York: Oxford University Press; and (4) A. Treiger, Inspired Knowledge in Islamic Thought. Al-Ghazâlî's Theory of Mystical Cognition and its Avicennian Foundation, London and New York: Routledge). so much so was he influenced by (Avicenna's) philosophy that Ibn Taymiyyah famously said of him "he became sick with the Shifa." (the Shifa' or the Book of Healing/Cure is Avicenna's magnum opus).

      "But ibn Taymiyyah, rejected philosophy and logic as contaminating faith, and his student, al-Suyuti, renowned for his spirituality, eliminated the profession of mutakalimun and the discipline of kalam (theology)."

      even this is not true. Ibn Taymiyyah rejected aspects of philosophy but did so philosophically. as a result, he had his own philosophical views. in fact, he was criticized by his much more dogmatic contemporaries for exactly that. as for Suyuti, he didn't eliminate anything. many a theologian practiced kalam after him. who is the world is Najah Kadhim? evidently, a nobody.

      i'm not going to even address the rest. the first sentence is clearly wrong (more on this if you should ask for it). the rest is inconsequential to the topic.

      by the 'orientalist fiction' i meant the old view (but still persistent in some corners) in the West that philosophy in Islam died after Ibn Rushd (Averroes) thanks to Ghazali. nonsense i tell ya. in fact, it flourished even more, especially in the Eastern lands where, as one scholar put it, an "Avicennian pandemic" took place.

    6. Then we are stuck with the odd fact that natural science in the House of Submission never got off the ground, after a promising start among a number of Spanish and Persian philosophers enamored with Aristotle. Philosophy may indeed have gone merrily along after al-Ghazali; but the Question here is the fate of natural philosophy and the emergence of natural science. That occasionalism bit was significant, because the fire really does burn the cloth. And ibn Sinna also devised the "double truth" that something could be true in philosophy but false in theology, and vice versa.

      Najah Kadhim (PhD) is Executive Director of the International Forum for Islamic Dialogue (IFID) and a senior university lecturer, London (UK)

      So, "orientalist" is a term that translates roughly as "butt out"?