My Favorite Pieces of Writing: Excerpt from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I’m going to start a series where I post my favorite pieces of writing. These are passages I’ve found myself returning to and reading again and again. Today’s entry comes from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. I’d half-awaken. He’d stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood. Some night he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I’d wake in the daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses.

It was hot, so hot the mirror felt warm. I washed before the mirror in a daze, my twisted summer sleep still hung about me like sea kelp. What blood was this, and what roses? It could have been the rose of union, the blood of murder, or the rose of beauty bare and the blood of some unspeakable sacrifice or birth. The sign on my body could have been an emblem or a stain, the keys to the kingdom or the mark of Cain. I never knew. I never knew as I washed, and the blood streaked, faded, and finally disappeared, whether I’d purified myself or ruined the blood sign of the passover. We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence…. “Seems like we’re just set down here,” a woman said to me recently, “and don’t nobody know why.”

Visit to Auschwitz


It’s been two weeks since I visited Auschwitz. I am still haunted by its stillness. The mountains of shoes, suitcases, and human hair stick in my memory as do those horrible hooked spires of concrete, spiked with porcelain and strung with barbed wire. Seeing the reconstructed gas chamber and ovens was bad enough; seeing the barracks where prisoners wasted away was somehow worse–perhaps because they were more “authentic” in some vague way. All of it was ghastly. I often tried to imagine what it was like to sleep in such places or to be herded through the Sauna or to work as a member of the Sonderkommando. I couldn’t do it, though not because of a failure of imagination, but because of an unwillingness to imagine it at all: my mind’s eye recoiled from looking too deeply into such things. That I did this despite my efforts to imagine what it was like seems natural if not proper to me; like how we snap our hands back quickly from a hot iron, so the mind buffets the will when it tries to imagine hell.

While the story of Auschwitz is long and awful, the story the death camp itself tells is dreadfully simple. Every site of interest has a small sign explaining what you are looking at, and almost all of them say, “Jews were murdered here” (sometime it was Polish or Soviet prisoners). It’s like a drum beat. The same assertion over and over without variation. Sometimes questions present themselves such as “How?” and “When?” but the interest in answers to those questions tends to diminish.

There is one sign, however, that tells a different story. In response to an escape, the SS selected 10 others die by starvation. One of them, a Polish army sergeant named  Franciszek Gajowniczek, began to cry, “My wife! My children!” At this a Polish priest named Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward and asked to take his place. While starving, the priest sang hymns and lead prisoners in prayer. After two weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe remained alive; the Nazis finished him off with a lethal injection. This had a profoundly positive effect on the prisoners of the camp and inspired much hope in a very dark place. Amazingly, Gajowniczek survived and was a guest at the Vatican when John Paul II canonized Kolbe in 1982. Kolbe’s prison cell is now a shrine to which many Catholics make pilgrimage every year. To be sure, there were other heroic acts of humanity at Auschwitz which I read about later. But this is the only one I saw written out in full on the understated signage at the camp.

Seeing Kolbe’s cell was the highlight for me; it made me think of the line from the Psalms several times afterwards: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me.”

My Problem with the ‘Is-Ought’ Problem

My thoughts concerning the is-ought fallacy are confused, because I am not sure what the content of the fallacy is supposed to be. If it is such that one cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, a ready counterexample comes to mind:

  1. If a person sees a baby drowning and can help, that person ought to help.
  2. A person sees a baby drowning and can help.
  3. Therefore, that person ought to help.

There, I’ve done it–I’ve derived an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. The argument is deductively valid; if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. But are the premises true? While premise [2] isn’t true of me or anyone I know, it is true of someone. Thus, the soundness of the argument is not threatened by premises [2]. What about premise [1]? Ah, this is where the is-oughter can press her challenge. She can assert, “You are helping yourself to an ‘ought’ in the consequent of the conditional. What you have to do is give purely descriptive premises and then conclude with an ‘ought’ something you cannot do.” Thus, I would have to argue like so:

  1. A person sees baby drowning and can help.
  2. Therefore, that person ought to help.

Now the argument is invalid, because it assumes p and concludes q, which is a non sequitur. Thus, one cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’

I demur. Suppose, I cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ and that I see a baby drowning and I can help. Should I help? I should think so and so should you. It would be no defense to appeal to the impossibility of deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ if I responded to the situation by saying, “That’s too bad,” and kept on my way. We know that such a response is wrong if we know anything is wrong (would it be wrong to punish me if my is-ought defense is legitimate? If so, then why?). But if we know this is wrong, then the problem is not with our moral knowledge, but our logical language, which does have a rule of inference that allows us to move from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought.’ Just because the logic we are using is incomplete does not mean that there is no fact of the matter regarding what I should do.

Therefore, at best, the is-ought problem is one that besets our deontic logical languages. Perhaps there is a language that has a sound rule of inference by which we can derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. The is-oughter cannot assume there isn’t one without begging the question. In any event, it is far from obvious that the is-ought problem besets our moral reasoning in general. We should beware of becoming ethical methodists who require that every empirically conditioned moral claim be justified by some method of derivation. Furthermore, we should make room for our intuitive moral judgments–they cannot be ignored.

Intending and Foreseeing in Selma

I recently saw the movie Selma, and it prompted some thought about the distinction between intending to do something, and foreseeing but not intending to do something. This distinction is a controversial one. Some think it makes all the difference and allows for a variety of actions that would normally be condemned, for example diverting a runaway trolley on to the one rather than the five or bombing civilians in a raid on military targets. Proponents of the Doctrine of Double-Effect affirm this distinction–call this ‘position A.’ Others think it makes no difference; if one foresees a consequence of one’s action, and acts anyway, then one intends to bring about that consequence. Utilitarian ethicists like Henry Sidgwick deny this distinction as does the author of a book I’m reading right now, Ethics Without Intention. Call this ‘position B.’

How does this relate to Selma? Well, here’s my question: did the protesters who marched on Bloody Sunday intend to be violently repressed or did they they merely foresee, but not intend it? (Yes, I realize only a philosopher could be so irreverently pedantic to reflect on such an abstract question in the wake of such a solemn event. For what its worth I shed tears while watching the movie and gasped while reading the first-hand accounts of it afterwards–I didn’t think about this question until later.).

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The Problem of Fr** W*ll or Verbal Essentialism

At the end of February earlier this year I had the privilege of hearing Peter van Inwagen give the keynote address at the North Carolina Philosophical Society. His paper was entitled “The Problem of Fr** W*ll” which sounds a lot like “The Problem of Free Will”–more on that in a moment. What follows is taken from his handout and it is worth thinking hard about. At issue are three theses:

Thesis One: On at least some occasions when a human agent is trying to decide between two or more incompatible courses of action, that agent is able to perform each of them.

Thesis Two: If the bad consequences of a decision are ever the fault of the person who made the decision, then Thesis One is true.

Determinism: the thesis that the past and the laws of nature determine a unique future. Indeterminism is the thesis that the past and the laws of nature do not determine a unique future.

The problem: There are seemingly unanswerable arguments for the conclusion that Thesis One is incompatible with both determinism and indeterminism, and there are seemingly unanswerable arguments for Thesis Two. Since either determinism or indeterminism must be true, the conclusion of these arguments imply that nothing is ever anyone’s fault–and it is evident that it’s simply false that nothing is ever anyone’s fault.

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Two Wills, Yes; A Will to Damn, No: A Response to Piper

I’ve been reading Piper’s Are There Two Wills in God?; here’s a way of thinking about the issues. Consider the following argument:

  1. If the doctrine of Unconditional Election is true, then God prefers that not all be saved.
  2. But the Bible says that God prefers that all be saved (1 Tim 2:4, 2 Pet 3:9, Ezekiel 18:23, 32).
  3. Therefore, the doctrine of Unconditional Election is false.

How might the the defender of Unconditional Election respond? One might deny [2] by some method of interpretation that concludes that the verses in question do not really say God prefers that all be saved. Piper entertains this idea, but rejects it; perhaps he interprets things this way, but his point is that it not necessary to do so. What about [1]? Some deny it by saying things like, “God does not reject anyone; rather he passes over them in sorrow.” But this is a distinction without difference. If a President receives two petitions for pardon and only pardons one rather than both, we would not make sense of the President’s actions by saying that the one unpardoned was not rejected but only “passed over.” So what is the defender of Unconditional Election to do?

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But Is It Valuable? A Response to Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins apologized (sort of) for his tweets concerning his recommendation to abort a fetus with Trisomy 21, or Down Syndrome. In response to someone who would be unsure what to do if she were carrying a fetus with Down Syndrome, Dawkins said, “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.” Needless to say a firestorm erupted. Some objected that such an action fundamentally disrespects the humanity of the people with Down Syndrome. Dawkins initially replied with another tweet referencing Jeremy Bentham’s famous contention, “The question is not ‘is it human?’ but ‘can it SUFFER?’” Then others claimed that fetus’ can feel pain (at 20 weeks) to which he replied that if that matters, we should all be vegans. People didn’t understand what he meant, so an apology was written for not expressing himself very clearly.

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