26 January 2007

Doubts about SEP

Typically I find myself feeling very grateful for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, yet sometimes I wonder whether it deserves to be taken as seriously as a print encyclopedia. Its great strength--the lack of any true need to economize on words--in some instances appears to be its real weakness.

That it need not go through the expense of being printed explains why SEP can contain lengthy articles on, for instance, "Supertasks", a footnote to a footnote to a footnote to Plato. A valuable discussion, one might concede--but is it as valuable as a concise article on Zeno's paradoxes which, exercising exemplary good judgment, mentioned but then dismissed the solution involving "supertasks" as misguided?--Or must all possible literature reviews be included in an encyclopedia? (That would be a supertask.)

Sometimes I find an article the wordiness of which is never justified even on its own terms. An absurdly lengthy entry on "Time Travel and Modern Physics"--which, in truth, lacks the claim to authority that an encyclopedia article should have, but reads, rather, like one professor's lecture notes--at least has the good sense to conclude with an honest admission, which, however, completely undermines the author's efforts:

Similarly, even if all of our consistency conditions can be met, it does not follow that time travel is physically possible, only that some specific physical considerations cannot rule it out. The only serious proof of the possibility of time travel would be a demonstration of its actuality. [Thanks for that bit of commonsense!] For if we agree that there is no actual time travel in our universe, the supposition that there might have been involves postulating a substantial difference from actuality, a difference unlike in kind from anything we could know if firsthand. It is unclear to us exactly what the content of possible would be if one were to either maintain or deny the possibility of time travel in these circumstances, unless one merely meant that the possibility is not ruled out by some delineated set of constraints. As the example of Aristotle's theory of water shows, conceptual and logical “possibility” do not entail possibility in a full-blooded sense. What exactly such a full-blooded sense would be in case of time travel, and whether one could have reason to believe it to obtain, remain to us obscure.
Obscure indeed--but one suspects that the author's spilling of 15,000 words on the topic has helped contribute to its obscurity.

John Marenbon's article on Boethius, which I have been looking to recently for illumination, presents a similar problem in its section 6, "Divine Prescience, Contingency, and Eternity", a tangled and obscure exposition, which surely would have turned out better if editors had required that it occupy one-third the space.

First of all, it contains strange and incoherent sentences--a clear sign of poor editing:
In V.3, however, the character Boethius puts forward an argument, based on God's foreknowledge of future events, which threatens to show that even mental acts of willing are determined and so (as Boethius the author believed) unfree.

None the less, the discussion which follows does not, as the danger seems to be, address itself to a non-problem.

They hold that Philosophy is arguing that God is atemporal, so eliminating the problems about determinism, which arise when God's knowing future contingents is seen an event in the past, and therefore, fixed.
Second, the discussion gives no clear answer to what Boethius took the problem about divine foreknowledge to be, and how he attempted to solve it.

It mentions first the supposed scope fallacy in a modal operator--but one does not know why, since Marenbon tells us that this is not the problem considered in the text. Then we are told that Boethius' solution requires that we not think of God as "in time" but rather "in eternity". That surely is correct, yet Marenbon concludes by saying that "[i]t is important to add, however, that most contemporary interpreters do not read the argument of V.3–6 in quite this way" because "[t]hey hold that Philosophy is arguing that God is atemporal, so eliminating the problems about determinism, which arise when God's knowing future contingents is seen an [sic] event in the past, and therefore, fixed"--which, as far as one can tell, looks indistinguishable from Marenbon's view.

Surely an encyclopedia, whether online or not, is obliged to offer something clearer, more orderly, and more definitive than this.