Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Worst of Both Worlds

See now, this is just wrong on so many levels. Very clever, though.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Missing the Moon

There have been a couple of fascinating articles recently on the Vision for Space Exploration that President Bush has inaugurated, which details plans to return to the Moon and set up a permanent human presence there, and then going to other places in the solar system. The first article is from Aviation Week and the second from Popular Mechanics. The main point of contention is whether we should bother returning to the Moon before going on to Mars and near-Earth asteroids.

There are some good arguments for bypassing the Moon. One is that, once we've escaped from the Earth's surface gravity, it really isn't that much more difficult to go to Mars than the Moon. As Robert Heinlein (I think) said, "once you've achieved low-Earth orbit, you're halfway to anywhere in the solar system". Moreover, there are considerable benefits to going to Mars first. This is the motivation behind the Mars Direct project that has been championed by the Mars Society.

Another reason is that other locations would have more scientific value than merely returning to the Moon. One possibility is to set up a space station at the L1 Lagrange Point, where the gravity from the Sun and the Earth cancel each other out. This would be very fruitful scientifically, and it would represent a greater achievement than returning to the Moon, since it's a greater distance. Another possibility is near-Earth asteroids, that haven't been as "polluted" by the Earth as the Moon has. Moreover, many such asteroids have orbits that take them from Earth's orbit to Mars's, Venus's, even Jupiter's. It might be a good way to hitch a ride.

A third reason is more basic: we've already been to the Moon. Obviously, we haven't spent that much time there, but if we have the resources, maybe it would be better to explore a more foreign terrain.

The articles don't mention any downside to not going back to the Moon before Mars. I don't really have a problem with going to Mars first, but I think it will eventually be important to set up stations on the Moon. My grounds for this are psychological: Mars is a dot in the sky, near-Earth asteroids can only be seen with telescopes, and the L1 Lagrange point isn't a body at all, just a moving location in space. The Moon is, comparatively, a very large object in the sky that we see almost daily. To have people at these other places will be very valuable, but I suspect it won't capture people's imaginations the same way as going to the Moon would. For centuries, more literature has been written about the Moon than about Mars and the other planets.

Part of the reason for this is that civilian tourism to the Moon would be much easier, simply because it's close and wouldn't take as long to go there and return. If people think of the Moon as a place to which they can go themselves, they'll be much more excited than they would be by a space program that is only focused on places so distant that tourism would be impossible (at least with current technology).

Plus, if one country goes for Mars, while another goes to the Moon, it will give the superficial impression that the second country's space program is superior to the first country's, since its achievements will be more conspicuous. I don't want to be too nationalistic here -- in fact, I might prefer it if these projects were done by civilians and businesses rather than governments -- but as long as any kind of space race is going on, I'd like my country to be ahead. Of course, I'm thinking of China's space program, which hopes to send people to the Moon by about 2020. Having said all this, I'd still probably be ecstatic if they did it.

As I say, I don't have a problem with going to Mars first, as long as we get back to the Moon eventually. The Moon Society does not necessarily advocate returning to the Moon before going anywhere else, but they do advocate for a human presence on the Moon. I tend to agree.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Discarded Image

A little while ago I had the opportunity to read one of C. S. Lewis's more technical books, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. I was expecting it to be drier than his books about Christianity, which are written for the layman, not to mention his fiction. But I found it very readable, and very interesting. It was also his last book, being published posthumously in 1964.

The "discarded image" refers to the Medieval model of the universe, and how intellectually satisfying it is -- not in the sense that we can still believe it to be correct (it was a geocentric model, after all), but in the sense that they conceived the universe as intricately organized, with "a place for everything and everything in its place." To this end, Lewis is constantly correcting common misperceptions about what the Medieval model actually was.

One of the myths that Lewis debunks is that the medievals thought the earth is flat. Lewis refutes this rather easily by simply quoting and referencing some of the myriad of statements in the ancient world as well as the early and late Middle Ages that the earth is round. If you want to do some more research on this, I recommend Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians by Jeffrey Burton Russell, a historian at the University of California at Santa Barbara. To put it simply, every educated person from the third century BC onwards knew that the earth is round, and most of the uneducated ones did too.

Another belief that is commonly ascribed to the medievals is that they thought the universe was small. There is a half-truth here: they certainly believed the universe to be orders of magnitude smaller than what modern science has revealed. But as Lewis repeatedly points out, they still thought it was unimaginably large. He writes,

the fact that the height of the stars in the medieval astronomy is very small compared with their distance in the modern, will turn out not to have the kind of importance you anticipated. For thought and imagination, ten million miles and a thousand million are much the same. Both can be conceived (that is, we can do sums with both) and neither can be imagined; and the more imagination we have the better we shall know this.

A third distortion that Lewis addresses is that, by placing the earth at the center of the universe, they were attributing to it a position of privilege or significance. Actually, precisely the opposite is the case: the center of the universe was the least privileged and the least significant place therein. That's why they also placed hell in the center of the earth, and Satan at the center of hell. The reason the physical center is the least prestigious place in the universe is

Because, as Dante was to say more clearly than anyone else, the spatial order is the opposite of the spiritual, and the material cosmos mirrors, hence reverses, the reality, so that what is truly the rim seems to us the hub... We watch ‘the spectacle of the celestial dance’ from its outskirts. Our highest privilege is to imitate it in such measure as we can. The medieval Model is, if we may use the word, anthropo-peripheral. We are creatures of the Margin.

Again, this is something that can easily be verified by reading the medieval writers. The earth wasn't so much at the center of the universe as it was at the bottom of the universe.

Lewis devotes the Epilogue of The Discarded Image to a fourth, and the most controversial, point; an issue he had addressed before in "The Funeral of a Great Myth" in Christian Reflections and to a lesser extent in "Is Theology Poetry?" in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. The issue in question is the popular conception of evolution, that life -- and by extension the entire universe -- is slowly improving. Lewis makes a sharp distinction between this popular conception and the actual theory of evolution as held by scientists, which is about change rather than improvement. I want to make this as clear as possible: Lewis takes it for granted that evolution has occurred, as he makes abundantly clear in "Funeral of a Great Myth". What he challenges is the popular view.

His point of challenge is the idea that scientific evidence slowly showed the medieval model to be incorrect, and that we were led to replace it with the evolutionary model because of the scientific evidence. Lewis argues to the contrary that poetry, music, and literature in the 1700s and 1800s advocated for and glorified the evolutionary model, long before there was any scientific evidence for it. For example, The Ring of the Nibelung, the four-opera cycle by Wagner, which was well underway by the time Darwin published The Origin of Species, was based on this concept. Lewis's point is that we were not led to accept evolution solely by the scientific evidence. The idea of progress or improvement had already permeated itself into the imagination and habitual thinking patterns of Western culture, and it was only then that scientific evidence came along to confirm it (although, again, the scientific evidence doesn't confirm the popular view).

Again, I want to reiterate that Lewis accepted evolution. What he is challenging is that it was originally conceived and accepted in a purely scientific atmosphere, where the desire for it to be true played no role. As such, it is invalid to look down upon the medievals for not proportioning their belief to the evidence when we don't do it either.

(reposted from OregonLive and the American Scientific Affiliation)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Quote of the Day

One smiles to recall that phrase that our fathers accidentally stumbled on and which later came back to us a hundredfold like bread cast upon the waters: 'I am all for relevant religion that is free and alive and where the action is, but institutional religion turns me off.' Incredible? Yes. ...

It was like saying 'I love animals, all animals, every part of them: it is only their flesh and their bones that I object to; it is only their living substance that turns me off.' For it is essential that religion (that old abomination) if it is to be religion at all (the total psychic experience) must be institutionalized and articulated in organization and service and liturgy and art. That is what religion is. And everything of a structured world, housing and furniture and art and production and transportation and organization and communication and continuity and mutuality is the institutional part of religion. That is what culture is. There can no more be noninstitutional religion than there can be a bodiless body.

R. A. Lafferty
"And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire"
Sacred Visions

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Islamic Mysticism

I have always been baffled by Islamic mysticism, known as Sūfism. My reason for this (if one can have reasons for being confused) is that there are two Islamic doctrines that seem to contradict it. First, Muhammad is believed to be the last prophet. That means that there is no further revelation from God until the end of the world, according to Islam. But if God is not revealing anything further, it's difficult to see how there can be any room for mystical experience.

Second, according to Islam God is completely transcendent. He has absolutely no direct contact with human beings. Even Muhammad didn't receive the Qur'an from God, but from an angel who had, in turn, received it from God. But mysticism means experience of the absolute. So how in the world can there be any experience of God? Basic Islamic doctrine seems to rule it out. "Islamic mysticism" seems to me to be an oxymoron.

The reason I'm interested in this is because people tend to be confident in their religious beliefs because of religious experiences they have had which affirm them. The reason why many Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead, for example, is not because they have done an in-depth analysis of historical Jesus research, but because they have personally experienced Jesus as a living reality. Giving such people an abstract argument to the contrary is not a strong enough impetus to counter their experience. But with Islam, such experiences are largely ruled out of court. So why are some Muslims willing to commit horrendous crimes such as suicide bombings? How can they be so confident that their worldview is correct if that worldview entails that they do not and cannot experience God, and as such, can receive no personal sanction of their beliefs by him? It seems to me that such confidence is closer to political extremism than religious devotion.

At any rate, I recently read A History of Islamic Philosophy by Majid Fakhry, and he discusses this at one point. At first, he makes several points against Sūfism, including my second one.

Mysticism, defined as the attempt to reach out to the infinite and to be identified with it either through some kind of connaturality, as in Christianity, or through the total destruction of personal identity and the reversion to the primordial condition of undifferentiated unity, as in Hinduism and Buddhism, is discouraged by many teachings of the Islamic religion. First, the concept of the absolute transcendence of God "unto Him nothing is like," as the Koran express it [42:11], militates against the spirit of close or intimate relationship with God. Second, the ritual basis of the cult, with its rigid stipulations and forms, excludes the possibility of the unfettered reaching out to a reality beyond without conditions or restrictions. Third, the Islamic concept of the unity or continuity of man's life in this world and the next makes the "divorce" between finite and infinite existence in the form of withdrawal from the world much more difficult. The Muslim believer is called upon to accept this world of transient existence (dār fanā’) and cling to it, almost as much as he is called upon to seek the everlasting kingdom (dār baqā’) beyond and cling to it.

Fakhry goes on, though, to suggest that there are some other Islamic doctrines which allow some form of mysticism.

However, the Koran and the Traditions present another picture of the God-man relationship and the life-to-come which is very different from the one just outlined. Thus God is represented in this perspective as closer to the believer than "his jugular vein" (Koran 50, 15), and is so omnipresent and omniscient as to witness man's every deed and read his every thought. The ephemeral goods of this life are said to be utterly worthless in comparison with the everlasting goods of the life-to-come.

Moreover the spectacle of God's final judgment is drawn in such graphic and awe-inspiring terms, particularly in the early Meccan Sūrahs, that the reader is overwhelmed with the sense of the futility and wretchedness of man's estate in this life. Fear (al-khauf) not unnaturally became the chief expression of piety (wara‘, taqwā) and the token of a genuine religious vocation in the early centuries of Islam.

I'm just not sure, though, that these considerations overrule the problems mentioned above. Someone can be very close to you in a sense, but this doesn't necessarily entail the possibility of direct communication. By way of contrast, Judaism and Christianity both affirm that God is as close to the individual person as she is to herself, and that there is further no barrier preventing direct contact. So both of these two other religions allow for mystical experience, while Islam does not.

To conclude: I have always been baffled by Islamic mysticism.

(cross-posted at OregonLive)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Messenger to Mercury

The MESSENGER spacecraft made a flyby of Mercury on Monday, only the second spacecraft to do so (the other being Mariner 10 in 1974-5). It will do two more flybys in October 2008 and September 2009 before going into orbit around Mercury in March 2011. Cool.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Flex Fuel

Here's a fascinating interview with Robert Zubrin, founder and head of the Mars Society, on his new book entitled Energy Victory: Winning the War on Terror by Breaking Free of Oil. Zubrin advocates making all cars sold in the States "flex fuel" vehicles which run on gasoline, alcohol (ethanol), methyl alcohol (methanol) or any combination of the three. That means you could pull into the service station and fill your tank up with whichever of those three is cheapest. Ethanol and methanol are easily renewable resources. You can make methanol out of almost anything. Ethanol has traditionally been made out of corn, but recent studies have shown it can be made out of grass, and "virtually any carbon-based feedstock—including biomass, municipal solid waste, and a variety of agricultural waste". Making cars flex fuel capable is fairly simple, and only costs about $100. In order to accomplish this, Zubrin advocates creating legislation requiring all new cars sold in the US to be flex fuel. I'm not sure if I agree with legislating this move, but I can't think of a more effective way to do it. Overall I think it's a great idea. If anyone wants to buy this book for me, I won't turn it down. Nor will I turn down Zubrin's books on space science:

The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must
On to Mars: Colonizing a New World
On to Mars 2 : Exploring and Settling a New World
Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization
Islands in the Sky: Bold New Ideas for Colonizing Space
Mars on Earth: The Adventures of Space Pioneers in the High Arctic

and that's not even all of them.

The Da Vinci Coda

Here's an interesting, although sensationalistic, article about the possibility of variant versions of the Qur'an. For Muslims, the Qur'an is the word-for-word dictation of God to the angel Gabriel, who then dictated it to Muhammad. It is the word of God, and copies of it are the incarnated word of God. So while we tend to equate the Qur'an's role in Islam to the Bible's role in Christianity, a better comparison would be to the role of Jesus in Christianity. So claiming that there are variant versions of the Qur'an would undermine Islam in a similar way that refuting the resurrection of Jesus would undermine Christianity. I say the article is sensationalistic because it compares these divergent copies of the Qur'an to the similar claims made about Christianity by The Da Vinci Code.

I've studied New Testament criticism. I find it highly speculative and, frankly, unconvincing. Most modern scholarship on the Bible presupposes that supernatural events are impossible; without that presupposition, most of their research becomes invalid. So I'm very skeptical of similar claims being made of the Qur'an, because I suspect that the arguments are just the same as those used against the Bible.

At any rate, I think other arguments about variant versions of the Qur'an are much more compelling. For example, early copies of the Qur'an did not have the diacritical marks -- the dots above or below the letters -- to define which letter is which. This is significant because the Arabic alphabet has 28 letters, but only 15 letter forms, with the diacritical marks showing which letter is which. For example, the Arabic letters b, t, soft th, y, and n all have the same form; it is only the number of dots above or below the letter which clarifies which of these letters is intended. (Although y and n have more distinctive forms when they occur as the last letter in a word.) Add to this the fact that Semitic languages only include vowels occasionally, and you have a recipe for variant readings. Below is a picture of an early copy of the Qur'an, from about 150 years after Muhammad, and a picture showing the difference between the text without diacritical marks or vowels, with the marks but not the vowels, and with both. To read more about this, click here.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Update on the Muhammad Cartoons

I wrote awhile ago about the Danish cartoons here and here. If you've forgotten, a newspaper in Denmark commissioned some cartoons of Islam's prophet Muhammad. Making images of Muhammad is sometimes viewed by some Muslims as leading to idolatry, and is thus prohibited by them. Muslims around the world responded to the cartoons by rioting, burning embassies, and calling for the violent deaths of the cartoonists. Other Muslims condemned the rioting. I made four points about it:

1. It's incredibly ungracious to treat something profanely when many people consider it sacred. It's morally reprehensible to do something for the sole purpose of offending others, especially when it comes to something as close to people's personal sense of identity as their religious beliefs.

2. Nevertheless, they had the right to do it. Free speech, freedom of the press, etc. entails the right to offend. If you only have free speech until someone is offended by what you say, you don't really have free speech.

3. To respond to a handful of cartoons by threatening and committing violence is absurdly disproportionate. In fact, the cartoons themselves were pretty tame. Most had nothing offensive about them at all, except that they depicted Muhammad. Some even mocked the newspaper for commissioning the cartoons, or even the cartoonists themselves.

4. The prohibition of making images of Muhammad is not a universally-held doctrine in Islam. Many museums throughout the world, including the Muslim world, have paintings of Muhammad, which have been made by both Muslims and non-Muslims throughout Islamic history. Drawings and paintings and even cartoons of Muhammad have been made many times before without similar responses. As such, the rioting showed all the signs of being a contrived outrage.

In 2006, the Western Standard, a Candian publication, republished the cartoons. Some Muslims complained, and the editor, Ezra Levant, was brought before the Alberta Human Rights Commission a few days ago to explain his acts. He viewed this as an affront to his freedoms, and let them have it. He filmed the "interrogation" and is posting it in short installments on YouTube, and the videos are being discussed all over the blogosphere. Below is his opening statement. Click on over to his website to view the others.

Update (16 Jan): Muslims Against Sharia have publicly come out in support of Ezra Levant. Their blog's headline includes the statement "Acknowleding Mistakes, Accepting Responsibilities, Moving Forward". I find this extremely encouraging.

(cross-posted at OregonLive)

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Mars Collision Called Off

On January 30, an asteroid is going to come pretty close to Mars. Earlier, there was thought to be a 3.9% chance that it would collide with Mars, which is pretty high in astronomical terms. Such a collision would have been a boon to scientific research, as it would have kicked up lots of elements from beneath the surface crust, and we have the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter, the 2001 Mars Odyssey, the Mars Express, and the two Rovers with front row tickets. Unfortunately, the probability has since been downgraded to about 0.01%, so it will almost certainly just be a fly-by.

Science in 2007

Here are a couple of things I've been saving since the end of the year:
Top 10 Scientific Breakthroughs of 2007.
The Year in Space.

Thursday, January 10, 2008


Since April 2004, I've been writing the Religion blog for OregonLive, the online version of the Portland Oregonian. (Archives at the link only go back to 2007; here's a link to the old site.) I'm one of many citizen bloggers that OregonLive hosts, meaning I'm not a professional journalist. I'm starting this blog for several reasons: One, I have other interests that I never get to post on over there, such as space science. Two, I feel obligated to post on current events that have to do with religion at OregonLive, even those I have no interest in. So here, I'll just post whatever I want whenever I want. Three, I don't really think of the religion blog as my blog, but as a blog I happen to write. I expect to have a greater sense of ownership here.

I've tended to steer away from controversial subjects, but I expect to be a little freer with my opinions over here (i.e. I'll probably be more obnoxious). Having said this, however, I suspect some of my reasons for avoiding controversy will transfer to this blog as well. My biggest motive is that I want to present as disarming a picture of Christianity as possible to those who aren't Christians, and so I want to remove stumbling blocks, not add to them. For many people, Christianity isn't a live option, and I want to open it up to those in the marketplace for worldviews. This is important to me because it's where I came from: when I first started looking at Christianity in my mid-20s, I thought it was the intellectual equivalent of believing that the earth is flat. It was a great shock to me to discover that many of the world's top scientists, philosophers, and intellectuals in general are Christians.

I will probably cross-post items on both blogs, and repost items here that I've posted before at OregonLive. On those occasions, I'll include a link and a statement at the top or bottom of the post indicating such. Reposted items might be rewritten; I don't know if that violates some Internet rule, but if it does it shouldn't. I'm the author of the original and I'm linking to the original version anyway, so it's not like I'm trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes. I don't see how it would be different from an author writing an updated edition of a book.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

The following statement is false.

The preceding statement is true.