Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A problem with middle knowledge

I'm inclined to accept middle knowledge. This is the view that God doesn't merely know what we will (freely choose to) do but he knows what we would (freely choose to) do under circumstances that are never actualized or never come to pass. In fact, God knows what a person whom he never creates would do under any possible circumstances. So God has this store of knowledge about what every possible person would (freely choose to) do under any possible circumstances, and he uses this knowledge to actualize -- that is, create -- the world. I think this answers a lot of the issues people have with the problem of evil, with the compatibility of divine foreknowledge and creaturely freedom, etc.

There are numerous objections to middle knowledge of course so it's not all sunshine and roses. But here I want to raise another potential objection. Perhaps that's too strong a term, actually, it's more like a potential problem. It's this: middle knowledge could explain virtually any scenario. But then you can't falsify it. This means you can't give any evidence that would rebut it. I say this is just a problem and not really an objection because you have to define "evidence" pretty narrowly to make it work -- as mentioned, there are plenty of objections to middle knowledge that have to be dealt with, and these objections could potentially refute it.

Anyway, my objection -- sorry, my problem -- can perhaps be illustrated by looking at some essays defending middle knowledge by William Lane Craig that specifically use it to explain Christian doctrines. The two essays I'm thinking of are:

"Lest Anyone Should Fall": A Middle Knowledge Perspective on Perseverance and Apostolic Warnings

and

"Men Moved By The Holy Spirit Spoke From God": A Middle Knowledge Perspective on Biblical Inspiration

So in these two cases, Craig is showing how middle knowledge uniquely explains the doctrines of a) the perseverance of the saints and b) the inspiration of the Bible (which could easily be a gateway to another essay giving a middle knowledge perspective on biblical inerrancy). Well and good. But then, it seems to me, you could write similar essays on other topics. For example:

"Upon This Rock I Will Build My Church": A Middle Knowledge Perspective on Papal Infallibility

which I presume Craig would not approve of as he is a Protestant (as am I). But such an essay could certainly be written. Of course Catholics could accept such a view, as long as they accept middle knowledge in the first place. But then what if I wrote an essay like this:

"The Governing Authorities that Exist Have Been Established by God": A Middle Knowledge Perspective on the Divine Right of Kings

Again, such an essay could be written, such a position could be defended by appealing to middle knowledge. My point is that it's difficult to see what restrictions we can put on this type of explanation. Presumably, someone could say the restriction would be biblical doctrines, but both of these positions have been defended by, I presume, honest and well-meaning Christians as biblical. Once you open the door, you're going to have people come in that you didn't invite.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Down syndrome children

This video was banned in France. The reasoning the court gave is that women who had aborted fetuses with Down Syndrome might be traumatized by it. That could certainly be the case: a woman who had agonized over having an abortion, and finally decided to have one because she thought the child would lead an empty, miserable life could be horrified to discover that she had actually stolen a beautiful, joyous life from her own child -- a life that would not only be blessed, but one that would bless the lives of many others, including hers. Nevertheless, in such circumstances, the proper attitude is to try to prevent future tragedies like this from happening. You don't avoid warning people about a crime wave because those who had been victimized by it already don't want to have to be reminded about it.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Two pieces

I recently heard two music pieces for the first time -- despite their being well-known -- and was very moved by them. The first is Vivaldi's variations on La Folia. When I heard this piece on the radio, I was stunned by the overwhelming sense of life pouring out from the music. Yes, Vivaldi always overuses the same chord progression, but I love that chord progression so kudos to him. And at any rate, these are, again, variations on an already-existing tune. It's the 12th sonata in his opus 1, Twelve Trio Sonatas for two violins and basso continuo.



The second piece is The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughn Williams. I took two years of music history, and I don't think Vaughn Williams was ever mentioned (nor was Tchaikovsky for that matter). I suspect this is because when you deal with 20th century music, the focus is on atonal, or at least not classically tonal, music. I remember we spent some time in class going over the ten most important 20th century composers, and had to write a 10-page essay on who we thought was number 11 (I wrote mine on Béla Bartók). And while I've heard the name Vaughn Williams before, I can't recall ever listening to his music, which is incredible considering how important a composer he is. At any rate, this particular piece is not classically tonal but is very pentatonic, making it Asian sounding -- my kids said it sounds like Kung Fu Panda. After hearing this piece we all started listening to Vaughn Williams' music, and both my kids love it.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016


Thursday, November 3, 2016

Holy crap!

The Cubs won! That's the first time in over a century. Everyone I've ever known was born after the last time they won the World Series in 1908. Ironically, while the game was being played last night, I was in a classroom teaching my Intro Philosophy class about Hume's argument against miracles. It looks like God cleared his throat.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Negative votes: A proposal

In the coming election, I feel like I'm being asked to vote for either Stalin or Honey Boo Boo. I thought I was firmly in the "anyone but Stalin" camp until the other side nominated one of probably only five people in the world who I couldn't vote for. Perhaps it's fortunate that I'm not a member of a political party and don't embrace a particular political philosophy (my politics are somewhat eclectic), so I don't have any sense of obligation to vote for the candidate "my party" has nominated.

I've never really voted for anyone, I've only voted against them. That is, I've voted for the person I loathed least. I didn't want the person I voted for to get the job, but I really didn't want the other person to, and so I've always voted for the lesser evil. And, in fact, I think in the coming election one side is a greater evil than the other. But lesser evils are still evils, and this time around, I'm afraid the lesser evil is much too great an evil for me to cast my vote for them. Perhaps this is a failing on my part, but I can't bring myself to vote for the lesser evil this time.

Now I've never appreciated having to vote for lesser evils. What I want to do is cast a vote against the greater evil, and the only way to do this is to cast a vote for the lesser evil. The reason I haven't appreciated this is because it forces me to only indirectly vote against the greater evil by directly voting for the lesser evil. But why can't we reverse this? Why don't we make it possible to cast a negative vote? If you cast a negative vote for a candidate then one vote is subtracted from that candidate's overall total. The candidate with the highest total vote count wins.

You get one vote: you can either cast it for Stalin, for Honey Boo Boo, against Stalin, or against Honey Boo Boo. You don't get to vote for one candidate and then also vote against the other: you get one and only one vote. Certainly, by casting a vote against Stalin someone could object that you are essentially casting a vote for Honey Boo Boo -- but note that the order has now been switched. You are directly voting against Stalin, and only indirectly voting for Honey Boo Boo. Those of us who are, like me, too fragile to sully ourselves with lesser evils would be able to live with ourselves.

One possible negative (heh) consequence of this is that there could potentially be an election where the number of negative votes for both candidates is greater than their number of positive votes. So both sides would have total vote counts below zero. In this case, the candidate with the number of votes closer to zero -- that is, the smallest negative number -- would win. However, if there were write-in candidates (which is what I'm going to do this time), then the person with the most write-ins would win. I guess it would always be possible to cast a negative vote for a write-in candidate, although it would be odd since write-in candidates are usually not officially running. To cast your vote against someone who's not even running would seem to indicate a deep-seated hatred of them worthy of extended counseling: "I hate this person so much that I'm going to spend my one vote writing them in and then casting a negative vote against them." But even so, there probably wouldn't be many negative votes against write-in candidates, so one of them would still probably have more total votes than the main candidates. And that, in my opinion, would certainly be the lesser evil.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Remembrance of Earth's Past

Two Christmases ago my lovely wife bought me a few books from a small bookstore. Fortunately, she kept the receipt, so I brought them back to exchange them for some books I actually wanted. As I was browsing their relatively small science-fiction section, I found The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, a work translated from Chinese. I immediately grabbed it: I'd heard about this book and this author and had put it on my list of books to get. Liu is a lauded science-fiction author in China (actually, his name is Liu Cixin, but since the Chinese put the family name first, when he was translated into English, they put the family name last in order to not confuse us), and this book is the first of a trilogy that makes up his most famous work, Remembrance of Earth's Past.

Anyway, I bought it, read it, and loved it. LOVED it. So when the second book in the trilogy was translated, The Dark Forest, I bought it immediately. Incidentally, I never do this: I'm always patient enough for a book to come out in a mass market edition, or at least for it to become less popular so I can buy a cheap used copy of it. But I couldn't wait. And Dark Forest was absolutely amazing; it presents a brilliant solution to the Fermi Paradox involving game theory. Independently, both of these books are among the best books I've ever read.

So of course I pre-ordered the third book in the trilogy, Death's End. (This was my first time pre-ordering a book by the way.) It came out at the end of last month, and I got it about a week and a half ago. I have a bunch of things on my plate at the moment, but I'm still going through it when I can. So far it's exceeding my expectations, which were pretty darn high. So I encourage everyone to get these books as soon as you can and read them. Just check them out from the library if you have to. They are so beyond worth it, I can't even express it. Liu has managed to very quickly become one of my all-time favorite fiction authors; I don't actually rank them, but I'd have to say he's at least in my top three (lucky him). I also note a collection of Liu's short stories has also been translated, The Wandering Earth, which I'm going to get as soon as I can justify it. And Three Body Problem is being made into a movie, due to be released next year.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Christian ethics and homosexuality

Richard Swinburne gave the keynote address at a conference for the Society of Christian Philosophers in which he defended the traditional Christian position that homosexual acts are immoral, and apparently argued that those who experience same-sex attraction are disabled in some way. By some accounts he was inflammatory and insensitive in this; by other accounts he was only presenting claims that he published years ago in his book Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy. The President of the SCP is Michael Rea (whose book World without Design: The Ontological Consequences of Naturalism is on my shelf waiting to be read) apologized for the hurt caused by the presentation and that Swinburne's views are not those of the SCP, which was founded to be inclusive of all those who consider themselves Christian. As Eleanor Stump pointed out, Rea didn't actually condemn Swinburne or his claims, or even criticize them. Nevertheless, there's a cyberstorm over whether Swinburne's lecture was out-of-bounds and whether Rea's apology was appropriate. I'll just send you to Rea's apology on Facebook that has numerous responses -- some positive, some negative -- some thoughtful some not so much -- and follow it up with William Vallicella's comments and links over at Maverick Philosopher.

Now in one of those links I read that in his presentation Swinburne also argued that the fetus is not really a person until 22 weeks gestation and so abortion should be allowed up until that stage. I understand why people with same sex attraction would be offended and hurt by someone claiming that homosexual acts are immoral, but it seems to me that someone who lost a fetus before 22 weeks gestation and considered it to be their child, their baby, would have just as much a claim to be offended and hurt by claims that their deceased child was never really a person. But such claims are made frequently, in academic conferences and in society at large, and I don't hear a comparable sense of outrage by it. And I think that's appropriate: in order to discuss these things, we have to be exposed to all sides of the issue, even those we consider offensive. I mean this is ethics. Ethical issues tend to involve situations that people are emotionally and personally invested in, and debating those issues is bound to hurt someone and hurt them deeply. But the idea that we shouldn't discuss those issues for that reason does not seem to me to be the right response, although I think any debate must be done with respect for those who disagree, even if you don't respect their position. I have to heavily qualify this though: I have my issues that I'm sensitive to too, and while I occasionally try to toughen myself up regarding some of them, most of the time I take the easier route and just try to avoid having to consider the possibility that I'm disastrously wrong. So I'm not in a position to judge anybody.

I'll supplement all this with a post by a gay Christian philosopher who writes something similar to what I expressed above and communicates how difficult it can be for him.

I’m an openly gay philosopher at a top-five program, and these issues are terribly important to me because I struggle daily to reconcile my sexuality with my faith. This stuff makes a difference to how I might lead my life, a phenomenon that is sadly rare in contemporary analytic philosophy. If a philosopher like Richard Swinburne has something to say, I need and want to know. I want to lead a Christian life, and I’ve grown to think that means living a celibate one. I’m not sure though! I want more debate. So, please, don’t scare any dissident philosophers away from the podium. ...  
I ask this not because views like Swinburne’s are without cost. When I read arguments like Swinburne’s, my heart sinks a bit because I worry that they might be sound. I miss my last boyfriend and sometimes regret telling him I couldn’t ever marry him in good faith because I suspect gay marriage to be incoherent and gay relations immoral. It’s f*cking rough. But, for all that, please don’t protect my feelings. For, as philosophers, our vocation is the pursuit of truth and the virtuous life—and that’s surely worth the sweat and tears.

I can't fathom the stress of having something as powerful as your sex drive be exclusively oriented in a way that conflicts with your deeply-held religious views. I say "exclusively" because of course I experience the occasional temptations to propagate my genetic material more widely than Christian morality dictates. But to have no legitimate sexual outlet would be terrifying. And I'm amazed at this man's willingness to unflinchingly pursue the rationale behind both sides of an issue, his willingness to follow the arguments wherever they lead, when one side of that issue would completely devastate him if it's true. So I am frankly in awe of the man who wrote the above quote. I want to sit at his feet and learn virtue from him. I can't even imagine having the inner strength necessary to choose celibacy as he did.

Incidentally, he goes on to say that, while he's accepted at his current institution, if he moved to another one, he would not come out of the closet -- about his Christianity. Not until he earned tenure. That reminded me of a recent comment by a Christian sociologist: "Outside of academia I faced more problems as a black. But inside academia I face more problems as a Christian, and it is not even close."

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Would you go?

Elon Musk has announced that he plans to start sending colony ships to Mars with about 100 people on board within ten years. It would be a one-way trip, making it sound a lot like the beginning of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy. He also said they should be prepared to die -- not in the sense of living there for the rest of their lives, but in the sense of the huge potential for accidents and large-scale failures in such an environment. That reminds me of the words of the glorious Gus Grissom: "If we die we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life." For those of you who don't know (and shame on you), Grissom died in a fire in the Apollo 1 spacecraft. If that hadn't happened, NASA was planning for him to be the first man on the Moon.

Musk said he would like to go to Mars himself but he has children and wants them to grow up with a father. I'm of the same mind: if I had no family (and were healthy enough to even be considered in the first place), I'd probably put my name in the running. But the most important thing I'll ever do is be a father to my kids and a husband to my wife. Matthew McConaughey's character in Interstellar said (quoting his deceased wife), something to the effect of, "Once your children are born, your only purpose in life is to be memories for your kids."

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

More on Heidegger

I've posted before on how Martin Heidegger was apparently more enmeshed in the Nazi worldview than has traditionally been claimed, in light of the publication of his black notebooks. But here is another article making the point rather damningly.

For Heidegger, the “uprooting of beings from Being” was the metaphysical curse of the modern world, the source of the nihilism that afflicted humanity. Where the ancient Greeks enjoyed a holistic and organic relationship with Being—which for Heidegger is close to, but not quite identical with, what earlier Romantic thinkers meant by Nature—modern philosophy and technology set the individual at odds with Being. Instead of the miraculous background of human existence, Being is reduced to a series of objects that can be mathematically calculated and industrially exploited. These themes dominate Heidegger’s later thought, where he condemns the way of thinking he calls “enframing” (Gestell) and calls humanity to its true role as the “shepherd of Being.”

And who is responsible for this modern curse? In his published work, Heidegger traces it all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, suggesting that it was the fate of Western civilization to turn against itself in this way. But in the “Black Notebooks,” he finds a much simpler and more familiar scapegoat: the Jews. “World Jewry,” Weltjudentum, with its overtones of hostile conspiracy, was a common Nazi phrase that the philosopher had no qualms about embracing, using it several times in the privacy of the notebooks. Thus in 1941 Heidegger writes: “World Jewry, spurred on by the emigrant that Germany let out, remains elusive everywhere. Despite its increased display of power, it never has to take part in the practice of war, whereas we are reduced to sacrificing the best blood of the best of our own people.” This is a breathtaking example of how Nazi anti-Semitism precisely inverted reality: At just the moment when the Holocaust was killing millions of helpless Jews, Heidegger suggests that it was “elusive” World Jewry that was killing Germans.

Saturday, September 10, 2016


Friday, September 9, 2016


Wednesday, September 7, 2016


Monday, September 5, 2016


Saturday, September 3, 2016