Monday, September 28, 2020

Taking an All Souls College Fellowship Philosophy Exam

All Souls College is a branch of Oxford University, and every year a select number of candidates in different academic disciplines take a written exam to become a prestigious "Examination Fellow." The details are here. What I find interesting are the exams themselves. Candidates are given several hours to answer only a handful of short but deliberately vague and monstrously complex questions. A classics questions might be, "How did Livy and Tacitus compose speeches?," or "Discuss the presentation of travel at sea in Latin literature." English questions include "What gives Beckett hope?" and "Why do poets imitate?" Pretty brutal stuff. Also, highly addictive to browse through.

Here I will briefly answer all of the questions in one of the previous philosophy exams. (All recent philosophy exams can be found here. The other exams can be found at the bottom of the webpage linked to above.) I was in peak philosophical form around 2014 or 2015, and am pretty rusty now compared to then. But I will do my best. I am not Examination Fellow material, but I am a rational animal just as much as the Fellows are. And since I have a sense of dignity, I will answer all questions without looking any information up. It's just me, the exam, and the fragmented memories of my past studies in philosophy. Let's see how it goes.

September 2018 Exam

1. ‘ “If p, q” together with p entails q.’ Assess.

Modus ponens, bruh. 

2. ‘No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks’ (WOLLSTONECRAFT). Discuss.

Didn't Plato already make this observation? Or was it Aristotle? Something about how we all choose evil only under the guise of the good. Not dissing Wollstonecraft, of course––just recalling how Plato and Aristotle claimed a lot of philosophical territory before anyone else. 

Post-exam review: apparently the "guise of the good" hypothesis traces back to both Plato and Aristotle. Unsurprising.

3. If nobody can tell the difference between an original and a copy, is the original or the copy more valuable? 

I'm guessing this is meant to refer primarily to works of creativity or craftsmanship, such as paintings, manuscripts, or ships, though it might also refer to, say, human clones in a science-fictional setting. But if it's the former we're discussing, I'd say the original at least has more historical value. As for aesthetic or ontological value, they'd presumably be the same. They might have different moral values depending on the purposes for which each work was created. The original Sistine Chapel presumably has more moral value than a replica made purely for monetary purposes, for example. This is a good question, though.

4. What does generative syntax teach us about the mind?

No idea what that is. I never got into linguistics or philosophy of language. They just seemed a lot drier than, say, philosophy of religion, or ethics. Maybe I ought to give them a chance.

Post-exam review: it's the Chomskian idea "that humans have an innate 'language faculty' and that the universal principles of human language reflect intrinsic properties of this language faculty." Quote from here.

5. Are we the causes of our actions?

It would be pretty awkward if we weren't.

6. ‘It may be as Appiah claims that “there is nothing in the world that can do all we ask race to do for us” (Appiah 1992, 45), if our project inevitably inherits the concept’s complex history; but we might instead ask “race” to do different things than have been asked before’ (HASLANGER). Discuss.

The proposal seems to be either that the concept of race is inherently malleable, or that its social uses are malleable, or both. I don't know enough about the philosophy of race to intelligently agree or disagree. 

7. Does the CPT symmetry of physical laws provide any reason for doubting the objectivity of time's direction?

Oh dear. It's been far too long since I've done any physics or philosophy of physics. The concept of CPT symmetry sounds familiar, but I can't put my finger on it. Causal-physical-temporal? Cute-particles-traipsing about? Is it referring to how there are anti-particles? Oh wait, does this refer to the findings of that brilliant 20th-century woman who proved something special about the isotropy of physical laws, or something like that? Something involving iso-, aniso-, -morphy, -tropy, etc.? I don't know. I may have just made this woman up, though I hope not. I'm tempted to cheat and look it up but I'll save it for when I'm done with the exam. Regardless, I don't think there's anything that gives us good reason to doubt the objectivity of time's direction. That time forever marches onward is a brute fact of experience; it is something that must be accommodated rather than explained away by any sensible theory of time. This CPT symmetry thing may give us some reason to doubt the objectivity of time's direction, but I'm pretty sure it'll be a bad reason. 

Post-exam review: CPT symmetry = charge, parity, and time reversal symmetry. Details here. Don't think I've ever heard of it. 

The woman I was thinking of is Emmy Noether, author of Noether's theorem. Noether's theorem does concern symmetries but it is (from what I can tell) completely separate from CPT symmetry.

8. Does belief require certainty? Does knowledge?

I believe that Octavian defeated Antony at the Battle of Actium. Am I certain? No. Do I still believe it? Yep. QED.

I don't believe I've ever seen certainty as one of the preconditions of knowledge. Knowledge is usually taken to be either a conceptual primitive, or justified true belief + something else. That something else doesn't seem to be certainty. If certainty entails an inability to be rationally doubted, I can know all sorts of stuff without being certain. I know that somewhere in the world, there is a penguin. Can it be rationally doubted that there is a penguin? Yes, all of this might be a computer simulation. I think it was Nick Bostrom (have I gotten his name right?) who actually wrote a famous paper defending the idea that we're living in a computer simulation. But I still know there's a penguin somewhere, independent of what exactly knowledge is. 

Post-exam review: Nick Bostrom (I got the name right!) paper here. He doesn't argue that we are living in a computer simulation, just that given certain peculiar assumptions about the course of civilizations, it's likely we are.

9. Is (physical) disability just a social construction?

Interesting that they would add the qualifier "physical." It seems they usually prefer vague or ambiguous formulations of a question to more precise ones. But my answer would be: yes and no. Physical disability is associated both with certain subjective experiences, such as feelings of pain, distress, or weakness, and certain objective realities, such as an inability to work or care for oneself. The subjective experiences are not social constructs, though the manner in which the individual interprets them may be socially informed. A devout Christian, for example, might see their suffering as a trial sent by God, whereas the nihilist may see it as more proof that nothing matters. But the experiences themselves are what they are, independently of society. The objective realities of disability, on the other hand, do seem to be socially constructed. (Something can indeed be both objective and socially constructed, eg, money.) In many developed nations it's normal to attach one's value or significance to what one is able to contribute to society, so if someone can't contribute much for physical reasons, then, partly to protect them from stigmatization, and partly for more pragmatic reasons (eg, receiving extra funds from the government), we label them "disabled." But many would consider the label itself stigmatizing, which suggests that the root problem may be with how we understand the individual's relationship to society. If, for instance, we didn't measure an individual's worth by what they were able to contribute to society, then those who are physically disabled would be just like the rest of us––they would simply require extra care from their family, friends, and community. And those caring for disabled individuals don't necessarily think of them as "disabled;" they merely recognize that we're all obligated to help one another, and some individuals need more help than others. The notion of disability seems necessary only for a society in which we have general expectations for what each individual is to do with their life. If we manage to eliminate these expectations, then we can theoretically eliminate the need for a "disability" label. However, the notion of disability still has pragmatic value, so the issue isn't that simple.

10. Which is worse: lying or corroding the true-false distinction?

What does it mean to corrode the true-false distinction? To simply not care about whether one is lying or telling the truth? To view truth as a purely pragmatic matter, with no real basis in mind-independent reality? To be a postmodernist? I don't know, but this seems like a profound question.

11. Is it possible to disagree about whether something is tasty? If so, must one person be incorrect?

Does it really take a philosopher to know how to answer these?

12. If legal obligations are not moral obligations, then do they have normative force?

Legal obligations may coincide with moral obligations, but they can't be moral obligations because immoral laws are possible. However, legal obligations still have normative force in the sense that laws tend to become ingrained in people's consciences. After Roe v. Wade, for instance, it became standard fare to accept a woman's right to abortion. Whether one is gladdened or disappointed by this will depend on one's stance on abortion, but that's beside the point. Legal obligations aren't normative in any other way I can think of.

13. What are Aristotle's three kinds of friendship? Is this taxonomy exhaustive?

Oh, pick me! Pick me! I believe they're: of utility, of pleasure, and of virtue. Right? I hope I'm not forgetting this. But is the taxonomy exhaustive? Taxonomies are rarely exhaustive, so if we're hedging our bets, the answer is No. But it's hard to come up with a particular instance of friendship that doesn't in some way fall into the Philosopher's taxonomy.

Post-exam review: of utility, of pleasure, and of the good. Close enough.

14. Was Kant a compatibilist?

Kant studies––my favorite. (Sarcasm.) From what I remember of Kant, he thought that although we are fully determined from the perspective of the realm of phenomena, he believed the transcendental ego belonged to the realm of noumena and was free, but he also thought we couldn't know the nature of the noumenal realm, so...yeah. That's Kant for you. Does this make him a compatibilist? He both accepts free will and rejects it, so why not.

15. Discuss the benefits or drawbacks of Tarski's definition of semantic consequence as preservation of truth in all models.

Tarski rings a bell. His first name was Alfred? Or Arthur? It starts with an A. No clue how to approach the question though.

Post-exam review: yeah it's Alfred.

16. Is evolutionary theory fundamentally teleological? If so, is this a problem?

Ah, something familiar. I feel like I just stepped into a hot bath. There is a very strong case that evolutionary theory is teleological. Teleology seems inescapable in biology as a whole, as argued by Ed Feser and friends. It's only a problem if you're a hardcore atheist, because once you welcome teleology into your world it's hard to keep God or something God-like out of the picture.

17. What is gaslighting? Does it shed any light on theories of perception or hallucination?

Does gaslighting shed any light––how clever. I really should know what this is since one sees the term so much on news and social media. But I have only one social media account which I barely ever use (Instagram), and I limit my consumption of the news to preserve my sanity. I just never bothered to look up what exactly the term "gaslighting" means. Maybe the term actually has two definitions, one philosophical and one colloquial. But I still wouldn't know either one. Ought I be embarrassed? 

Post-exam review: "Gaslighting, an elaborate and insidious technique of deception and psychological manipulation, usually practiced by a single deceiver, or “gaslighter,” on a single victim over an extended period. Its effect is to gradually undermine the victim’s confidence in his own ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, right from wrong, or reality from appearance, thereby rendering him pathologically dependent on the gaslighter in his thinking or feelings.

18. What does higher-order vagueness tell us about first-order vagueness?

Some hardcore metaphysics right here. I'll take a crack at it. There is a distinction between ambiguity and vagueness. Something is ambiguous if it can be reasonably interpreted in two or more ways simultaneously; it is vague if its limits or borders are not precise. So the phrase, "He taught me everything I know" is ambiguous because it could mean multiple things, but it isn't vague. By contrast, the difference between stubble and a beard is vague because it isn't clear how much stubble has to grow before it becomes a beard. The question seems to be asking whether vagueness on the level of composite, large, or complex entities discloses anything about vagueness about isolated, small, or simple entities. For instance, it is vague where my body starts and where it ends. I am constantly shedding hair and skin cells, for one thing, so my body is, in a sense, strewn about my environment. Suppose there is a clump of skin cells that is in the process of shedding right now. At what point does that clump cease becoming a part of my body, and become just an isolated clump of cells? It's not clear. That is, it's vague. So my body is vaguely delimited. But does that tell us anything about the parts making up my body? Are they themselves vague? Well, it seems that no matter how much we micro-size our analysis of my body, it's incredibly difficult to eliminate all signs of vagueness. Let's go the level of particles, for example. Suppose there is a particle or collection of particles (eg, some electrons) that are currently part of my skin, but that I rub them off when I am, say, washing my hands. At what point do those electrons cease being a part of my body, and become just a bunch of electrons? It's still vague. But what about each individual electron? Are they vague? It would seem so, at least if we're going to buy into the standard theory that particles have both wave-like and particle-like features. Waves are incredibly vague, so that would make anything bearing wave-like features vague. But does there not have to be something free of vagueness at the bedrock of reality? Not necessarily. As Eastern philosophy has done an excellent job of pointing out, everything in the world sort of blends in with everything else. Nothing is entirely separate from its environment, even if it might seem that way to the naked eye. Vagueness only emerges when we try to precisely identify the boundaries of any object. When we attempt such a thing, we find that it's impossible: we can't say exactly where one thing starts and the next thing ends. But this is just the material world; perhaps vagueness isn't as present in the mental world. For example, the idea that 2 + 2 = 4 seems completely devoid of vagueness. So do such concepts as "triangle," "dog," and "happiness." So we might say that higher-order vagueness in the material world carries over to first-order vagueness (or perhaps emerges from it?), whereas this isn't necessarily the case in the mental world.

19. Does subjective experience require self-consciousness?

I'm reasonably certain a frog can feel pain without the ability to introspect.

20. Does democracy necessarily degenerate into tyranny?

Come again?

21. Is there a coherent structuralist account of the complex numbers?

Ah geez. I read a book on philosophy of math a long time ago. Don't remember a word of it, so not sure what structuralism is. I'm supposing that if the question is about the complex numbers, they must fit rather uncomfortably into the structuralist view. So maybe structuralism has to do with whether numbers are mind-dependent or mind-independent? Or whether they have a basis in the real world? But complex numbers do figure in some of the equations of physics, such as in electromagnetism. "idk," as they say.

Post-exam review: "The theme of mathematical structuralism is that what matters to a mathematical theory is not the internal nature of its objects, such as its numbers, functions, sets, or points, but how those objects relate to each other. In a sense, the thesis is that mathematical objects (if there are such objects) simply have no intrinsic nature." From IEP

22. How should we understand scientific claims about probability, for instance in statistical mechanics or climate modeling?

Good question. Probabilities can be either qualitative or quantitative, Bayesian or non-Bayesian, etc. I think different fields of science will use different notions of probability. I expect probability in quantum mechanics to be different than probability in predicting the weather, for example. But maybe it's the same after all.

23. What can an analytic philosopher learn from a continental philosopher?

The art of sophisticated obfuscation.

24. Is the difference between Yablo's Paradox and the Liar Paradox important?

So I know the Liar Paradox. I believe it originated with Russell. It says: suppose a liar claims, "I am lying." If he's lying, then he's lying about lying, which means he's telling the truth. If he's telling the truth, he's lying. Either way, the situation is absurd. I could go further if I knew what Yablo's Paradox was.

Post-exam review: discussion of Yablo's Paradox here.

25. Should we be four-dimensionalists or three-dimensionalists?

About space, I presume? Our everyday experience of space is three-dimensional, so that's a point in its favor. Einstein's theories of relativity are often cited as a reason for accepting four-dimensionalism (with its "space-time"), but science doesn't give us the fundamental structure of reality; it just gives us empirically adequate theories. But if four-dimensionalism is still around once physics is "completed" (assuming it ever will be), that might count as a point in its favor. Until then, I'll stick with my everyday experiences.

26. May institutions use affirmative action in admissions? Should they?

May they? Well, yes, in a broadly logically possible sense they can. Should they? Way beyond my pay grade.

27. 'If her functioning as a female is not enough to define woman, if we decline also to explain her through "the eternal feminine," and if nevertheless we admit, provisionally, that women do exist, then we must face the question: what is a woman?' (DE BEAUVOIR). Discuss.

Also beyond my pay grade. I do recall that Goethe mentions the eternal feminine at the end of Faust, though. Maybe that would have scored me some points on a real exam.

28. What is the value of ideal theory in political philosophy?

Okay, this is probably the best question so far, at least in my opinion. Because so much of political philosophy seems to be about ideal states and scenarios, whereas the reality of politics is unbelievably messy and non-ideal. Some possible answers might be: (1) there is no other way of doing political philosophy; appeals to ideal theory are unavoidable, (2) ideal theory––in the sense of an ideal political state, or "utopia"––gives us something to strive for, (3) ideal theory is the most efficient, least time-consuming approximation of everyday realities, (4) certain realities must be explored ideally before they can be fully understood in actuality, eg, justice, or power.  

29. Where does Berkeley's idealism go wrong?

Who says it does go wrong?

30. At what point does killing a totalitarian leader become justifiable for a citizen?

One of those things that can only be taken on a case-by-case basis.

31. Do Gödel's incompleteness results (or Turing's uncomputable functions) show that the mind is not well modelled as a computer?

Been a while since I've studied the incompleteness theorem. (Or is it theorems?) I sort of recall that it only applied to axiomatic systems, which computers don't necessarily have to be. Quantum computing, for instance, may not have to be axiomatic in the Gödelian sense. If this is true, then the mind may be modeled alright as a computer, though there are plenty of reasons for also thinking that the mind is not at all like a computer.

32. Is this a hand I see before me?

Depends on where you're looking, Mr. Moore.

33. 'Not only our faults, but our most involuntary misfortunes, tend to corrupt our morals' (HENRY JAMES). Discuss.

Seems like James got to the concept of moral luck before Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel did. And it's Henry, not William! 

34. If A has legitimate authority over B, then are A's reasons for action immediately also B's?

So like, if my boss has legitimate authority over me, and her reason for action is she wants to make more money, then is that reason also mine? I mean, it might determine what actions she has me carry out, but I may still have my own reasons for doing what I do. And what's the point of the "immediately?" What a strange question. 

35. What is the role of 'it' in 'If a man owns a donkey, he beats it'?

7th-grade grammar question = brutal. 

36. Is it more laudable to do the right thing in accordance with one's desire or despite one's desire?

Dana Nelkin has recently defended the idea that one's degree of moral responsibility for an action depends on the difficulty that must be overcome in performing that action. This seems plausible and intuitive. Someone who is constitutionally cheery probably deserves less praise for acting cheerily than someone who is constitutionally a grinch but puts in a lot of effort to be cheery around others. Both are still praiseworthy though.

37. What is imagination?

Our built-in simulation system.

38. 'A kind of question that doesn't get asked often enough is: what are modal intuitions intuitions of? Consider, for example, the intuition that water is necessarily H2O. How do things have to be for it to be right? Or wrong? What's its "truth maker", to use the philosophical jargon?' (FODOR). Discuss.

Fodor! RIP. One of the funnest philosophers to read. I have a link to his London Review of Books page on the home screen of my phone. Sadly, completely incapable of answering his question. I haven't studied truth maker theory enough to even make a half-decent guess.

Well that's everything. Again, am I Fellowship material? Nope. But there is more to life than fellowships and the like.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Would Humanity Be Better off Without Sleep?

Suppose sleep wasn't programmed into our biology, and we could get by just fine without it. 

We might initially think this would be a good thing. In our current state, we spend nearly a third of our lives asleep. We typically believe that someone can't be engaged in meaningful pursuits while they're asleep, so our need to sleep would seem to constitute a tremendous loss of productivity. If we didn't have to deal with sleep, humanity would presumably be several centuries or even millennia more advanced than it is now, not just in terms of technological and scientific development, but also with regard to art, philosophy, literature, business, and other creative endeavors. Indeed, it's fair to wonder whether we could have, for instance, colonized Mars, or come up with a multitude of novel art styles by now if sleep weren't a part of our lives.

Nevertheless, I doubt we'd be much happier if we didn't sleep. Would we, as a species, be in many ways more advanced? Probably. Would this translate to an improved quality of life? I don't see why not. But would we feel more fulfilled, more content with what we have? It isn't obvious. There are the Steven Pinkers of the world, who think that modernity has brought with it a generalized sense of well-being, but there are also Pinker's critics. I probably fall more in line with the critics. So many of us seemed to be either aimless or miserable even before there was a pandemic. There are innumerable reasons why, but a lot of them seem to trace back to the progress achieved by modernity, as well as the cultural changes this progress has fomented. The internet, for example, is an amazing, multipurpose tool, but it has also fundamentally altered the nature of social interaction, in many ways for the worse. What would the internet look like now, if we didn't sleep? Presumably, some advanced form of virtual reality, like that seen in the movie Ready Player One. But who knows whether such a thing would have an overall positive effect on our lives. The same goes for many of the other developments we could have had in the absence of sleep.

And let's not forget that sleep is, in some ways, its own good. For one thing, it represents a period of "mandatory relaxation" in which we don't have to worry about or work on anything, and thus functions like a guardian angel whose sole job is to preserve our sanity. For another, many of us delight in our dreams. Lucid dreamers in particular often describe their dreams as "more real" than real life. Not everyone, of course, enjoys sleep. Workaholics may despise it (Napoleon is said to have slept four hours a night), and there are many who suffer from various dyssomnias or parasomnias that make bedtime more fearful than pleasant. But I imagine that most people throughout history would describe sleep as one of the more agreeable parts of their lives.

So no, I don't think humanity would be better off without sleep, even if we're not that much better off with it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Non-Native Languages and Reality

Our native language(s) directly connect to reality. English is my native language, so if someone tells me, "I found a dead whale on the beach yesterday," I don't have to stop and think about the sentence structure or meaning of the words to know what scenario is being described. I just hear the sentence, and I understand what aspects of reality it is referring to.

When we are in the early or intermediate stages of learning a non-native language, by contrast, the language primarily connects not to reality, but to our native language. Thus, if a Spanish speaker comes to me and says, "Encontré una ballena muerta en la playa ayer" (ie, I found a dead whale on the beach yesterday), I have to first translate the sentence into English, and only then can I link it up with reality. The end goal of learning a non-native language, then, is to arrive at a point where the language no longer connects primarily to one's native language, but to reality itself. If knowledge of the non-native language is always parasitic on knowledge of one's native language, there is a sense in which one hasn't truly mastered the language, even if one isn't half-bad at speaking, writing, or understanding it.

A possible reason why children are so adept at learning any and all languages spoken in their households, despite not having the cognitive abilities of adults, is that they don't yet have a native language with which they're fully comfortable. Hence, they are forced to connect all of the languages they're learning directly to reality. In this way they can, it seems, achieve mastery of a language much faster than the adult who relies on their native language to traverse the conceptual space separating the language they're learning from reality.

Can a Temporal Being Exit Time?

The intuitive answer is No, since such a being will, qua temporal, always stand in a temporal relation to its past. If the temporal being in question thinks, with Aristotle, that time is a measure of change, then it might deliberately cease to act or be acted upon in any way. But no matter how long it does this, it will, at a bare minimum, have changed from being active to inactive at some point in the past, which means that its current inactive state is just an extended change from its previous active one. And where there is change, for Aristotle, there is time. It would be similar to a gecko trying to run until it escaped its tail. Just as the tail is a corporeal part of the gecko, time is an ontological part of temporal beings. 

That said, if there is a part of the temporal being that has been timeless all along, then perhaps the being could exit time by merely "shedding" its temporal part, leaving only the timeless part. This might compromise the identity of the being, but if the true essence of the being is its timeless part, so that it would be, in a sense, getting rid of its accidental properties while preserving its essential ones (to summon the ghost of Aristotle again), then perhaps the breach in identity may not come at that high a cost, all things considered. If the tail of a gecko is cut off by a predator, for instance, the gecko wouldn't cease to be a gecko.

This is one way in which to conceptualize the metaphysics of the Incarnation from a Classical Theistic perspective. On Classical Theism, God is beyond time, and cannot enter into time because, as pure actuality, he is incapable of change. To make sense of Jesus, then, who has both a divine (ie, timeless) and a human (ie, temporal) nature, we might stipulate that the divine nature is a sort of essential property of his, while the human nature is a mere accident. So, Jesus was beyond time while purely divine; he entered into time upon assuming a human nature; and he exited time upon giving up his human nature at the end of his earthly life. And perhaps he can go through this process more than once; perhaps he can jump in and out of time as much as he wants. 

Of course, whether we're talking about the Incarnation or not, such an account of temporal beings exiting time isn't problem-free. It isn't clear, for example, how a fundamentally timeless entity could have temporal properties of any sort. Even if we invoke the notion of a Cambridge change, according to which something can be said to gain or lose properties without undergoing any real changes to its essence, the view seems, at the very least, paradoxical.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Against Self-Pity

Self-pity, or feeling sorry for one's self, is both natural and common. We all have standards of living to which we are accustomed, and life has a tendency to prevent us from meeting these standards, either for short periods of time, or––if one is unfortunate––for months or even years. When this happens, it is tempting to shift into woe-is-me mode until, and if, one climbs their way back to their normal standard of living. In this mode, one tends to think such things as: "I'm one of the unluckiest people I know," "My life could be so much better right now," "Why does everyone I know but me get to be happy?," "I don't deserve this," "This is simply the worst," "Why do I have to deal with this; why can't I just go on with my normal life like everyone else?," And so on. 

On a practical level, the only thing such thoughts might accomplish is to give one a sense of emotional catharsis. Other than that, they're worthless. Even worse, they tend to beget more of their kind, and so can become a massive time-sink.

If it's catharsis one wants, there are plenty of other, more meaningful and more memorable ways of achieving this. As Aristotle observed in the Poetics, witnessing a tragic play can be cathartic. We might add that art in general is cathartic. Thus, one can look through some art online, or go to a museum (when there's no longer a pandemic), or create art of one's own, or consume an artistic piece of media such as a beautiful or satisfying movie. Other effective cathartics include meditation, prayer, exercise, cooking, charity, lucid dreaming, and––if one is desperate––a nice long cold shower.

When sweeping away thoughts of self-pity, it also helps to consider that there is always someone worse off than you who doesn't pity themselves. And if they don't need self-pity, neither do you or I.

I recently came across a short YouTube video on the intricate surgical treatment of a Chinese gentleman with uncontrolled ankylosing spondylitis who has lived the past two decades of his life completely folded over at the spine. This is a man who spent 20 years with his head essentially tucked between his legs, and what do we see him doing in the video? Is he complaining, or otherwise engaging in self-pity? No, far from it: we see him carrying on with his daily business in the hospital, making music and singing with his mother, staying hopeful about the future, and expressing gratitude for what the doctors have done for him. He may feel bad for himself, but we see no evidence of this. He thus stands as proof (literally and metaphorically!) that self-pity isn't necessary in even the most dire and brutal of circumstances.

The Problem of Citation Shopping

The ease with which the internet allows us to share information with one another is both marvelous and terrifying. It's marvelous because the internet puts to shame just about every method of long-distance communication there was before the invention of the telephone, and because one's cell phone or computer contains incalculably more information than all of the greatest libraries of the past put together, whereas it's terrifying because it encourages confirmation bias, and because it can be dangerous when certain readily accessible information falls into the wrong hands. 

Regarding confirmation bias, one problem that seems to occur in informal or academic debates of any sort is "citation shopping," wherein one goes to their preferred search engine or source of information (eg, Google, PubMed, Quora, PhilPapers, Reddit) for the sole purpose of finding professional publications that support one's views. This is a problem because no matter how implausible or fringe a theory is––whether the topic concerns medicine, archaeology, physics, economics, history, religious studies, politics, conspiracies, ethics, or whatever––there will almost always be at least one journal, website, or publisher that has printed an article or book defending that theory. 

This isn't to say that all apparently implausible and fringe theories are false and/or not worth taking seriously. I only wish to suggest that the availability of professional defenses of such theories can cause trouble, particularly for the non-professional internet user. 

For example, if I'm a layman who prefers "natural" remedies over traditional allopathic medical treatments, and I'm interested in whether I can use such-and-such an herb to cure my hepatitis B, we shouldn't be surprised if there is a clinical trial somewhere on the internet which suggests that the herb of interest can indeed cure hepatitis B, no matter how poorly designed the trial is, how poorly regarded the journal in which it was published is, or how dubious, from a mechanistic perspective, the idea that a single herb can cure hepatitis B is. Likewise, if I'm a layman who wants to know whether aliens helped build the Great Pyramid of Giza, there are plenty of books, documentaries, and other materials available online that defend this thesis, even if the vast majority of ancient historians don't take it seriously. 

People will continue to citation shop as long as the internet is a thing, and I won't pretend that it's not something I commonly do. But knowing the epistemic risks associated with it, it seems imperative on us as rational agents to also seek out resources criticizing any theory or view for which we're citation shopping, and also to keep in mind our epistemic context––for instance, whether we're an expert in the relevant topics, whether the theory is widely accepted, whether the theory is plausible in light of everyday experience and other background knowledge, and so forth.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Some Comments on William Law's A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life

William Law (1686-1761) was an Anglican scholar and devotional writer who lived and died in England. The Serious Call is his most famous work. First published in 1728, it is an exhortation to a life of piety and obedience to God. It has influenced a number of important figures in modern Christendom, such as John Wesley and Cardinal Newman, and has even been admired by those who were either lukewarm or hostile towards Christianity, such as Dr. Johnson and Edward Gibbon the historian.

The book is certainly not without its flaws. Some of its cultural and theological presuppositions are outdated, and it contains some borderline antisemitic remarks which ought to be condemned. On the whole, though, it is a powerful clarion call to leading a better, more meaningful life, particularly if one accepts Law's Christian framework, but even if one rejects it.

In what follows I'll quote and comment upon some of the most noteworthy passages from the Serious Call.

The best way for any one to know how much he ought to aspire after holiness, is to consider, not how much will make his present life easy, but to ask himself, how much he thinks will make him easy at the hour of death.

Now any man that dares be so serious, as to put this question to himself, will be forced to answer, that at death, every one will wish that he had been as perfect as human nature can be.

Is not this therefore sufficient to put us not only upon wishing, but labouring after all that perfection, which we shall then lament the want of? Is it not excessive folly to be content with such a course of piety as we already know cannot content us, at a time when we shall so want it, as to have nothing else to comfort us? How can we carry a severer condemnation against ourselves, than to believe, that, at the hour of death, we shall want the virtues of the Saints, and wish that we had been amongst the first servants of God, and yet take no methods of arriving at their height of piety, whilst we are alive?

Though this is an absurdity that we can easily pass over at present, whilst the health of our bodies, the passions of our minds, the noise, and hurry, and pleasures, and business of the world, lead us on with eyes that see not, and ears that hear not; yet, at death, it will set itself before us in a dreadful magnitude, it will haunt us like a dismal ghost, and our conscience will never let us take our eyes from it. (Chapter III)

A clean conscience is indeed one of the greatest possessions we can have. At the very least, if one's conscience is clean, it is one less thing to worry about. 

As Law indicates, a "dirty" conscience will, for many of us, be hard to bear if we know that death is right around the corner. The problem is that even though we all know we're going to die, we don't approach the thought of death with a sense of urgency owing to "the health of our bodies, the passions of our minds, the noise, the hurry," and other distractions. Why, indeed, worry about death while we're full of life? Such a question has been explored by authors as diverse as Seneca, Leo Tolstoy, and Martin Heidegger. A reasonable answer is: (1) death is coming, (2) death can come at any time, and (3) life is short and often feels even shorter, no matter how old we are when we die. But, again, it's difficult to appreciate just how imminent death is when our lives are going pretty well. I happen to have chronic pain, which helps me appreciate the imperfection and inevitable breakdown of the body. Even then, I tend to go about my daily business without ever pausing to think, "Oh. Right. I'm going to die." 

How might we "breathe some life" into the reality of death, so that we can keep our priorities straight at all times? Law offers an interesting answer in a later chapter:

Having thus examined and confessed your sins at this hour of the evening [ie, 6 P.M.], you must afterwards look upon yourself as still obliged to betake yourself to prayer again, just before you go to bed.

The subject that is most proper for your prayers at that time is death. Let your prayers, therefore, then be wholly upon it, reckoning upon all the dangers, uncertainties, and terrors of death; let them contain everything that can affect and awaken your mind into just apprehensions of it. Let your petitions be all for right sentiments of the approach and importance of death; and beg of God, that your mind may be possessed with such a sense of its nearness, that you may have it always in your thoughts, do everything as in sight of it, and make every day a day of preparation for it.

Represent to your imagination, that your bed is your grave; that all things are ready for your interment; that you are to have no more to do with this world; and that it will be owing to God's great mercy, if you ever see the light of the sun again, or have another day to add to your works of piety. (Chapter XXIII)

So, if one is religious, they can pray about death at bedtime. If one isn't religious, they can merely contemplate it or imagine it approaching, again at bedtime. This is a great piece of advice I don't believe I've ever encountered before. I may very well put it into practice.

If you should see a man passing his days in disquiet, because he could not walk upon the water, or catch birds as they fly by him, you would readily confess that such a one might thank himself for such uneasiness. But now if you look into all the most tormenting disquiets of life, you will find them all thus absurd: where people are only tormented by their own folly, and vexing themselves at such things as no more concern them, nor are any more their proper good, than walking upon the water, or catching birds.

What can you conceive more silly and extravagant, than to suppose a man racking his brains, and studying night and day how to fly? -- wandering from his own house and home, wearying himself with climbing upon every ascent, cringing and courting everybody he meets to lift him up from the ground, bruising himself with continual falls, and at last breaking his neck? -- and all this from an imagination that it would be glorious to have the eyes of people gazing up at him, and mighty happy to eat, and drink, and sleep, at the top of the highest trees in the kingdom: would you not readily own that such a one was only disquieted by his own folly?

If you ask, what it signifies to suppose such silly creatures as these, as are nowhere to be found in human life?

It may be answered, that wherever you see an ambitious man, there you see this vain and senseless flyer. (Chapter XI)

There is a lot of truth here. Much of our satisfaction with life comes from the goals we set for ourselves, and these goals are often defined not by what we want, or by what we should rationally want, but by what we think someone in our time and place should want. For instance, if I'm planning to attend a party with many others my age, I may not really want to come across as "fashionable" by wearing snazzy clothes which make me stick out amongst the crowd, and there may be no rational reason why I would do such a thing. My culture, however, tells me that it is a good thing to come across as fashionable, so there is a part of me that does indeed want to wear snazzy clothes, even if the rest of me doesn't. Thus, if for whatever reason I don't wear snazzy clothes, I'll be partly unsatisfied.

Such is the nature of what the existentialists call "inauthenticity," or being unfaithful to one's true self. Many standard modern-day desires, such as to drive fast cars, climb the corporate ladder, have a "sexy" body, or build a substantial following on social media, are inauthentic and so incapable of making us truly happy. Of course, a little bit of inauthenticity is probably inevitable unless one is a hermit or someone else completely separated from the world. This isn't necessarily problematic. It only becomes problematic when someone is fixated on an inauthentic or otherwise ludicrous desire, such as Law's flying man. One can have inauthentic desires and still be happy so long as those desires are not at the center of one's life.

Let us suppose a person destitute of that knowledge which we have from our senses, placed somewhere alone by himself, in the midst of a variety of things which he did not know how to use; that he has by him bread, wine, water, golden dust, iron chains, gravel, garments, fire, etc. Let it be supposed that he has no knowledge of the right use of these things, nor any direction from his senses how to quench his thirst, or satisfy his hunger, or make any use of the things about him. Let it be supposed, that in his drought he puts golden dust into his eyes; when his eyes smart, he puts wine into his ears; that in his hunger, he puts gravel into his mouth; that in pain, he loads himself with the iron chains; that feeling cold, he puts his feet in the water; that being frighted at the fire, he runs away from it; that being weary, he makes a seat of his bread. Let it be supposed, that through his ignorance of the right use of the things that are about him, he will vainly torment himself whilst he lives, and at last die, blinded with dust, choked with gravel, and loaded with irons. Let it be supposed that some good being came to him, and showed him the nature and use of all the things that were about him, and gave him such strict rules of using them, as would certainly, if observed, make him the happier for all that he had, and deliver him from the pains of hunger, and thirst, and cold.

Now could you with any reason affirm, that those strict rules of using those things that were about him, had rendered that poor man's life dull and uncomfortable?

Now this is in some measure a representation of the strict rules of religion; they only relieve our ignorance, save us from tormenting ourselves, and teach us to use everything about us to our proper advantage. (Chapter XI)

The imagery is powerful, but is the central claim any good? Does religion teach us how to order our lives?

As much as I instinctively want to answer "no," history would seem to suggest the opposite, at least to some degree. Yes, religion––Christianity in particular––has planted both good and bad ideas into the minds of men and women for many centuries now (for an anti-theistic argument based on the bad ideas, see Daniel Kodaj's "problem of religious evil"), and it's reasonable to debate whether the sum total of good ideas weighs more than, less than, or the same as the sum total of bad ideas. But it cannot be denied that some of religion's ideas have led to substantial improvements in the overall moral development of humanity. In the West, Christianity has played an instrumental role in normalizing charity to the poor, lonely, and disabled, for instance, and has helped shape some of the foundational norms of modern healthcare and education. Additionally, the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement were spearheaded by Christians for Christian reasons.

Such considerations lend support to the idea that religion has taught us how to order our lives. It may have also introduced some disorder into our lives, which threatens Law's claim that it teaches us "to use everything about us to our proper advantage" (emphasis added). But this doesn't erase the good that religion has done, and so doesn't completely confound Law's central thesis. It is fair to ask whether religion was necessary for the development of a robust notion of public philanthropy, or the abolition of slavery in the West, or whatever other significant good it has done, but this isn't a claim explicitly defended by Law.

This union of our souls and bodies is the reason both why we have so little and so much power over ourselves. It is owing to this union that we have so little power over our souls; for as we cannot prevent the effects of external objects upon our bodies, as we cannot command outward causes, so we cannot always command the inward state of our minds; because, as outward objects act upon our bodies without our leave, so our bodies act upon our minds by the laws of the union of the soul and the body; and thus you see it is owing to this union, that we have so little power over ourselves.

On the other hand, it is owing to this union that we have so much power over ourselves. For as our souls, in a great measure, depend upon our bodies; and as we have great power over our bodies; as we can command our outward actions, and oblige ourselves to such habits of life as naturally produce habits in the soul; as we can mortify our bodies, and remove ourselves from objects that inflame our passions; so we have a great power over the inward state of our souls. Again, as we are masters of our outward actions; as we can force ourselves to outward acts of reading, praying, singing, and the like, and as all these bodily actions have an effect upon the soul; as they naturally tend to form such and such tempers in our hearts; so by being masters of these outward, bodily actions, we have great power over the inward state of the heart: and thus it is owing to this union that we have so much power over ourselves. (Chapter XV)

The influence of the mind upon the body is so obvious that it is often forgotten that the relationship runs in both directions––that the body can have a strong influence upon the mind. This reminds me of some sage advice given by C.S. Lewis in Ch. 9 of his Mere Christianity

Do not waste time bothering whether you "love" your neighbour; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more.

The bi-directional relationship of mind and body is also the theoretical basis for the "protip" that if there is a certain task one needs to complete (eg, cleaning the garage, writing an essay for class, paying one's taxes), but one isn't feeling particularly motivated to complete it, one should go ahead and do it nonetheless. This won't always generate motivation to complete the task once it's been started, but oftentimes it will. If one waits to complete the task until the motivation to complete it has arrived, one may be waiting indefinitely.

No people have more occasion to be afraid of the approaches of pride, than those, who have made some advances in a pious life: for pride can grow as well upon our virtues as our vices, and steals upon us on all occasions.

Every good thought that we have, every good action that we do, lays us open to pride, and exposes us to the assaults of vanity and self-satisfaction.

It is not only the beauty of our persons, the gifts of fortune, our natural talents, and the distinctions of life; but even our devotions and alms, our fastings and humiliations, expose us to fresh and strong temptations of this evil spirit. (Chapter XVI)

I've had similar thoughts previously, though Law is much more effective than I am in getting his main points across. 

What can be done about pride? Law's answer is multifaceted but nothing out of the ordinary. One thing we can do is to consider the lowliness or "misery" of the human condition. For instance:

Let him [ie, anyone] but consider, that if the world knew all that of him, which he knows of himself; if they saw what vanity and passions govern his inside, and what secret tempers sully and corrupt his best actions; he would have no more pretence to be honoured and admired for his goodness and wisdom, than a rotten and distempered body to be loved and admired for its beauty and comeliness.

This is so true, and so known to the hearts of almost all people, that nothing would appear more dreadful to them, than to have their hearts thus fully discovered to the eyes of all beholders. (Chapter XVI)

The recommendation is sensible because just about everyone has at least one or two skeletons in the closet, particularly when it comes to their motives for doing something which, to others, may seem quite admirable. There are millions of people who engage in charity and volunteer activities every year, for instance, but how many of them really want to help others, as opposed to getting recognition for their actions or simply feeling good about themselves? The idea that true charity, or true altruism may be impossible because self-interest is inescapable is discussed by well-known philosophers such as Thomas Nagel. My suspicion is that charity completely devoid of self-interest is possible, but only for a select few, such as a small number of saints, monks, or just all-around good people. The rest of us will have to make do with a few scoops of self-seeking mixed into our motivations for performing charitable actions. 

At the same time, it is natural to try to portray one's charitable deeds as being free of self-interest. It is standard fare, for instance, for high school and college students to "pad" their resumes by volunteering in their free time. Some students may volunteer for purely charitable reasons, and some may do it for purely selfish reasons, but most probably do it for a combination of both types of reasons. However, if a college student were applying for law school, and during an interview she is asked why she has spent more than 500 hours volunteering at, say, a nursing home, she would never say that she did it to impress the law programs to which she's applied. She would, rather, say that she is passionate about caring for the elderly, or she is interested in disability law, or she cherished the time she spent with her grandparents when she was little, or so forth. It would indeed be "dreadful" to her if the interviewer could clearly see that her motives are not so pure, though a worldly-wise interviewer should understand that most law school applicants who have volunteered have some sort of ulterior motive for having done so.

This isn't to single out students who volunteer for special treatment, just to illustrate Law's more general point that many of us would in fact would be ashamed if others could somehow see through our various masks and facades to get a glimpse at what we're really like.

Again: to lessen your fear and regard to the opinion of the world, think how soon the world will disregard you, and have no more thought or concern about you, than about the poorest animal that died in a ditch.

Your friends, if they can, may bury you with some distinction, and set up a monument, to let posterity see that your dust lies under such a stone; and when that is done, all is done. Your place is filled up by another, the world is just in the same state it was, you are blotted out of its sight, and as much forgotten by the world as if you had never belonged to it. (Chapter XVII)

Some consoling thoughts for whenever I feel inadequate or unproductive.

Had we continued perfect, as God created the first man, perhaps the perfection of our nature had been a sufficient self-instruction for every one. But as sickness and diseases have created the necessity of medicines and physicians, so the change and disorder of our rational nature have introduced the necessity of education and tutors.

And as the only end of the physician is to restore nature to its own state, so the only end of education is to restore our rational nature to its proper state. Education, therefore, is to be considered as a reason borrowed at second-hand, which is, as far as it can, to supply the loss of original perfection. And as physic may justly be called the art of restoring health, so education should be considered in no other light, than as the art of recovering to man the use of his reason. (Chapter XVIII)

A curious take on the nature of education which reminds one of the Platonic view that learning involves the recollection of knowledge previously possessed by the soul. Education does not involve the acquisition of something new, in both Law's and Plato's view, but rather the reclaiming of something that was there all along.

Of course, such a view requires some qualifications, and these Law provides. For example, one may wonder what it would mean for world history or the periodic table to be part of one's rational nature, but Law says that education should inculcate the discoveries and wisdom of previous intellectuals, such as historians and scientists. So perhaps we might say that one's education, as a whole, should restore the proper functioning of one's rational nature, even if particular aspects of one's education seem to have only a tangential relationship to this end. This actually seems like quite a plausible opinion.

But, alas, our modern education is not of this kind [ie, it doesn't nourish one's rational nature].

The first temper that we try to awaken in children, is pride; as dangerous a passion as that of lust. We stir them up to vain thoughts of themselves, and do everything we can to puff up their minds with a sense of their own abilities.

Whatever way of life we intend them for, we apply to the fire and vanity of their minds, and exhort them to everything from corrupt motives. We stir them up to action from principles of strife and ambition, from glory, envy, and a desire of distinction, that they may excel others, and shine in the eyes of the world. (Chapter XVIII)

This may actually be more true today than it was back in Law's time. In both the U.S. and abroad, there are class rankings, selective schools and academic programs, sundry honors and awards for academic achievement, and sometimes life-changing standardized exams. In South Korea, for example, the high school students spend years preparing for the intimidating College Scholastic Ability Test, or CSAT, the results of which can more or less dictate one's prospects in life after graduation. Understandably, the CSAT is blamed for high rates of student sleep deprivation, burnout, stress, depression, and suicide, as students are studying up to 15 or 16 hours a day for months or longer before exam day. Some authors even consider the whole CSAT system a form of child abuse––the burden on students is that enormous.

Whether or not students are faced with something like the CSAT, a large proportion of modern education seems to rest on trying to outperform one's peers, whether it's in the classroom, on standardized tests, or on the soccer or track field. Of course, a bit of competition is probably a good thing for the young, as it can foster discipline and self-responsibility. But from my own experience, and from what I've seen or heard of educational systems outside the U.S., the amount of competition in modern education almost always exceeds a healthy threshold.

This has had some deleterious effects on my own psychology. There is one particularly troubling incident from senior year of high school that stands out in my memory. Every year, our small school took part in a national math competition in which juniors and seniors in participating high schools take a rather difficult multiple-choice, 75-minute exam with 25 questions. All of the students are then scored against those in their own school as well as in other participating schools, and a "school winner" is then declared in each school. If the score of the winner or any of the runner-ups is high enough, they're able to take a more advanced exam which can ultimately lead to them qualifying for the U.S. International Mathematics Olympiad team. 

Now, I had a sort of intellectual rivalry with one of my best friends, who was in the same grade as I was, but it's probably inaccurate to call it a true rivalry since she was in every way my obvious academic superior. This year, however, I happened to win the math competition within our school (my score was still so low that I wasn't invited to take the more advanced exam), and when the professor announced the results to our senior math class, I––for no logical reason whatsoever––immediately exclaimed in her direction, "Ha, I beat you!" Being both my friend and a patient person by nature, she just smirked and let the comment go. Everyone else, including the professor, stared at me like I had just made a fool of myself, which I indeed had. Fortunately, I possessed enough good sense to later apologize to her for my downright silly interjection, and she was kind enough to forgive me. But the fact that I was capable of doing such a thing in the first place bothers me even to this day. I wish it were the last time I've been driven by a sense of competition to do something that gross, but, alas, it is not.

The moral of the story is two-fold: (1) I'm far from perfect (no surprises there), and (2) competition, when excessive, can have a corrupting influence upon the mind. Of course, this particular incident may just be a reflection of my (hopefully former) immaturity, but I have to suspect that being embroiled in a big competition in an already competitive environment was a contributing factor to my regrettable behavior. 

Having said all of that, I don't know how the amount of competition can be kept within a healthy range so long as our education system is meritocratic. We presumably want to maintain some form of meritocracy within education, as it encourages students to work hard and do well in their studies and extracurricular activities. But it also promotes an atmosphere of competition among students, as every student is forced to struggle for a limited number of honors, awards, college acceptances, graduate school acceptances, internships, jobs, and so forth. There's probably some way to preserve meritocracy in education while also keeping competition at a safe level, but I don't have any special insight as to what this system might look like. 

It is, therefore, much to be lamented, that this sex [i.e., females], on whom so much depends, who have the first forming both of our bodies and our minds, are not only educated in pride, but in the silliest and most contemptible part of it.

They are not indeed suffered to dispute with us the proud prizes of arts and sciences, of learning and eloquence, in which I have much suspicion they would often prove our superiors; but we turn them over to the study of beauty and dress, and the whole world conspires to make them think of nothing else. Fathers and mothers, friends and relations, seem to have no other wish towards the little girl, but that she may have a fair skin, a fine shape, dress well, and dance to admiration. (Chapter XIX)

And slightly later:

It is generally said, that women are naturally of little and vain minds; but this I look upon to be as false and unreasonable, as to say that butchers are naturally cruel; for, as their cruelty is not owing to their nature, but to their way of life, which has changed their nature; so whatever littleness and vanity is to be observed in the minds of women, it is like the cruelty of butchers, a temper that is wrought into them by that life which they are taught and accustomed to lead. (Chapter XIX)

To think that Law penned these words over a century before first-wave feminism really kicked into gear! Quite commendable. Considering that he also built an all-girls school from scratch in his hometown of King's Cliffe, Law seems entitled to join Plato, J.S. Mill, and others in the pantheon of men who stood up for women before it was the norm to do so.

This doesn't mean that Law was some sort of progressive, though. In a fictional character portrait used to illustrate what Law considered praiseworthy and blameworthy living, Law has one of his virtuous women say that it is "better to cover the neck, than to go so far naked as the modern dress requires." I don't know what exactly the dress code permitted back then, but I'm pretty confident that even the most revealing clothing in that century would be considered somewhat modest by today's lax standards. As for the moral propriety of today's standards, I'm not sure. There are several reasons to allow people to dress however they want, and there are several reasons for proposing some minimal standards for how we dress. I'll have to put some more thought into it.

Law, in any event, ends up killing off the above woman who preferred to dress modestly:

The eldest daughter lived as long as she could under this discipline [ie, under the care of her despotic, worldly mother], and died in the twentieth year of her age.

When her body was opened it appeared that her ribs had grown into her liver, and that her other entrails were much hurt by being crushed together with her stays, which her mother had ordered to be twitched so strait, that it often brought tears into her eyes whilst the maid was dressing her. (Chapter XIX)

There actually is controversy about whether corsets––which are still worn today––can cause damage to the musculoskeletal system and internal organs. I doubt the damage is typically as severe as Law describes, but it seems possible in extreme cases.

As to your bodies, you are to consider them as poor, perishing things, that are sickly and corrupt at present, and will soon drop into common dust. You are to watch over them as enemies that are always trying to tempt and betray you, and so never follow their advice and counsel; you are to consider them as the place and habitation of your souls, and so keep them pure, and clean, and decent; you are to consider them as the servants and instruments of action, and so give them food, and rest, and raiment, that they may be strong and healthful to do the duties of a charitable, useful, pious life. (Chapter XIX)

This passage reminds us that, no matter how much Christians may wish to deny it, there is a strong element of otherworldliness in the Christian worldview. One thinks of Paul's description of the body as a mere "tent" in which we temporarily live, or his claim that those who live according to the flesh will die. Of course, it might be responded that just because Christianity lays emphasis on the afterlife, that doesn't mean it finds no value in the present life. This much can be granted, but a sober look at the history and theology of Christianity lends some credence to the Nietzschean view that Christianity has an innate tendency to de-value life. How much this tendency matters will depend on whether Christianity is true.

It is very possible, I hope, for you not only to dislike, but to detest and abhor a great many of your own past actions, and to accuse yourself of great folly for them. But do you then lose any of those tender sentiments towards yourself, which you used to have? Do you then cease to wish well to yourself? Is not the love of yourself as strong then, as at any other time?

Now what is thus possible with relation to ourselves, is in the same manner possible with relation to others. We may have the highest good wishes towards them, desiring for them every good that we desire for ourselves, and yet, at the same time, dislike their way of life. (Chapter XX)

I'm not sure this will work on a practical level for many people. We tend to rationalize or otherwise sugarcoat any past behavior of ours that might at first glance seem contemptible, whereas we tend not to do the same when we see someone else acting contemptibly. It thus requires extraordinary discipline to "love the sinner but hate the sin." Many of us probably end up hating the sinner/wrongdoer any time we see them doing something sinful/wrong. It would indeed be ideal if this were not the case, if we could love the sinner while hating their sin, but Law's argument from self-love and self-forgiveness is weak and so won't bring us much closer to this ideal state. 

Those are the quotes I most wanted to discuss. The Serious Call is chock-full of memorable passages, which is one of the reasons it has stayed in print for so long. I encourage everyone, Christian or not, to check it out and try to put some of its advice to use.