Saturday, March 25, 2017

Oh no

First Colin McGinn, now John Searle? No! My idols are all turning into golden calves. Is it writing on philosophy of mind that does it?

Friday, March 24, 2017


Here's an essay by a nurse and nursing instructor who formerly assisted in performing abortions. She argues the pro-life position. She is not arguing against abortion from a religious perspective but from a medical perspective.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017


OK, in light of the fact that Kyrie Irving of the NBA and Shaquille O'Neal formerly of the NBA have come out saying they believe the earth is flat, I thought it would be a good time to revisit my two main posts on the subject:

A Spherical Argument

Yes Virginia, there are flat-earthers

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Incoherence of Fame

Or maybe I should say the incoherence of the desire for fame. The desire for fame is the desire to be loved writ large. We all want to be loved and appreciated and not to be hated or ignored or unappreciated. But the desire to be loved makes sense: we want people to recognize who we truly are and love us for it. The desire to be loved is the desire to be known and have that knowledge make a positive impact on someone else. But the desire to be famous skips over the "known" part. It's the desire to be loved without being known. And this is incoherent. What exactly would people in this situation be loving? Not you. They'd love their image of you, but the image is superficial and not verisimilitudenous. Their image is not you. And since they'd love their image, it wouldn't be you they love. So the desire to be famous is the desire to be loved without being known. But being loved presupposes being known. The whole desire for fame is simply incoherent. And yet it's part of the human condition.

And the irony is that we are offered love from someone who knows us more deeply than we know ourselves. Perhaps you could say God loves us despite who we are, but he also loves us for who we are. So we have the opportunity for genuine fame -- that is being known by the ground of being itself and loved -- and we reject it in favor of incoherent fame. God save us.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Happy Pi Day

I just bought a cake. A square cake. Yeah, I'm a rebel.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Quote of the Day

Most of us remember when the grace of God first reached our hearts. We were troubled about our sins which had put us at such a distance from God, and the great questions that exercised us were these: How can our sins be put away? How can we be freed from this sense of guilt? How can we ever feel at home with God when we know we have so grievously trespassed against Him and so wantonly violated His holy law? We shall never forget, many of us, how we were brought to see that what we could never do ourselves, God had done for us through the work of our Lord Jesus on the cross. We remember when we sang with exultation:

"All my iniquities on Him were laid,
All my indebtedness by Him was paid,
All who believe on Him, the Lord hath said,
Have everlasting life."

This is the truth of the trespass offering, in which sin assumes the aspect of a debt needing to be discharged.

But as we went on we began to get a little higher view of the work of the cross. We saw that sin was not only a debt requiring settlement, but that it was something which in itself was defiling and unclean, something that rendered us utterly unfit for companionship with God, the infinitely Holy One. And little by little the Spirit of God opened up another aspect of the atonement and we say that our blessed Lord not only made expiation for all our guiltiness but for all our defilement too. "For God hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." It was a wondrous moment in the history of our souls when we saw that we were saved eternally, and made fit for God's presence because the Holy One had become the great sin offering, was made sin for us on Calvary's cross.

But there were other lessons we had to learn. We soon saw that because of their sins men are at enmity with God, that there could be no communion with God until a righteous basis for fellowship was procured. Something had to take place before God and man could meet together in perfect enjoyment and happy complacency. And thus we began to enter into the peace offering aspect of the work of Christ. We saw that it was God's desire to bring us into fellowship with Himself, and this could only be as redeemed sinners who had been reconciled to God through the death of our Lord Jesus.

As we learned to value more the work the Saviour did, we found ourselves increasingly occupied with the Person who did that work. In the beginning it was the value of the blood that gave us peace in regard to our sin, but after we went on we learned to enjoy Him for what He is in Himself. And this is the meal offering; for it is here that we see Christ in all His perfection, God and Man in one glorious Person, and our hearts become ravished with His beauty and we feed with delight upon Himself.

We can understand now what the poetess meant when she sang:

"They speak to me of music rare,
Of anthems soft and low,
Of harps, and viols, and angel-choirs,
All these I can forego;

But the music of the Shepherd's voice
That won my wayward heart
Is the only strain I ever heard
With which I cannot part."

"For, ah, the Master is so fair,
His smile's so sweet to banished men
That they who meet Him unaware
Can never rest on Earth again.

And they who see Him risen afar
At God's right hand, to welcome them,
Forgetful are of home and land,
Desiring fair Jerusalem."

To the cold formalist all this seems mystical and extravagant, but to the true lover of Christ it is the soberest reality.

And now there remains one other aspect of the Person and work of our Lord to be considered, and it is this which is set forth in the burnt offering. As the years went on some of us began to apprehend, feebly at first, and then perhaps in more glorious fulness, something that in the beginning had never even dawned upon our souls, through the work of Christ upon the cross there was something in that work of tremendous importance which meant even more to God than the salvation of sinners.

He created man for His own glory. The catechism is right when it tells us that "the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever." But, alas, nowhere had any man been found who had not dishonored God in some way. The charge that Daniel brought against Belshazzar, the Babylonian king, was true of us all: "The God in whose hand thy breath is, and whose are all thy ways, hast thou not glorified." God must find a man in this world who would fully glorify Him in all things. He had been so terribly dishonored down here; He had been so continually misrepresented by the first man to whom He had committed lordship over the earth, and by all his descendants, that it was necessary that some man should be found who would live in this scene wholly to His glory. God's character must be vindicated; and the Lord Jesus Christ, the Second Man, the Lord from heaven, was the only one who could do that. And in His perfect obedience unto death we see that which fully meets all the requirements of the divine nature and glorifies God completely in the scene where He had been so sadly misrepresented. This is the burnt offering aspect of the Cross. By means of that cross more glory accrued to God than He had ever lost by the fall. So that we may say that even if not one sinner had ever been saved through the sacrifice of our Lord upon the tree, yet God had been fully glorified in respect of sin, and no stain could be imputed to His character, nor could any question ever be raised through all eternity as to His abhorrence of sin and His delight in holiness.

So in the book of Leviticus the burnt offering comes first, for it is that which is more precious to God and should therefore be most precious to us.

H.A. Ironside
Lectures on the Levitical Offerings

Jim's comments: This book is interesting, although some of the attempts to read Jesus back into the Levitical offerings seem pretty contrived to me. But this larger summary really spoke to me. I've always struggled with the parts of the Old Testament that detail sacrifices or genealogies -- I suspect many people do -- and this troubles me because we are told to reflect upon them, and that this will be a rewarding experience. This book goes a long way towards helping me in this regard.

The penultimate paragraph is also interesting because it has some relevance to the "O Felix Culpa" defense of the problem of evil, which Alvin Plantinga has stated is his favorite resolution. The idea here is that the best possible worlds would be those which include incarnation and atonement, that is, God entering into his creation and atoning for the sins of the world. These would be the best worlds because those worlds would reveal more of the depth of God's love. Possible worlds in which no one ever sinned could certainly display God's love, but not on the level that a world including incarnation and atonement would.

But of course a world with incarnation and atonement requires sin and evil, otherwise there would be nothing to atone for. In fact, the greater the sin and evil, the greater that world will reveal the depth of God's love in atoning for it. So the greatest possible worlds would be those with a great deal of sin and evil. Ironside goes further and says that even if no one ever accepts God's atonement, God would still do it because his nature requires sin to be atoned for.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017


I'm sorry, "Wow" is not strong enough. I think I'll go with "Wowie kazowie":

The light from A2744_YD4, as it is known, has been on its way to us for 13.2 billion years, since the universe was only 600 million years old. 
Where the galaxy is “now” is only a mathematical extrapolation — about 30 billion light-years from here, according to the standard cosmological math. An international team led by Nicolas Laporte of University College London, using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA, a radio telescope in Chile, was able to see this galaxy only because its light had been amplified by the gravity of a massive cluster of galaxies lying right in front of it.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Recent acquisitions

Alfred Bester, Virtual Unrealities: The Short Fiction of Alfred Bester
James Blaylock, The Last Coin
James Blish, The Devil's Day
Algis Budrys, Rogue Moon
A. Bertram Chandler, Into the Alternate Universe and Contraband from Otherspace
A. Bertram Chandler, The Commodore at Sea and Spartan Planet
Gardner Dozois, The Year's Best Science Fiction, 4th Annual Collection
C.S. Friedman, This Alien Shore
Damon Knight, The Best of Damon Knight
Jonathan Lethem, As She Climbed Across the Table
Larry Niven, Flatlander
Larry Niven and Gregory Benford, Bowl of Heaven
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Escape from Hell
Frederik Pohl, Gateway
John Scalzi, Zoe's Tale
Dan Simmons, Ilium
Dan Simmons, Olympos
Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon
George Zebrowski, Macrolife
Roger Zelazny, The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth


1. I got all of them for about seventy bucks. That's my saving grace with my book-hoarding: I love getting good deals.

2. Dozois's 4th annual Year's Best Science Fiction is the earliest one I have (1986). However, I'm looking for annual collections from different editors. Dozois is great, but I find he includes a lot of stories that do nothing for me. I have little appreciation for cyberpunk, and none whatsoever for transhumanism. So if anyone out there knows an editor who compiles an annual "best of" science-fiction, let me know, I'll check it out.

3. Several of the books are in omnibuses. (That sounds weird: "omnibus" is a plural word already.) Obviously the two Chandler books have two novels each -- in fact, I got both of those books for $1.95, total $3.90. That's 97½¢ per novel. I haven't read anything by Chandler yet, but I've heard good things about the realistic military writing, so I'm looking forward to them. Niven's Flatlander consists of The Long Arm of Gil Hamilton and The Patchwork Girl. And Blish's Devil's Day consists of Black Easter and The Day After Judgment. This is the third in his After Such Knowledge trilogy, which starts with A Case for Conscience (which I have) and Doctor Mirabilis (which I don't). A Catholic friend of mind read Case for Conscience and loathed it: he thought it misunderstood those elements of Christianity that are always misunderstood in the same way. I don't know, I liked it, but I'd have to read it again.

4. Escape from Hell by Niven and Pournelle is a sequel to their Inferno. That's the one I immediately started reading. I'm about halfway through it. Love it.

5. I've been wanting Pohl's Gateway for a long time. Ditto for Scalzi's Zoe's Tale, Stephenson's Cryptonomicon and Zebrowski's Macrolife. Scalzi just has a natural gift, he reads like Heinlein. I'm loving just about everything I read from Dan Simmons, so I'm excited about his two-book series (is there a word for that?) Ilium and Olympos. And I read Zelazny's Doors of His Face, Lamps of His Mouth a few years ago and thought several of the stories (including the titular one) were just amazing.

6. I swear I didn't plan this, but two of these books deal with satanic issues, and incredibly, both are dedicated to C.S. Lewis: Devil's Day and Escape from Hell. (Actually, Blaylock's Last Coin might be seen as falling into the first category too.)

Monday, February 27, 2017

Quote of the Day

Thor is called, in Scandinavia, The Defender of the World, and amulet miniatures of his hammer have for centuries been worn to afford protection. At Stockholm, the museum holds one of amber from a late paleolithic date; and from the early metal ages fifty or more tiny T-shaped hammers of silver and gold have been collected. In fact, even to the present -- or, at least, to the first years of the present century -- Manx fishermen have been accustomed to wear the T-shaped bone from the tongue of a sheep to protect them from the sea; and in German slaughterhouses workers have been seen with the same bone suspended from their necks.

An unforeseen, somewhat startling overtone is added by this observation to the T-motif that has already been discussed in connection with the Celtic Christian Tunc-page (which is of a date when the Celtic and Viking spheres of influence were in many ways interlaced); and, of course, then vice versa: the apparently merely grotesque fishing episode acquires a new range of possible significance when the T of the Celtic page is identified with Thor's hammer as well as with Christ's cross. We might, in fact, even ask whether in Manx and German folklore the T-shaped bone of the sheep -- the sacrificial lamb -- may not have been consciously identified with the world-redeeming cross of the man-god Christ, as well as with the world-defending hammer of the native, far more ancient, even possibly paleolithic, man-god Thor.

Joseph Campbell
Occidental Mythology: The Masks of God, vol. 3

Jim's comments: And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you make a conspiracy theory. 1) Find some random and unrelated factoids. 2) Divorce them from the theories in which you encountered them. 3) Construct a theory about how these factoids really are related, ignoring all the evidence that puts them in the theories you just divorced them from. 4) Portray your contrived theory as the norm, and suggest all deviations from it are what's really contrived -- an excellent example of a pre-emptive tu quoque.

The first paragraph ends with a footnote referencing two works: A.C. Haddon, Magic and Fetishism (1906), pp. 39-40, which you can read here; and B. Phillpotts, "German Heathenism," in The Cambridge Medieval History, volume 2 (1913), pp. 481-82, which you can read here. Phillpotts just references Haddon's work. Haddon reports that another person, Mr. E. Lovett, points to the sheep tongue bones worn "by Whitby, and probably by other Yorkshire fisherman" as good luck charms to protect them from drowning. Basically, some people in a small village wore them and Haddon thinks it probable that the practice extends beyond that village, although no reason for this extension is given. There is also no reference given for E. Lovett, although perhaps there's a bibliography which I can't access. Lovett further suggests that this t-shaped bone might be meant to represent Thor's hammer. Might. Later, Haddon says another person, Professor Boyd Dawkins, told him that Manx fisherman (from the Isle of Man) wore something similar. Haddon then informed yet another person, Herr E. Friedel, of this practice, and Friedel said some Berlin slaughter yard workers also wore something similar. There seems to be a parenthetical reference here. Friedel then discovered that representations of Thor's hammer were worn in the early Iron Age in Denmark, and suggests that they devolved from a fetish to a lucky charm. How this connection from an early Iron Age practice in a different country led to the use of sheep tongue bones in England millennia later is unexplained. Also unexplained is how these amulets could be said to represent Thor's hammer, since there is a significant gap between the early Iron Age (around 1000 BC) and the first references to Thor. Moreover, a t-shape is a pretty simple form, after all. It's just two perpendicular lines. And what about all the fishermen from other areas who use different good luck charms? What about all the non-fishermen's charms? I'd like more evidence than some people speculating about a possible connection referencing each other.

Perhaps I'm being overly critical. Perhaps there is a connection. But Joseph Campbell shifts the whole thing from first gear into sixth. He finds some title of Thor (Defender of the World) that sounds vaguely like some titles of God in the Judeo-Christian traditions. He then adds further that a t-shape is pretty similar to a cross, which is obviously a major symbol of Christianity. And to tie it all off with a bow, he suggests the use of a bone from a sheep sounds like the Christian idea of Jesus as a sacrificial lamb. Dude. Do I really have to explain how ridiculously contrived this is? You could find connections between anything with this kind of reasoning. Maybe using rabbits feet as lucky charms devolved from an earlier practice of lamb's feet, which was symbolic of Jesus. I mean, you can say anything about anything.

That's Campbell's methodology. Find a myth wholly unrelated to Christianity, check. Find some element of that myth that can be implied to be similar to an element of Christianity when both are divorced from their larger contexts, check. Repeat ad nauseum.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017


I put this together last August and then never posted it for some reason. The news articles are six months old.

-- A list of the solar system's most livable places. Earth not included.

-- The myth of the ethical vegan. I have a lot of respect for vegetarians and vegans who do what they do because they are opposed to eating meat on ethical grounds, but the article points out that merely refraining from eating meat oneself actually causes more animal death in the long run.

-- Moon Express has been approved for a private landing on the Moon in . . . 2017.

-- Some people are horrified by Rudyard Kipling's imperialism and defense of the "white man's burden" (which I just spoke about in class today). This author defends him quite well.

-- They found a 400-year old Greenland shark, which makes it the oldest vertebrate. Descartes was 20 years old when it was born.

-- A couple of articles, here and here, on six scientists who lived in isolation on Hawaii for one year to simulate a Mars mission. When did they stop using Devon Island?

-- NASA re-established contact with the STEREO-B spacecraft, nearly two years after losing it. Remember, this is six months old.

-- A possible lifesite at Proxima Centauri.

-- Most influential living philosophers. I'm skeptical. Plantinga doesn't make the list?

Update: I forgot and buried the lede! NASA has discovered a star with seven -- count 'em, seven -- earth-sized planets in orbit. There's plenty of articles about it at And this is not a six month old news story.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Visiting Venus

This is very interesting. NASA has developed electronics to withstand the conditions on Venus. Venus is closer than Mars, but because the atmosphere is so dense and the temperature so high -- it's about 90 earth atmospheres (like being 3,000 feet underwater) and hotter than Mercury -- it's a tad difficult to send anything to land there. The article points out that Venera 13 lasted 127 minutes on the surface, and that's the record. But if there are new forms of electronics that can survive there, the possibilities open up. Once, I was googling to find out the highest mountain on Venus (Maxwell Montes, 11 km high or 6.8 miles elevation) to see if we have the technology to survive there. The temperature there would only be 716 degrees Fahrenheit and the density would only be 44 earth atmospheres. I note that the Exosuit is good to about 30 atmospheres (equivalent to about 1,000 feet underwater). However, if we had a motive, I'm confident the technology would be forthcoming. Of course if your Venus suit failed ... that ... that would suck. At any rate, if we have electronics we can put off sending people down there right away. We can have a manned habitat in orbit that sends down probes, even probes that can return. Or we can even go further and have never-landing aircraft in Venus's atmosphere. In fact, that would probably be the closest to earth conditions anywhere in the solar system. If you had the aircraft at the elevation that's one atmosphere, you'd just need a breathing mask to wander out on the lanai. Geoffrey Landis, NASA scientist and science-fiction author, has written about this possibility.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Quote of the Day is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects -- military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden -- that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time.

C.S. Lewis
Beyond Personality in
Mere Christianity

Monday, February 6, 2017

The EM drive and abductive reasoning

I've mentioned the EM drive before and how it seems to violate Newton's third law. I hope it works because it would be a boon for space exploration. A recent Popular Mechanics article discusses it and summarizes its apparent incongruity with contemporary physics: "It's much more likely that the researchers are overlooking something than that much of our physics is wrong." Yes indeedy. That's called abductive reasoning or inference to the best explanation. The classic example is when astronomer's noticed that Uranus's orbit was not following the path Newton's laws dictated. The two explanations were that a) Newton's laws were wrong, or b) there's a gravity well somewhere out there pulling Uranus out of orbit. They calculated where the gravity well would be, pointed their telescopes there, and bingo! -- that's how Neptune was discovered.

Of course abduction is not absolute like deduction or even as strong as induction. Take three possible arrangements of three elements: X; Y; and XàY.


The first premise states the law XàY: if X is the case, then Y is the case. The second premise affirms that X is the case. Therefore Y is the case; in fact Y must be the case. All hail deduction! This is a pretty standard conditional syllogism, modus ponens in particular.


The first premise is that X is the case. The second is that Y is the case. We can take this to mean that whenever X is the case Y is also the case -- that is, whenever X is observed, Y is observed following it. So the conclusion is the law  XàY. Of course, this could fail to be the case: induction is not deductively valid. If it were, we would call it deduction. As stated, this may commit the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this). Perhaps X and Y occur together for something other than a strict causal relation flowing from X to Y. But the above formulation is just meant as an illustration.


The first premise states the law, if X is the case then Y is the case. The second premise affirms that Y is the case. From this we abductively infer that X is the case. This pretty clearly commits the deductive fallacy of affirming the consequent -- or would commit it if it were being presented as a deduction. It would also commit the inductive fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc -- if it were induction. The idea here is that we have a store of possible explanations for Y. We know the law, if X then Y. Therefore, one possible explanation of Y is X. Again, this is not deductively valid, but so what? We have several potential explanations for Y, X is available and is in fact the best explanation, so we abductively infer X.

Science constantly uses abductive reasoning; in fact, scientists were doing so for centuries before C.S. Peirce, a.k.a. the patron saint of philosophers of science, explained and validated it (this is one reason why you can't really study the philosophy of science without also studying the history of science). But it works enough of the time to justify its use. You can observe abductive reasoning in action by watching or reading any of the incarnations of Sherlock Holmes, despite the constant claims that he is using the science of deduction.

So, back to the EM drive. As with Uranus's orbit, the two possible explanations are that Newton's laws are wrong or we're missing something. The latter is much more likely, so absent further information, the best explanation is that Newton's third law is not being violated but that we are just not observing its application for some reason.

And this could be wrong. The example of Uranus's orbit is usually discussed alongside a similar problem with Mercury's. Newton's laws dictated that Mercury's orbit should follow a certain path and it wasn't. Easy! There's another gravity well between Mercury and the Sun that's pulling it out of its orbit. Except there wasn't. It turned out that the explanation here is that Newton's laws were wrong (or I would say, contra Thomas Kuhn, that Newton's laws needed to be supplemented for certain domains of measurement). We needed Einstein's theories of relativity to make sense of Mercury's orbit. Something like that could be the case with the EM drive, but again, it's probably not the best explanation. Yet.

Monday, January 30, 2017


Some University of Washington philosophers are teaching a course this coming spring term on critical thinking. A very specific aspect of critical thinking. Their course title is "Calling Bullsh*t" without the asterisk. Right away, though, I'm disappointed. In their syllabus, the second week's required reading will be a chapter from Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. But Sagan was as much a purveyor of bullsh*t as anyone, especially when accusing others of purveying bullsh*t. The title of that book is one example. Here's another. A third can be found in Dennis Danielson's essay "Copernicus and the Tale of the Pale Blue Dot" which does not seem to be online anymore. People who laud themselves as skeptics are only skeptical about what they want to be skeptical about.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Two more pieces

This arrangement of this piece of music just devastates me. It's Ave Maria by Vladimir Vavilov, a 20th century Russian composer. Apparently, Vavilov's schtick was to ascribe his music to earlier composers. This one he ascribes to Giulio Caccini, a late Renaissance early Baroque composer. The piece is actually less than 50 years old. You can hear it sung here, but the cello arrangement floors me, even moreso than Barber's Adagio for Strings. In fact, unless you're much less affected by music than me, if you're going through a difficult time right now, I strongly suggest you don't listen to it. It will break you.

OK, that's one piece; here's the next. The other day my wonderful six-almost-seven-year-old daughter was picking out a melody on her keyboard, which she does quite well and quite often. I wasn't listening. Then my son, who was doing something else, suddenly said to her, "Oh, I LOVE that song! That's my favorite song!" to which my daughter replied, "Mine too! That's my favorite song too!" I realized the song sounded familiar, but because it's not usually played on a child's keyboard, it took me a few moments to realize what it was: