Thursday, July 9, 2020

Farewell, blogger

I've been happily blogging here for many years, until a month or two ago I discovered that blogger doesn't keep back-ups of draft posts, and I lost January - April of my "Wot I Read This Year 2020" draft post. Not cool, blogger, not cool.

So you can now find me at See you there!

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Bob Ross and the Art of Learning Online

My 8yo and I both enjoy painting. She's a very enthusiastic artist, in all media, but is sometimes hampered by being eight. My painting experience is limited to medieval illumination, and has been very hard fought for over the last 12 years or so. (In particular, I'm utterly baffled by anything involving realism. And anything involving watercolors. Baffling, I tell you.)

A few weeks ago, we started watching Bob Ross on Netflix. After about 5 episodes, we were like "I bet we could do that!" -- despite the fact that (a) neither of us have any experience painting with oil paints, (b) we don't have any oil paints, (c) we don't have any canvases, and (d) we have almost none of the right brushes. But why let small hindrances like that stop us? I have a decent selection of gouaches, some high-quality watercolor paper that I was smart enough to purchase before lockdown started, and a decent selection of brushes for small-scale paintings. So we sat down one weekend to see what happens if you follow a Bob Ross episode and try to reconstruct it with entirely wrong materials and tools:

The results were quite literally miraculous. I have never painting anything (a) so large (6x9") or (b) so realistic in my life. G, for her part, was amazed that if she tried to do the same things Ross was doing on TV, she got basically the same results.

The best part was, each painting only took half an hour. So this was something that I was willing to not only do with G on weekends as a special treat, but it was something we could plausibly fit in between supper and bedtime.

We took the techniques we'd learned and applied them to fall scenes:

We tried out winter, too:

All the while we worked, I'd hear G repeating back to me things she'd learned: Thin paint sticks to wet paint; things get darker as you come forward, away from the light source; there's no such thing as a mistake, only a happy accident; every happy little tree needs a friend. In like 2.5 hours of watching TV, she and I had learned more about the mechanics of painting than I'd learned in 12 years of self-teaching and a variety of classes. We've continued to watch (so soothing!) and we've continued to experiment.

As should come as no surprise to anyone in academia, I'm facing the likelihood of having to teach remotely come fall -- and teach what is in many respects a highly visual subject (formal/symbolic logic). Teaching online/remotely isn't something I have any experience with -- my being dumped into the deep edge for the final week of term in March does not count as experience! -- and teaching logic presents unique complications that do not necessarily affect my colleagues in my department.

Which is the other reason why I found Bob Ross's shows so fascinating: How successful he was at teaching someone such a visual -- and physical -- exercise remotely in the way he did. It seems like this is something that should be enormously difficult. And yet, he did it effortlessly, and effectively. So what have I learned about the art of teaching/learning remotely/online from watching Bob Ross?

You don't need bells and whistles. The shows are Ross, his canvas, his palate (already prepped with paints) and his brushes, brush stand, and cleaner. The background is dull black. There is no background music. It's just him, doing his thing. Super effective.

Break the fourth wall. He's not teaching into a vacuum, he's teaching to a very real, very concrete (albeit not present) audience. When he asks his audience to send him photos of their attempts, he means it.

Care about your students. It is obvious that Ross does; when he says "so glad you could join us today," he means it. When he hopes that we're happy with what we're doing, he means it. That real audience that he's clearly talking to is an audience whose happiness and wellbeing he cares about, and his shows are opened and closed with an explicit statement of that care.

Slip-ups are part of the game. The shows were taped in one go, with no editing. Sometimes he misspeaks. He corrects himself and moves on. Sometimes he misspaints. He teaches the audience how to correct and move on.

Mistakes don't exist. Or rather, things can happen that you didn't want to happen or didn't plan on happening, but none of them are ever significant enough to ruin things. He spent a lot of time talking about how to deal with these hiccoughs, so that there are no mistakes, only happy accidents.

Repetition works. Any individual show didn't have much repetition, either in techniques, composition, or verbal phrases, but by the time you've watched *cough* 20+ episodes in two weeks *cough* they start feeling like little puzzles, built from the same basic pieces but combined in different ways. This is particularly noticeable in the way that he says the same things over and over again; this really does help reinforce the more global techniques that he's trying to impart.

30 minutes is a good length if you are actively working alongside; if you're not either painting along, or paying very close attention, it's easy to zone out long enough to miss something crucial.

Is oil painting like doing logic? In many ways, not. The glory of his approach to painting is that so long as you're happy with the result, it's a success. That isn't the case with formal proofs. Another feature of his approach is that he's always encouraging people to work out their own idea of a scene, not slavishly copy his; what is true in his world may not be true in my world. That is another thing that isn't true of formal logic -- you don't get to decide what is right and what is wrong. But logic does benefit from lots of repetitions of the same techniques in different combinations; it benefits from starting in one direction and having it go wrong and needing to go another direction to recover. It benefits from having someone who cares about their subject, and their audience. It benefits from having someone convinced that just giving it a go will make you happier.

So there's a lot I've taken away from watching his shows that I intend to incorporate into logic videos that I'll be doing for fall.

If you had told me 10 years ago, I could paint a painting like this (inspired by a photograph the father of a friend took), I would have laughed at you. If you had told me 2 weeks ago, I could paint a painting like this, I would have laughed at you. If I tell you that you, too, can become a logician, and you want to laugh at me -- well, maybe you can follow along with my class remotely in fall.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Short story birthday! "Candace Swallowed the Sea"

Back in January, I wrote an ocean-themed drabble for an ocean-themed drabble collection put out by Black Hare Press. It was a strange story, in that it basically all came out in one go and was weirdly surreal in a way that I don't normally write (I want my fantasy to MAKE SENSE and have an INTERNAL LOGIC and have a COMPLETELY BUILT WORLD!). I was a bit disappointed when the story was rejected, because I quite liked it, and also, when you've written a 100-word story on a specific theme and it isn't successful, it's not entirely clear what else you'll ever be able to do with it. (But I wasn't so disappointed when they accepted the next three stories I submitted -- more about that later this month!)

Then, about two weeks ago, I saw this drabble contest hosted by Maura Yzmore. She was looking for 100 word short stories, not necessarily related to the pandemic. Hey, guess what! I had a 100 word story at loose ends! So I sent it off.

Three days ago, I was immensely pleased to be notified that "Candace Swallowed the Sea" received an "honorable mention" (and $10, making this story the highest-rate-paid piece I've ever sold :) ) in the realism/surrealism category. You can read the story here online or download all the stories in a single collection (PDF, EPUB, MOBI.)

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Things I said I'd never do

I was homeschooled from kindergarten until 12th grade. So was my sister (the elder by 3 years). In the US in the 80s and 90s, this was only moderately unusual; in the Netherlands, people used to find my story marvelous and strange.

It started out with my parents (both college-educated, but neither in education/teaching) decided they could give me sister a better education at home than the public school could. The plan had always been to educate us at home in primary school, and then as we got older give the choice to us, to be homeschooled or go to public school. I'd always thought, when I was young, that I'd be homeschooled all the way up to high school and then go to actual high school, so that I could experience the social side of things. By the time 9th grade came around, my answer was "oh, hell, no", because (a) I didn't really like people, (b) home-schooling took a lot less time, and (c) being available during school hours meant my sister and I were highly sought after babysitters; in the mid 90s, I was making between $6-$10/hour babysitting.

Whenever I talked about being homeschooled, it was with nothing but positivity. I had the freedom to study what I wanted (in 9th grade, I discovered the Society for Creative Anachronism; my mom then assigned the Middle Ages for my history topic, and I had to develop my persona, research, design, and make clothing and food, and learn the history of my chosen period), I had the free time to do non-school things (cf. babysitting above; that's how I could afford my first year at university), and the self-teaching/self-organising skills it taught me were invaluable particularly during my PhD. But whenever anyone asked if I was planning to homeschool my own children, the answer was always "oh, hell, no". Because long before I ever had a kid, I knew that the optimal age of students for me to teach was 18+. I couldn't fathom trying to teach a child to read; my experience tutoring middle schoolers left me with a huge appreciation for people who could help those children navigate life and teach them something. Also, there was no way that I would give up my working life in order to properly homeschool a young child.

And yet, here we are...

As it happened, G was due to start Easter break the week the UK government shut down schools. So we're still in holiday mode and don't have to really think about schooling. Her teachers have already set up some online sites for remote teaching come April, and sent home a few workbooks. But in the meantime, I'm still trying to work and G does better with having activities, so here is what homeschooling looks like in the Uckelhaus:

  • English: She needs to spend some time reading every day. I'm hoping to direct her towards some slightly more sophisticated books than what she has been reading, but I'm also fine with her just reading something every day. Next month, I'm doing a prompt-a-day poetry course, and I'm going to encourage her to write with me, so that covers writing.
  • Science: A week or so ago, I opened up a notebook from my childhood, and discovered systematic notes I took 30 years -- almost exactly the same age G is now -- on observations made about the attraction of different insects to different types of baits. Monday we set up a bait jar in the backyard, and she built a bug hotel, and she's doing daily observations, in the same notebook.
  • Mathematics: Tracking distances via PokemonGo when we go out for our daily walk, measuring and calculating with measures for cooking, and plenty of discussions on various topics over dinner (the other day, I taught her the sieve of Eratosthenes). She has also been writing up word problems for her stuffed toys, and has access to Times Tables Rockstars.
  • History: If things continue, I'll add in some nonfiction/history books to her reading repertoire, but honestly, I'm fine if this slides a bit.
  • Music: After about a year and a half, we finally purchased a stand and a stool for her keyboard, and set things up. She has (voluntarily!) spent time playing each day, practising pieces she'd been set by her teacher and composing new songs.
  • Languages: She's been doing German on duolingo for quite some time, and a friend has offered to skype with her and talk French, which we'll start doing after the break is over. Also, the FrogPlay account school set up for her has quizzes tests in German, even though that's not a language they teach at school, so she's enjoyed trying a few of those!
  • Art: Every day she's spent some time drawing freehand or following a how-to-draw video, and yesterday we painted together. There's also plenty of sewing to be done.

This is more than sufficient education for an 8yo for the rest of the academic year. So, I guess I'm homeschooling!

Monday, March 16, 2020

Dear students: We're all anxious and uncertain too

Dear students,

With only a few days' notice, all your in-person classes were cancelled, with promises of online content delivery instead. Your last week of term is in upheaval. All your plans, gone. And you have no idea what's going to happen, not this week, not during the break, not next term. Everything is uncertain, everything is anxiety-making.

Dear students, we're all anxious and uncertain, too. Many of us have never done online teaching before -- we don't know the software, we don't have the hardware, we never imagined we'd be doing this without months of preparation -- and those of us who were on strike last week have either had no time to think/prepare or had to break our strike to do so.

We're sitting in our offices today doing our best, trying our hardest to ensure your education is not disrupted more than it has to, learning new software, sourcing new hardware. We're constantly emailing colleagues, taking advantage of the offers of those who have done online teaching before to help us through Blackboard Collaborative Ultra, or Panopto, or even just simple things like "use a headset if you're able to" (one colleague even offered to come in and video my whiteboard if I need her to), we're chatting in WhatsApp groups designed to share best practices and provide moral support, we're passing tips on in googledocs and Facebook groups and Twitter.

I don't know how to teach logic without access to a whiteboard. I'm lucky enough that I (a) have a whiteboard in my office and (b) am (for the time being) still allowed into my office to access it. (If (b) changes before I can do my videos, I'll take my whiteboard home with me.) Over the weekend, I googled "how to take videos on linux", because so many of the options that are offered are for Windows computers only. I've found a programme that I'll test out this afternoon, figuring out where I can perch my laptop so that it's got a full view of the board but is still close enough to me that I don't accidentally topple it by being connected to it with a headset! If I can't do my videos in my office, I'm already mentally planning where there's space to set up at home...and how to keep random cat-butts out of the video. Whatever I end up with, it won't be pretty. It won't be flashy. It will not be optimal. But it will be as close to sitting in class with me as I can get, because I owe you that.

And then there's exams. We don't know what's going to happen with exams, any more than you do. Will we be given a chance to revise the exam questions, set way back in January? Is it possible to change the modes of assessment for a module -- to drop an exam or make it a take-home one instead of a timed one? If this were any country other than the UK, doing either of these would be easy -- of all the countries that I've worked in higher education in, only the UK is so bureaucratic about its exams and assessments. The lack of flexibility is stifling. I want to be able to examine my students on the material they have been taught, in a format that will best allow them to demonstrate to me what they have learned in my classes. Between the strikes and now Covid-19, I don't see how that is going to happen. No wonder I'm anxious.

The situation is so fast-changing, there's no way to say now what things will be like at the end of this week, much less at the start of next term. Which research deadlines will be postponed, and which ones won't be? When will schools and holiday camps and clubs be closed, and I have to start juggling all of this along with taking care of my child? How can I do my best by her in this difficult and uncertain time? How can I do my best by my students? I want to be able to give you all reassurances, but I can't. I can't say everything will be all right or that we'll figure it out or that in the long run it'll all work out.

Dear students, I wish we had more answers for you. I wish you weren't in this situation, especially those of you in your final year, who've had far more disruption to your education than any other cohort in at least a generation. We're doing our best, and will continue to do so. I know you're anxious and uncertain; we are too. We're all in this together.

Take care, and wash your hands!,
Doctor Logic

Dr. Sara L. Uckelman
Assistant professor of logic and philosophy of language
Durham University

Saturday, March 7, 2020

The most pernicious fallacy

UK Higher Ed loves metrics. REF. TEF. KEF. QS rankings. (I've written before about other types of rankings we might consider...)

Of course, there is no easy way to collate and evaluate the data necessary to make these different type of ranking systems robust. The QS rankings are made by surveying academics about their perceptions of other departments. I received a request to participate in this manner a few years ago, took a look at the survey, realised how entirely inadequate my knowledge was to allow me to give informed responses, and promptly decided to never contribute to these surveys ever again. Plenty has been said about how graduate earnings and employability are no indication of the teaching quality of the course the person graduated from, and neither is student satisfaction, and yet these are all factors that are taken into account in the TEF. I don't know enough about KEF to say anything about the methods it uses, but I'm sure they're just as problematic.

But in this post, I want to talk about REF and the proxies it uses.

The point of REF is to grade the research outputs of individual departments as a means of determining how to allocate money to departments, rewarding ones that are good and punishing ones that are bad. In an ideal world, the research produced would be read carefully and evaluated by panels of experts who have sufficient time and expertise to do this, and are commensurately recompensed for it. We all know that we're not in an ideal world, and that this doesn't happen: There are insufficient experts on the panels and they are given insufficient time to be able to read and evaluate all the work they're given in a careful and calm manner. This isn't something unique to REF and REF panels too -- it's the case any time research has to be evaluated, e.g., by promotions and progression committees, or on grant evaluation panels, or on hiring panels.

As a result, proxies have to be developed. Even though people are not supposed to take publication venue into account when determining the research quality of a piece, the fact remains that venue matters. After all, Philosophical Quarterly is a highly prestigious journal, accepting only a very small percentage of submissions it receives -- so if a paper has managed to jump that high bar, it must be a good paper, right?

But the fact is, the prestige of a journal is a supervening property, not something endemic to a journal. A journal receives its high prestige from the quality of the papers it publishes. That this is the case can be clearly demonstrated: If a currently high-prestige journal started publishing rubbish, then the consequence of this would be that the prestige level of the journal would decrease, rather than the quality of the papers increase (to match the quality/prestige of the journal).

And yet, because the prestige of the publication venue is all too often taken as a proxy for the quality of what is published in that venue, too often people become susceptible to what I have entitled in this post the most pernicious fallacy: The way to demonstrate the quality of your research is not by writing high-quality papers, but to publish them in prestigious journals. Because if your paper was in a prestigious journal, it must be a good paper, right? We have gone from journals deriving their prestige from the quality of the papers in them, to papers deriving their quality from the prestige of the journal that published them.

Why is this problematic? Because it treats publication as an end in itself rather than a means to an end, that end being the dissemination of research. When I am doing research myself, in preparation for writing an article, where do I go to find relevant papers? Not to the high-prestige journals, in general; no, I go to the journals that specialise in the area that I am working in, because these are the papers that are going to be relevant to what I want to do. Similarly, when I publish, I want to publish in venues that tend to publish other papers on the same sort of topics -- because this increases the chances that the people I would like to have read my paper will actually do so.

As a result of this, I have tended to publish papers in specialist journals in my field -- journals which, quite rightly, have a high prestige in their respective fields because of the quality of the specialist papers they publish, places like the Journal of Philosophical Logic for logic and Vivarium for medieval philosophy. But because these are specialist journals, rather than generalist journals, if these venues are taken as proxy for the quality of my papers that I've published in them, they get ranked lower than the generalist journals -- because if my paper were truly high-quality research, then of course a generalist journal would want to publish it. Now, that may be true: Maybe Philosophy and Mind and Philosophical Quarterly and the like are equally likely to publish philosophical logic or medieval philosophy as another subarea of philosophy (I have my doubts about this, but I'm happy to suppose that it's true for the purposes of example here). But is it equally likely that people interested in philosophical logic or medieval philosophy will go first to those journals to find the new, relevant research for their own projects? No.

And that's what I meant about publication becoming an end in itself rather than a means to an end. If the publication venue prestige determines the quality of the paper, for the purposes of rankings/evaluations such as REF, promotion, grant applications, job applications, etc., then getting a paper published in, e.g., Mind is an end in itself, even if the paper then dies a lonely, unread death because no one would ever think to look there to find a paper on that topic. If it is the journal that endows high quality upon the papers it publishes, rather than the papers published in a journal endowing high quality upon that journal, then whether anyone reads or uses the research becomes irrelevant: the actual research, and its actual quality, becomes irrelevant.

When we tell junior colleagues, ones applying for jobs, or applying for promotions, or trying to put together a good REF package, that they should be submitting their work to the high prestige journals, because those are the ones that will "count", then we are falling prey to this pernicious fallacy. We should never forget that the quality of a research paper lies in the paper itself, not in the venue that publishes it.

Friday, February 21, 2020

New publication announcement!

My short story, "What Lies Beneath the Waves", was published yesterday in With Painted Words, an online magazine with an unusual modus operandi: "every month a new image is chosen as a prompt and, for that month, all submissions must have used it as their inspiration – no matter how slight, vague or metaphorical it is there must be some form of link between the image and the work." The prompt for January 2020 was a couple of brightly covered starfish beneath rippling waves. During January, I took part in Wendy Pratt's daily poetry prompt course, on the theme of Beginnings and Endings. Despite being a poetry course, short flash fic was also encouraged, and the prompt one day was to write a story about a childhood game gone wrong. This story is not the sort I usually write, but I enjoyed the double challenge – to write a story inspired by the image and to write to a specific topic/brief.

The best part about the starfish image is that it also inspired my daughter – I explained to her what I was doing, and she too wanted to write a story inspired by that picture. It turned into a joint effort, and we have Big Plans afoot for it. Watch this space!

I'm definitely going to be writing more for WPW.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Resolution Read, Week 8: Are Aliens Incompatible with Christian Salvation?

So last week I read up on whether Aquinas would baptise aliens. Following in that theme, this week I'm reading:

Christian Weidemann, "Christian Soteriology and Extraterrestrial Intelligence", Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 67, nos. 11/2 (2014): 418-425.

Per the abstract, this article is going to argue that the classical Christian doctrine of salvation is incompatible with the belief in non-human, extraterrestrial intelligence. This is a stronger claim than Lazzari's that we considered last week, which was simply that because Christ's incarnation as a human is a specifically human thing, if aliens do not share our human essence/nature, then human baptism would do nothing for them, leaving open the possibility that there are other ways that non-human intelligent beings could be saved. I'm curious to see why Weidemann thinks that the possibility of human salvation by itself is enough to exclude the existence of non-human extra-terrestrial intelligences. (In particular, I'm interested to see how he excludes aliens but not angels.)

Weidemann quotes Thomas Paine, "to believe that God created a plurality of [inhabited] worlds...renders the Christian system of faith at once little and ridiculous" (p. 418), and now I want to write a paper called "On the Plurality of Inhabited Worlds". I wonder if Paine is where Lewis got his title from? Anyway, Paine argues that there are other inhabited worlds, and hence Christianity is "ridiculous". I wonder if Weidemann is going to modus tollen's Paine's argument, and go from the non-ridiculousness of Christianity to our sole existence in the universe. We'll see. First, let's look at Paine's argument.

Paine's argument is the following dilemma: If there are multiple inhabited worlds in the universe, then either God was incarnated on in one, or he was incarnated in all of them. (The case in which he is incarnated into some, but not all, ends up being functionally equivalent to the first one). In the first case, Paine argues that it would be "a strange conceit" to think that out of all the inhabited worlds out there, either ours was the only one that had a fall event or, if multiple ones did, ours is the only one where Christ became incarnate. What makes us so special? In the second case, assuming that multiple worlds had fall events, then Christ would "have nothing to do than travel from world to world in an endless succession of deaths with scarcely a momentary interval of life" (p. 418). Both of these options, Paine believes, gives rise to absurdity.

But this overlooks a genuine third alternative, which we saw in my previous post -- there is more than one way that God could choose to save a fallen alien species. Maybe some get incarnations. Maybe some are gifted grace. Maybe others get something so far beyond our ken we cannot even articulate it. Now, this may itself raise the question of "why does he choose to do it one way here and another way there?" and answering that question may yet also lead us to absurdity, but it is important to point out that Paine reaches his conclusion too quickly.

In pursuit of his conclusion, Weidemann next turns to the orthodoxy expressed at the council of Chalcedon, namely, that Christ is both "truly God and truly man". He says he will argue that people who take this doctrine seriously should be concerned that the existence of non-human aliens "would undercut (their) religious beliefs" (p. 418). This...worries me. First, I hope he's not about to say that being truly God and truly man excludes Christ from being, e.g., truly Martian too. (It would be hard to see how omnipotence would not allow for Christ to have a plurality of natures.) Second, I hope he's not about to say that the Chalcedonian orthodoxy, because it is "still binding for the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and for more traditional forms of Protestantism" (p. 418) is thereby true.

I was right when I hypothesized above that Weidemann would modus tollens's Paine's modus ponens. In the first stage of his argument, he gives "a ten step argument for the claim that God's salvation extends to extraterrestrial intelligent beings" (p. 419). I won't quote the argument here, but merely comment on the various steps.

The first step that I find interesting is his invoking of the Principle of Mediocrity (a principle which finds a warm, welcoming spot in my heart): If there are many intelligent species in the universe, humans most likely to not occupy any special position w.r.t. moral goodness, intelligence, technology, etc. Therefore, if we fell, it's highly probable that it wasn't because we're special in any particular way (e.g., highly susceptible to sin), but because all intelligent species are liable to sin. The rest of the steps all seem pretty reasonable to me, though the connection between many of them is one of probability rather than necessity. Still, given what I've said in my previous post, I'm happy with the idea that there are multitudinous extraterrestrial beings God wants to -- and hence does -- save. I am pleased to see that Weidemann explicitly admits the possibility that different types of reconciliations exist for different types of intelligent beings (p. 419); so far, so good.

The next step of the argument is to show that if we accept the first part, namely that God does save myriad other intelligent beings, "adopting a Christian soteriology will lead to one of three equally unacceptable consequences" (p. 420):

  1. Extraterrestrials sinners are reconciled by the incarnation on Earth.
  2. Extraterrestrials are reconciled by incarnation elsewhere.
  3. Extraterrestrials are reconciled by some other means.

I think Lazzari has successfully dispensed with possibility (1), if we adopt a Thomistic metaphysics. Thus, I'll be concentrating on why Weidemann thinks (2) and (3) are "unacceptable".

Why can't extraterrestrials be saved through their own personal incarnation? Weidemann appeals to the uniqueness of Christ's death: "We know, however, that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him" (Romans 6:9). Well, this isn't quite uniqueness, but rather finality -- all we can take from the Romans verse is that once Christ has died on earth, he will not die again. But let's ignore the possibility that he had numerous other deaths that happened previously, and did not result in him having dominion over death. Suppose that he's right, that once Christ has died once, he cannot die again, and hence any other incarnation event is excluded. The problem is that if we accept this, we must accept that there is some special or unique status that humans have such that when Christ is incarnated as a human, this gives him the power of dominion over death. If we accept this, we must reject the Principle of Mediocrity: For then humanity/human nature is not mediocre at all, but extremely distinctive!

I'd also like to suggest a possibility that Weidemann doesn't appear to have considered: Given that God is omnitemporal, why couldn't Christ have been raised from the dead simultaneously in all incarnations, and that it is this manifold incarnation, death, and resurrection that gives him the ultimate power over death, such that he will never die any more? So I think (2) is still a live option, though Weidemann feels he's adequately discarded it. That leaves him with (3).

Why can't extraterrestrials be saved through some means other than incarnation? For this, Weidemann appeals to God's Act of Solidarity, namely, that "God's incarnating, suffering, and dying is the greatest possible (perhaps the only possible) act of solidarity with his creation" (p. 420). The only justification for this claim is that it is "essentially for the traditional Christian believer" and "abandoning [it] means abandoning traditional Christianity" (p. 420). This is not true. Let me raise again the possibility that all the incarnations, deaths, and resurrections happened simultaneously. Would not this, as opposed to a single incarnative act that excludes the vast majority of intelligent life in the universe, be the greatest possible act of solidarity? An act that is truly in solidarity with all creation, and not just created humans? I do not know of anything in Christian theology that requires that God's Act of Solidarity be in solidarity with humanity only, and assuming that it is begs the question not only against the Principle of Mediocrity (by giving humanity a special status amongst all of creation) but against the possibility at hand, that extra terrestrial intelligences can be saved as well.

In the next section, Weidemann turns to consider objections to the various steps in the argument, and I look forward to seeing whether he touches upon the points I've raised above. At first, I thought he did, as he brought up the Principle of Mediocrity. However, he in fact uses the PM, rather than rejecting it, in his dismissal of option (1), which we were happy to assent to. Furthermore, he says:

Correspondingly, is there any analogous evidence trumping PM that Earth plays a special role in God's plan for cosmic salvation?...I do not think so (p. 421).

Therefore, rejecting PM in order to deal with the objections I raise above will not be an option for Weidemann.

Concerning option (2), the first objection that Weidemann considers -- that Paul in writing Romans, and other Biblical authors who express similar sentiments, took it for granted that they were writing to a human audience, and therefore didn't, but could have, restrict their statement to "he will not die again on earth" -- is not my objection. However, Weidemann does appear to address my objection when he says, again with appeal to the Confession of Chalcedon, that "simultaneous incarnations are metaphysically impossible" (p. 421). His argument for this? Why, simply that "since the relation of identity is transitive...Jesus of Nazareth is personally identical with his counterparts at Alpha Centauri, Kronos, and numerous other places" (p. 421). The problem with this argument is that -- as is well known -- identity does not work in God the same way it does in created things, not unless you want to end up in paralogism. In fact, as an anonymous medieval author that I discussed in in my dissertation points out, when we distinguish personal and essential identity from formal identity, it is quite clear that personal identity is reflexive and symmetric, but is not transitive. God the Father is personally identical with God, and God the Son is personally identical with God, but it does not follow that God the Father is personally identical with God the Son. Therefore, we are under no obligation to accept that Jesus of Nazarath is personally identical with his counterparts in other worlds, even if all of these incarnate person are personally identical with God.

Next, Weidemann objects, against simultaneous incarnation, that no one thing can be both wholly human and wholly Klingon at the same time -- it is metaphysically impossible. But since it is also metaphysically for one thing to be both wholly human and wholly divine at the same time (which is precisely what the Chalcedonian doctrine says is true), I hardly think this is a strong objection.

Thus, we can maintain that we can straightforwardly accept that once Christ died and was resurrected, he would never die again -- he just died infinitely many times simultaneously.

Let us now finally consider Weidemann's objections to the idea that there are other means of extraterrestrial salvation, and whether he addresses my suggestion that the greatest act of solidarity would involve all creation, not humanity alone, especially in the presence of the Principle of Mediocrity. Interestingly, Weidemann suggests, by appeal to PM that if every intelligent species had its own method of salvation, well, then one of them had to have been incarnated, so why not ours? There's nothing special -- or not special -- about us that would make it less likely for us to be incarnated as opposed to any other species. As he says: "Some way of salvation God had to choose. The actual outcome is nothing to be stunned about" (p. 423). But perhaps we should be stunned at the diversity of options, when there is a perfectly plausible (as argued above) singular option, whereby every species is reconciled via incarnation. As it turns out, Weidemann thinks we have other reasons to be stunned by the fact of the human incarnation "against other means of redemption" (p. 423), because (he believes) it is unique, "one of the most remarkable events in the history of the cosmos" (p. 423). Given that it did happen, we can be surprised that it happened to us rather than to any of the other possible species.

But this assumes, contra what we've argued above, that the greatest act of solidarity with creation is the reconciliation of humanity. And if we reject that, then we do not have to reject either the rest of Christian theology, or the belief in the pervasiveness of extra-terrestrials. Win!

Friday, February 14, 2020

Resolution Read, Week 7: Would Aquinas Baptise Aliens?

This week's Resolution Read is a bit of a cheat. It's a paper that's been sitting on my desktop for ages because it has a great title, but which was so far removed from anything I do that I knew I'd never get a Round Tuit. Which actually makes it the perfect paper for a Resolution Read, since the whole point of the not-a-resolution was to give me as many Tuits in whichever shape is most pleasing that I need to read papers like this. So why did I pick this paper this week, and why is it a bit of a cheat? Because I was recently shared a call for papers on Theological Explorations in Time and Space, and it occurred to me that if I read something about aliens, I might have something to say on the topic. So...maybe this will end up being research related? Who knows! That's the whole point of reading these things!

The paper in question is:

Edmund Michael Lazzari, "Would St. Thomas Aquinas Baptize an Extraterrestrial?" New Blackfriars 99, no. 1082 (2018): 440-457, DOI:10.1111/nbfr.12319.

Point The First I want to make: The idea of there being intelligent extraterrestrials is probably less unrealistic for Aquinas than it is for (some) modern people -- this is because Aquinas's ontology includes angels, which by definition are non-terrestrial intelligences who live in the heavens (at least, some of them do). Once you've got both humans and angels in your ontology, expanding it to include the possibility extra-terrestrial beings (like angels) who are rational (like humans) should be a no brainer.

Lazzari poses the initial question he considers thusly: "the question of fallen extraterrestrials who do not share the human nature assumed by Christ is an interesting and important one for contemporary theologians" (p. 440). Point The Second that I would like to make: Even if we're happy admitting extraterrestrials into our ontology, why would we think that they have to be fallen? For there are two options: One, Adam and Eve's transgression is not species-specific, but infects beyond the bounds of humanity. Two, Adam and Eve's transgression is species-specific, so the only way there could be fallen aliens is if they experienced their own fall. If the former option is the case, one might ask why their sin spreads to extraterrestrials but not to, say, animals. If the latter option is the case, then what is to prevent Christ from assuming their nature and providing them with the same act of salvation?

Anyway, onto the actual paper. In the first section, Lazzari establishes that, on Thomist metaphysics, if "intelligent extraterrestrial life forms" have "radically different matter than human beings", then they do not have human natures, because human nature is hylomorphic, and if you change the matter you no longer have the same nature, but that if they are in fact intelligent (able to receive intelligible universals), then this "is a guarantee of an immortal soul" (p. 445). So much for metaphysics.

In section two, Lazzari moves on to theology. Because theology, unlike metaphysics, relies so much on revelation, any theological conclusions we draw about aliens will be necessarily speculative (absent any divine revelation that specifically addresses aliens!) And here Lazzari addresses my concerns about fallen aliens, by pointing out two important things: First, if the aliens weren't fallen, it wouldn't make sense to talk about their soteriology, so there'd be no point in writing this paper. Second, if the aliens have fallen, there's no reason why they shouldn't have their own fall event (so, the two options I outlined above in fact should be three). Indeed, Lazzari argues that according to Aquinas, it is not possible that the fallen of humanity could have caused the aliens to fall too:

Any fall of extraterrestrial life could not be caused by human beings in the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. While other theologians in the Christian tradition have a strong belief in the fall of human beings introducing disharmony into the cosmos, St. Thomas holds that the natures of other animals were not changed by the fall...Therefore, it is not the case that the fall of extraterrestrial life can be included under the same fault as the fall of humanity (p. 447).

So, if the aliens had their own fall event, Lazzari says this could've happened in two ways: It could be that Alien Adam and Alien Eve fell just as Human Adam and Human Eve did. Or, it could be that Alien Adam and Alien Eve metaphorically eschewed the apple, and it was one of their descendants that fell. In this latter case, "it would be possible for some of the species to be in need of salvation and some to still have that right relationship with God" (p. 448).

From this conclusion, Lazzari moves on to Section III, in which he argues that since humanity's fall cannot have caused the alien's fall, humanity's salvation cannot be the alien's salvation. This is because the redemptive act for humanity involved Jesus taking on human nature, not alien nature. However, while "it was fitting that the Incarnation occur because human nature was in need of salvation and it is by the Incarnation that humanity is could have happened another way" (pp. 448-449). This leaves open the possibility that some other redemptive act -- whether Incarnation or not -- is available to redeem the aliens.

Given this, I find it strange that Lazzari's conclusion in this section is that "Since baptism is the remedy of original sin for human beings, it seems as though one must have a human nature to undergo baptism" (p. 451). It is not clear why baptism couldn't be a part of the remedy of original sin in other beings as well. While it is true that if one is a human being, then one must be baptised in order to be saved, it doesn't follow that if one is baptised (in order to be saved), one must be a human being.

Lazzari opens section 4 with:

The sacrificial life of Jesus Christ redeemed those who have a human nature and are incorporated into His sacrifice by baptism. Because of the crucial role that assumption of a human nature plays in Chalcedonian and Thomistic soteriology, it is not possible to simply transfer the effects of the life of Jesus Christ to other intelligent beings who are not sharers in human nature" (p. 451).

The question I immediately have is: Why must Jesus have only one sacrificial life? What is to prevent him from becoming Incarnate as human, to save humanity, and then later (or earlier!) becoming Incarnate as alien, to same alienity? We don't need to be able to transfer "the effects of the life of Jesus Christ" to other natures, if there is nothing to prevent him from having had another life, with another nature. And since he is, you know, God, and omnipotent, and there doesn't seem to be anything self-contradictory in his being incarnated more than once, I don't see why this isn't an option for Lazzari (and for Jesus).

Well, Lazzari considers this in his survey of options offered by other authors: "The second is that there would be an Incarnation for every intelligent species which fell from grace" (p. 451). Lazzari's rejection of this position appears to be on the basis that it is one that is held by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who also argued for the "(heretical concept of) the inevitable and universal domain of sin" (p. 453). But I don't see that there being an Incarnation for every species that fell from grace entails that every species fell or will fall from grace -- so just because Teilhard de Chardin maintains one heretical view it doesn't follow that all his views are heretical. It appears that the other objection one would have to the one-incarnation-per-distinct-fall response is that (quoting Teilhard), it would "still [be] the same sacrifice, at all times and in all places" (p. 453) -- i.e., that Jesus's sacrifice as a man would be essentially the same as his sacrifice as an alien. But that presupposes that the essential distinction of human nature from alien nature is not enough to differentiate the sacrifices -- for indeed, the human sacrifice saves humanity, while the alien sacrifice saves alienity. How on earth can these then be "the same sacrifice", if they involve distinct natures and have distinct consequences?

As far as I can tell, Lazzari doesn't give us a reason to reject the one-incarnation-per-distinct-fall position, he merely argues that such a position is not necessary ("for there is nothing preventing God from simply forgiving without satisfaction" p. 456), and further calls it "highly unfitting" because "the Incarnation is such an important and pivotal event in the universe that it would not be fitting for such an event to be repeated" (p. 455). (Why can't one argue the contrary: It is such an important enough, it should be maximally repeated, to infinity!?)

But these concerns are to some extent beside the point. The question was, would Aquinas baptise aliens? It appears that in the absence of evidence that aliens shared in our human nature or that Jesus was also incarnated with an alien nature, the answer is "No, he wouldn't." Baptism is specifically tied to the rehabilitation of fallen human natures via a redemptive act that involved Jesus taking on such a human nature. Without the relevant redemptive act or participation in the relevant nature, baptism would be irrelevant for an alien.

A final comment on the paper: It was very weird to read a paper in New Franciscan that discusses Aquinas and doesn't have a single quote in Latin. (References are given to Latin texts, but no actual quotes.)

Edited to add: When I said "New Franciscan" I mean "New Blackfriars". I can never remember what color which order wears...

Friday, February 7, 2020

Resolution Read, Week 6: Early Modern Women Philosophers

Whoever would've thought it'd be so hard to read one item of my own choice (rather than dictated by deadlines or teaching) per week? Uh, well, me, which is why this was not-a-resolution.

However, at the end of another busy week I had 30 minutes to spare, so I picked up something I'd downloaded a few days earlier:

Eileen O'Neill, "Early Modern Women Philosophers and the History of Philosophy", Hypatia 20, no. 3 (Summer, 2005): pp. 185-197

Why did I download this? Because Wednesday I needed to suggest some potential referees for a paper on a 19th C woman philosopher, and went to google. What I found was interesting: In the context of people who are interested in rehabilitating the history of women in philosophy, a disproportionate amount of time is spent on the 17th and 18th century. I found almost nothing that focused on the 19th century. (This gives me some hope that the paper I submitted on Tuesday will find a niche to fill -- but also makes me sad that it'll be basically impossible to find any other philosopher who has written on this particular woman before.)

Why focus on women philosophers in the 17th and 18th century? Well, certainly one benefit is that this is a period in which women were increasingly writing more and more, and writing more and more in readable vernaculars. (I mean, no one disputes that medieval women philosophers and mystics were also writing in the vernacular, but more people probably know medieval Latin than Middle English, Middle French, or Old German. And compared to any of these languages, Early Modern English and Early Modern/Modern French are much more accessible.) Another reason people focus on these women is, as O'Neill notes, that their importance is demonstrated "by the numerous editions and translation of their texts that continued to appear into the nineteenth century" (p. 186). Not only that, but there were large numbers of men philosophers who wrote on these 17th- and 18th-century women in the 19th century, thus further contributing to them being a part of a longer conversation.

One wonders, therefore, where the 19th-century women fit into this. Were the men reading and commentating on women of the previous centuries alone, or were they in dialogue with women as well? And where are the 20th-century men discussing the works of 19th-century women? For the former question, O'Neill gestures towards a negative answer: "by the nineteenth century, much of the published material by women once deemed philosophical no longer seemed so" (p. 186). This idea that what women were doing in this period is not philosophy appears to be reinforced in Mary Warnock's choice of whom to include in her anthology of 17th-21st C women philosophers, based on an underlying conception of what philosophy is that O'Neill criticises on pp. 191-192.

The gap in the market for discussions of 19th-century women philosophers is noted by O'Neill in her paper: when

in the mid-1990s a publishing company decided to produce a supplement for one of its reference works on philosophy...a feminist philosopher who was on the editorial board had encouraged the press to include in the supplement a number of entries on women philosophers...It was never explained to women philosophers from the nineteenth century were included (p. 190)

Hopefully, things have improved in the last 15 years, and this gap no longer exists.

In the end, why did I read a paper on early modern women philosophers, when the woman philosopher I was interested in lived at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century? In part because there is no such corresponding paper for that period, and reading O'Neill's paper gave me space for interesting reflections as to why.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Resolution Read Week 3

This week's read is:

Mark Erickson, Paul Hanna, & Carl Walker, (2020), "The UK higher education senior management survey: a statactivist response to managerialist governance", Studies in Higher Education; preprint here.

It's dire.

Following in the footsteps of UK Higher Education's desire to put metrics on everything, the authors produced and ran the first "Senior Management Survey" (SMS), "investigating satisfaction with senior managers and university governance" (p. 1). Over 5000 academics responded (I have a suspicion, unconfirmed, that I was one of them; I seem to remember taking such a survey at the time the authors say they were gathering data), with the primary result being that the mean satisfaction score across all universities that had at least 25 responses (78 universities in total) was 10.54%.



Of course the first thing I did, when the reference came across twitter, was search to see where my own university falls. I was rather shocked to find it was no. 3 on the table, but less shocked when I saw that the highest satisfaction score of any surveyed university was 36.60%. That's still pretty dire.

The authors quote, anonymously, one free-text response to their survey:

We hold students accountable (through marking and attendance monitoring), students hold us accountable (through teaching evaluations and NSS), senior management holds us accountable. Why do we not get to evaluate senior management in the same way students get to evaluate us, and why can’t these necessary metrics carry at least some weight? (p. 8)

This I think hits the nail directly on the head, and is reflective of the problematic balance of power that UK HEs currently have to deal with. There is little, if any, recourse (beyond union activism) that academics have to the increasing erosion of their working conditions through systemic mismanagement.

A few things stood out to me, reading this paper:

Firstly, "academics are estimated to be one of the most surveilled groups in history" (p. 3). Working in academia, you tend to get inured to the constant measurement that is done. Of your research quality, of your student satisfaction (which is NOT teaching quality!), of your intrinsic value as a person (I jest...or do I). But this statement made me pause for a moment and reflect on the fact that I can't think of any such metrics that my partner, a computer scientist in industry, is subjected to. It also made me remember this FB post I posted last year. Why are we so closely surveyed? Why are other industries not?

Secondly, the authors did not pull any punches when they came to describing general HE management structures in the UK: "Senior management teams now appoint self-selecting and self-reproducing boards of governors that allow them to exercise largely unlimited powers that are endorsed by governing boards, usually after faux exercises in consultation (Holmwood et al. 2016)" (p. 4). It's hard not to read that and feel a sense of recognition: I know I've been involved in too many "faux exercises in consultation".

Thirdly, "the [SMS] survey sought to move the gaze from the narrow metrics of staff performance to the senior management teams who set the conditions through which staff performance becomes possible" (p. 7). Yeah. We're always being told how important it is to contextualise things, and yet there seems to be very little desire to contextualise the metrics that academics are measured by via the conditions which they must work in.

Finally, in the subsection "Work as a mental health hazard", a few quotes struck quite a chord with me, including: "my anxiety levels have reached critical to the extent that I literally find it hard to breathe. I often wake in the early hours and can’t go back to sleep because of having to make notes about things I’ve forgotten to do at work" (p. 13) and "characteristics of generalised anxiety disorder (e.g. struggling to sleep and breathe)" (p. 13). These resonated with me at a very personal level, because this describes my own experiences of the last year or two precisely, and I would not have known, otherwise, that something as simple as waking up at 3am with a huge jolt of adrenaline as your brain starts going over all the things you didn't do the day before (or the day before that or the day before that or the day before that) and all the things you need to do the next day (and the day after that and the day after that and the day after that) and that you can't shut down for at least an hour or so in order to fall back asleep (no wonder I am constantly exhausted, it's not just because I have a busy life with a partner and a kid and outside hobbies, etc.) rises to the level of problematic anxiety. I think I'm going to make an appointment with my GP to discuss this further.

Reading the article, it was hard not to recognise a lot of my own experiences within it. On the other hand, I couldn't help but think how easy it would be for the very people that should be reading it with horror and changing their practices as a result to simply disregard the content of the paper as sour grapes. And therein lies one of the biggest problems UK HE faces: The power dynamics are such that although "academics cannot wait for university leaders to rise to a challenge they do not recognise" (p. 5) it's not clear what power we have to do anything to address this challenge.

I hope the authors continue to circulate the SMS (maybe on a yearly basis?) and publish follow-up results. It would be interesting to see what longer term trends can be seen.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Resolution Read Week 2

My first paper for my New Year's not a resolution is:

Wang, Hao. 1957. "The Axiomatization of Arithmetic", Journal of Symbolic Logic 22, no. 2: 145-158.

This was recommended to me as a recommendation for one of my students, but it's a topic I'm also interested in, especially as we're heading into the term where I teach PA! Maybe I can fill in a bit more history, this year.

The paper addresses a question that I've asked myself, and my own students have asked me, namely: Where do the axioms come from? This isn't just an abstract question, but a historical/conceptual one. Once you have an axiom set it's easy (well...) to see that they are the right ones; but how do you discover the axioms in the first place? Wang identifies one option:

  • You start from typical proofs and results, and work backwards to determine what the underlying assumptions are.

Another option would be to pick some reasonable assumptions, and adopt them until they are shown to be inconsistent. A third would be to prove what you can, and when you get stuck, add what you need as an axiom.

The focus of Wang's paper is Peano's axiomatization of arithmetic, which is not wholly Peano's but is in fact a borrowing from Dedekind and Grassmann (p. 145). All three were, however, rooted in a desire to make "an explicit statement of some adequate group of natural rules and conventions which enables us to justify all the true numerical formulae containing 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, +, *, =, (, )" (p. 146)" (note the lack of exponentiation). Wang describes Grassmann's Lehrbuch der Arithmetik (1861) as "the first serious and rather successful attempt to put numbers on a more or less axiomatic basis" (p. 147); his scope covered not only the non-negative integers but also the negative ones. Wang gives Grassmann's axiomatization (which he calls L_2), and notes that from it, the system L_1 (which consists in the commutativity and associativity of + and *, the distribution of * over +, the fact that 0 is the identity for + and 1 for *, that a+(-a)=0, that if c is non-zero and ca=cb, then a=b, that sums and products of positive numbers are positive numbers, that every number is either positive, not positive, or 0, and a version of mathematical induction) can be derived. (L_1 is described as the contemporary -- i.e., in the 1950s -- characterisation of the integers in abstract algebra).

Wang points out a drawback of Grassmann's L_2, which is that it does not require distinct integers to have distinct successors, and hence L_2 has models consisting in only a single object (p. 149). This was made explicit in Peano, whose system contained the basic concepts of 1, number, and successor, and five axioms:

  1. 1 is a number
  2. The successor of any number is a number
  3. No two numbers have the same successor
  4. 1 is not the successor of any number
  5. Any property which belongs to 1, and also to the successor of every number which has the property, belongs to all numbers

(Nowadays, presentations of PA often start from 0, as opposed to 1; in this, Frege's account of numbers differs from Dedekind's in that Frege did begin with 0.) These axioms were taken from Dedekind's essay Was sind und was sollen die Zahlen? (1888) (p. 149), and Dedekind's source for these axioms is preserved in a two-page letter that Wang quotes (in translation) (pp. 150-151). What's important is that these are an axiomatisation of the concept of number only -- there's nothing here to cover the arithmetic operations. These (addition, multiplication, and exponentiation) Dedekind defines later in the essay.

Sadly, since Wang's interest is in how Dedekind got to the axioms, and not what the axioms were, he does not discuss the axioms for the arithmetic operations, which leaves me with two questions:

  1. How do you define the arithmetic operations if you're starting from 1 rather than from 0?
  2. Is Dedekind 1888 translated into English so I can read it and find out the answer to the previous questions myself?

Monday, January 6, 2020

Not a New Year's Resolution

As I was lying in bed last night (thanks, jetlag, for three hours only half-asleep during the middle of the night), I realised that while I've gotten into a good writing habit (first via my resolution of 2014 and later on via the Any Good Thing monthy writing challenge plus tracking my words at, and am making a conscious effort to keep my email under control, the thing I feel like I never have time to do any more, or that I feel guilty about doing because there's always something better/more important I should be doing instead, is read journal articles just for the sake of reading about something that interests me and may one day be relevant (or may not be) -- to be distinguished from seeking out articles and reading them specifically because I'm writing a paper about the topic right this very moment.

So my not-resolution for 2020 is that I'm going to read one journal article a week, excepting weeks I'm on holiday, or probably also during marking season in May/June, and then blog about it briefly here, hopefully every Friday. Then it will be a Thing To Be Done rather than a Thing To Do, and hopefully I can get it done guilt-free!