Friday, July 14, 2017

Life



Update: OK, I've had the idea for a series of posts like this for years, labelled "life," with a gif or video showing futility or panic or failure or pain or something along those lines. I finally kicked it off with the post below of Kermit the Frog frantically flailing his arms around, but immediately realized that most people wouldn't see it as panic or chaotic but as what it actually is: Kermit yelling "Yay!" after introducing the Muppet Show and its guest star. So it looks like I was saying life = celebration, which is the exact opposite of what I wanted. Then I did this one as a video because I think the music makes it. But at about the same time I posted it, I received in the mail The Year's Best Science Fiction, 34th Annual Collection by Gardner Dozois, the most recent addition to the series. I pre-ordered it a month and a half ago when my wife found a Barnes and Noble gift card and let me use it to buy volumes 32 and 34 (thank you Sweetheart). And it made me so happy to hold the book in my hand that I realized this whole idea behind a series of posts equating life with bad things was wrongheaded. So basically God told me to stop being such a pessimist. Yes sir.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

A Tale of Two Movies . . . and Two Prayers

Last week I finally broke down and watched United 93. It's a real-time portrayal of the fourth plane hijacked on 9/11, the one where the passengers tried to take it back and ultimately stopped the hijackers from crashing the plane into their target (probably either the Capitol building or the White House). It is pretty hard to watch. I was living in Europe when this movie came out, and at the time I knew I wouldn't be able to handle it. I talked with another expat who felt the same way, but we thought maybe if we saw it together we could get through it. However, he lived too far away and we never actually followed up on it. In reading about the film and the events they portray, I learned some interesting things. In one of the phone calls made by a passenger, he said they were going to charge the terrorists, not to try to save their own lives but to stop them from reaching their target. This is awesome and humbling. I'm sure they hoped to somehow take back the plane and land it, but just the fact that stopping the terrorists played a role in their decision to fight back is amazing. I also learned that passengers from some of the other planes also said on phone calls that some of them were thinking of trying to take their planes back too. This was before they even knew they were suicide missions. One thing the movie did was show the terrorists having a fake bomb strapped to one of them that they were threatening to blow up. To fight back under these circumstances, not knowing whether that bomb was real or not shows incredible bravery. They also showed the passengers not realizing for a while that the pilots had been killed and weren't flying the plane. I don't know if that's what really happened -- not knowing whether the terrorists themselves were flying the plane -- but it certainly seems plausible.

But one particular part stood out for me, partially because it reminded me of a vaguely similar scene from another movie dealing with Islamic terrorism: The Siege. (If you haven't seen that movie, there are spoilers ahead.) In United 93, before the passengers charge the terrorists, you see several of them saying the Lord's Prayer, over the phone or just to themselves. They prayed for God to deliver them from evil and for him to forgive them as they forgive those who have sinned against them. Then the film cuts to the terrorists praying Islamic prayers and reciting the Shahada: "there is no God but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God." They recite this while they literally have blood on their hands, and are surrounded by the bodies of the people they murdered. The contrast could not be more stark. I'm amazed that a Hollywood movie was made which so clearly showed this contrast.

The similar scene from The Siege happened towards the end. (Remember: spoilers coming.) In the movie, there were a spate of terrorist incidents throughout New York City (this came out a few years before 9/11). They put all the Muslims into detention camps until they could figure out which ones were the terrorists and which ones weren't. Annette Bening is a CIA agent who has been working in the Islamic world for years, and is now protecting one of her informers. I think she reveals at some point that she is a lapsed Christian. In the end she gets shot by an Islamic terrorist. As she's dying, Denzel Washington starts reciting the Lord's Prayer with her. As Annette Bening finishes the Lord's Prayer, she concludes by saying "Insha'Allah" which means "God willing," and dies.

You might think this is no big deal. Christians often say "God willing" too. But it doesn't mean the same thing in Islam as it does in Christianity. Christian theologies almost always allow for there to be events which God does not will or even want, but which he allows. However, if God allows it, then he has a reason for doing so. Even the most evil events are not brute irredeemable horrors, God uses them to weave together the whole story of creation and salvation. As C.S. Lewis puts it in The Problem of Pain, "A merciful man aims at his neighbour's good and so does 'God's will', consciously co-operating with 'the simple good'. A cruel man oppresses his neighbour, and so does simple evil. But in doing such evil, he is used by God, without his own knowledge or consent, to produce the complex good -- so that the first man serves God as a son, and the second as a tool. For you will certainly carry out God's purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John." So even evil events play a role in establishing God's ultimate plan. God creates a universe in which every event plays a role in bringing about this plan. Thus, saying "God willing" in the Christian context means something closer to "If what I'm planning is something that could play a role in achieving God's ultimate plan."

In Islam, however, "God willing" is an affirmation of theological fatalism. It expresses the view that God is the only cause of everything that happens; that nothing happens unless God actively wills that it take place. While there may be some Christian groups who advocate something along these lines, the Hyper-Calvinists perhaps, it is almost universal within Christian theology to distinguish between events that God wills and events he merely allows. The second category can then be further divided up into events that God allows and wants, and events that God allows but doesn't want (and I guess a third class of events that God allows but that he doesn't feel strongly about either way). In contrast, Islam has only one category: events that God wills.

This difference between Christianity and Islam comes to a head when we look at their disparate views on salvation. As Jens Christensen writes in Mission to Islam and Beyond, "The whole content of the Gospel is simply this one thing: to show mankind that God is faithful towards His creation. He has restricted Himself with pacts, covenants and promises; . . . The 'if' in Christianity is always predicated of man: if you will believe, if you will trust, if you will accept, then God is faithful, you can always count on Him." So to ask God to forgive and save us if he wills to do so is just nonsensical. God has already promised that he will forgive us as long as we genuinely repent and have genuine faith. If we ask God to forgive us and then tack on a "God willing" at the end, it's saying if the God who doesn't change his mind doesn't change his mind, if the trustworthy God is trustworthy, then . . . . Putting an "if" in front of those statements makes them incoherent.

But Annette Bening's character does precisely that: she prays the Lord's prayer, asking God to deliver her from evil and forgive her for her sins, and then adds "if God wills it." God may forgive her, but he may not, and there's nothing we can say one way or the other. As Christensen points out, whereas in Christianity the "if" is predicated of us -- if we trust God, if we accept him, etc. -- in Islam the "if" is predicated of God -- if God chooses to save us, if God chooses to send us to heaven or hell. For Bening's character to say "if God wills it" after asking him to forgive her and deliver her from evil is to express the theological fatalism of Islam. It's to say that she doesn't trust God, doesn't believe him to be the kind of God who wants to save her, who loves her so much that he was incarnated as a human being to die to obtain her salvation.

Now this strikes me as a deep point, so maybe I'm giving the filmmakers too much credit to suggest that, like United 93, they were trying to contrast the hopefulness and peace that Christianity offers with the hopelessness and chaos that Islam offers. If they were, though, then again I'm amazed that a Hollywood movie was made that so clearly showed this contrast.

Friday, July 7, 2017

I'm a bad influence

Yesterday my son said he wants a pet Cthulhu. He's nine.

Comic

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The original Brexit

Since I noted Canada's 150th anniversary a few days ago, I can't fail to wish everyone a happy Independence Day. 241 years. It's a little disturbing because I have some childhood memories of our bicentennial. There's people still alive who should remember our sesquicentennial.

Monday, July 3, 2017

How to become an astronaut

Lots of kids want to be astronauts when they grow up. My generation got screwed in that regard. We went from Kitty Hawk to Mare Tranquillitatis in 66 years. Then, after a few more trips, we stopped going to the Moon and just went into low earth orbit over and over again. (This made no sense: as Heinlein, I think, said, once you reach low earth orbit, you're halfway to anywhere in the solar system in terms of energy expenditure.)

Well, things might be changing: the President just revived the National Space Council and the House Armed Service Committee just voted to split the Air Force in half, with one half becoming the U.S. Space Corps. This reminded me of a conversation I had with my son several weeks ago when he asked me how to become an astronaut. I told him I have no idea what actual private or government organizations that are pursuing space exploration will look for, but I know what I'd look for in a potential astronaut. Specifically, I told him two things I'd look for. They're not completely separate; in many cases if you get one you'd also get the other.

First, I'd want someone with experience in living and working long-term in a small, remote community. This could be an isolated military base or just an isolated science station or village. By "isolated" I don't mean that the person spent time alone. What I'd look for is someone who spent an extended period of time in a small community which did not have any other people nearby. Part of the goal here is to show that you could live with a small number of other people (thus being by yourself in an isolated area wouldn't help) without any nearby support for an extended period of time. Obviously, if we set up a station on the Moon or Mars or an asteroid or wherever, any people there would be cut off from the rest of human civilization in significant ways, and the closest case to that now is people living in small remote communities.

Second, I'd want someone with experience living long-term in confined quarters. A submariner would be perfect. Submarines are designed to minimize the open space inside, which means that claustrophobes need not apply. Spaceships transporting people to wherever would similarly require a minimal amount of open space inside. And if we establish manned stations somewhere, they probably would have to be designed along similar lines. It would be nice to have an extensive station with plenty of open space, but it might not be feasible. And note that someone with experience living in confined quarters with others will very probably also have experience living in an isolated community. The crew of a submarine has experience with both automatically. Someone living in a village or station with an extreme climate (like Antarctic research stations, or villages in Qaasuitsup Greenland) would also spend a great deal of time indoors, which would be moderately similar.

Again, this is what I'd look for in a potential astronaut, not what the actual people actually recruiting actual astronauts will be looking for. It makes sense though.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

July 1, 1867 to July 1, 2017

Happy sesquicentennial Canada!

Friday, June 30, 2017

Friday, June 23, 2017

Interesting

The latest volume of Faith and Philosophy is out and it has what looks to be a very interesting article: "How to Tell Whether Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God" by Tomas Bogardus and Mallorie Urban. I haven't read it yet. Here's the abstract:

Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? We answer: it depends. To begin, we clear away some specious arguments surrounding this issue, to make room for the central question: What determines the reference of a name, and under what conditions do names shift reference? We’ll introduce Gareth Evans’s theory of reference, on which a name refers to the dominant source of information in that name’s “dossier,” and we then develop the theory’s notion of dominance . We conclude that whether Muslims’ use of “Allah” co-refers with Christians’ use of “God” depends on how much weight is given to what type of information in the dossiers of these two names, and we offer a two-part test by which the reader can determine whether Muslim and Christian uses of the divine names co-refer: If Christianity were true and Islam false, might “Allah” still refer to God? And: If Islam were true and Christianity false, might “God” still refer to Allah? We explain the implications of your answers to those questions, and we close with a few reflections about what, in addition to reference, might be required for worship, and whether, from a Christian perspective, salvation turns on this issue.

This is relevant to a recent kerfuffle when a professor at Wheaton was fired for saying Christians and Muslims worship the same God, which in turn prompted this essay by Christian philosopher Kelly James Clark in defense of the claim that the professor was right. The Prosblogion has already posted on the Bogardus-Urban article. I have some thoughts on the matter which I might express at some point, but I'm open to correction by my betters.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Saturnalia

I recently glanced through Saturnalia by Grant Callin, a great book that I've written about before. The plot is that an alien artifact is discovered on one of the moons of Saturn, and it becomes clear that the aliens have set it up as a treasure hunt for other artifacts in the Saturn system. Constant throughout is the number six: everything is a function of this number, not least in the fact that the artifacts are all hexagons. You can even see hexagons drawn lightly on the book's cover:

773978

Another interesting point is that the book has a scene when they travel over the north pole of Saturn (which they call "The Old Man") and are overwhelmed by it:

The Giant filled everything -- the viewports, my senses, all of space -- so that I had to press my nose to the glass even to see the edge of the rings against the black. The northern cloudbands, with their delicate colors, formed beautiful pale rings around the pole, cut in half by the black knife of the shadow's edge. sworls, spots, eddies, all were displayed in lovely, exquisite detail. For time unmeasured I stared. . . . 
I was struck dumb with fear and awe, my heart pounding so hard it seemed ready to burst at every beat. My throat was dry and my tongue clove to the roof of my mouth. My bowels were all but moving of their own accord. I was certain that we were going to be sucked into that pattern -- to become a part of it. At the time, somehow, it seemed right; as if it were unfair to behold such beauty and still be allowed to live. 
I have no idea how long I gazed before Junior, his voice uncharacteristically husky, finally broke the silence: 
"You are now one of only eight members of the human race who have seen this sight. It has changed every one of us." 
I nodded, unable to reply, as he continued softly: "When I know I'm dying, I'm going to suit up and have the boat throw me straight down at the Old Man's heart." 
My voice returned in a whisper: "I'm coming with you."

OK, so why am I bringing this up? Because in re-reading this book for the umpteenth time something clicked. There is a hexagon at the north pole of Saturn. Yes really.





Now I never heard of Saturn's hexagon until the Cassini mission arrived at Saturn in 2004, so I thought it was a recent discovery. However, it was apparently observed by the two Voyager spacecraft in 1980 and 1981. I can't find any Voyager photographs of it, but here's an abstract for a 1993 article that refers to "Saturn's polar hexagon". At any rate, according to NASA, 2006 was the first time a clear shot of the north pole was taken.

Grant Callin published Saturnalia in 1986. I guess it's possible that he knew about what was assumed to be a temporary storm at the north pole of Saturn from the Voyager spacecraft and worked it into his book as a call-out to the six other people who knew about it, none of whom would actually read it. Or else he's a magician. Either way I'm pretty impressed.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

I'm horrified

I'm horrified at the fate of Otto Warmbier, the American college student who traveled to North Korea with a group in early 2016, was arrested and imprisoned, and several weeks later was forced to give an obviously coerced statement that he had tried to steal a banner hanging on a wall in the hotel he had been staying in. The video of that statement is terrible to watch: Warmbier was crying hysterically. He was sentenced to 15 years hard labor. Several days ago, the North Koreans released him to the United States, but revealed that he had been in a coma for over a year. Upon his return, doctors determined that he had suffered massive brain damage from lack of blood flow to the brain. He died within days.

I'm amazed that so many people take it for granted that the alleged reason for his imprisonment is what really happened, especially since we know that the reason they've given for his coma is false. They said he came down with botulism and they gave him a sleeping pill which caused the coma. But the American doctors have said that there are none of the tell-tale signs that he had botulism, and at any rate, botulism-plus-sleeping-pills wouldn't cause a coma. Something prevented the blood from getting to his brain, and botulism wouldn't do it. He may have suffered a heart attack and didn't receive treatment quickly enough, but we don't know. What we do know is that the North Koreans are lying about one of the two basic facts of his case that they've told us. So why are so many people assuming that they're telling the truth about the other basic fact, the reason for his arrest and imprisonment? I mean, in his forced confession, he claimed to have tried to steal the banner on behalf of the American government. Does anyone really believe that?

I'm also horrified at the response of some Americans to this. They've basically said, "Well, he went there and broke their laws, that's what you get." They've mocked him, and they've mocked the terror he expressed in his forced confession. This could have happened to someone you love, who these mockers love. It's beyond disgusting. It is vaguely similar to the case of Michael Fay who confessed to committing vandalism and stealing signs in Singapore in 1993, and was sentenced to be caned -- that is, to be struck with a cane four times. The American public was divided on this: he committed a clear crime but corporal punishment bothered many people. Others said he was in their country, and that's how they punish those crimes there. But this is only vaguely similar: Fay confessed to more severe crimes than Warmbier, and Warmbier's punishment was much worse than Fay's. I think if they had sentenced Fay to 15 years hard labor, Americans would have been united to bring him back home. Moreover, Fay lived in Singapore, Warmbier merely traveled to North Korea for a few days. And there are numerous claims, alleged at least, that North Korea has kidnapped Americans and forced them to live in North Korea for whatever purposes they have for them. We know they've done that with South Koreans and Japanese before. So for people to treat Warmbier's case offhandedly is, again, beyond disgusting. And is it really so implausible that North Korea treated Warmbier as a representative of the United States that is currently rattling its saber in their direction? This is a horrific crime, and it wasn't just committed against Otto Warmbier and his family.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

What I'm reading

The Goodreads widget on the sidebar has the books that I'm currently reading, and I try to keep it moderately up to date. However, in the coming months much of my reading will be more focused on journal articles, so much so that I expect there will be fewer books. Having said that, I'm trying to start a habit of reading about ten pages per day of a book by either C.S. Lewis or Dallas Willard. And since I'm listing the science-fiction books I'm reading now too, there should still be a few books listed on the sidebar.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Hmmm

Here's an interesting essay that explains the dust-up at Evergreen State College as an application of postmodernism.

Friday, June 9, 2017

OK, this

is heartbreaking and disturbing. A teenage girl going on a mission trip to Africa is killed in a bus accident on the way to the airport. There's evil that makes you wonder where (or if) God is, but in this case, it's the apparent randomness and meaninglessness that makes you wonder where (or if) God is. It's one of those times when God doesn't make sense.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Why is this even a thing?

R-rated language and violence.









Of course it had to be Anthony Hopkins.

Friday, June 2, 2017

An Inconvenient Thought Experiment

I want to make a distinction between two similar concepts. Mere hypocrisy would be when someone believes something but does not act in accordance with that belief. In contrast to that, I want to propose another category where someone says she believes something, but her actions are so discordant with that belief, that we either think that she doesn't even believe what she says she does, or we think that if she believes it, she doesn't really think it's important, despite her insistence to the contrary. We may not know what her motives are, but we do not think her motives include a genuine belief of what she says she believes and a genuine concern for it. This strikes me as much worse than hypocrisy. Perhaps we can just call these people liars. So while a hypocrite can believe p and think it's important even though she does not act in accordance with p (at least on some occasions), a liar either does not even believe p or doesn't care about p, all the while pretending to believe and care about it, and trying to get other people to act in accordance with p.

First case: Say someone believes that pornography is morally wrong, but breaks down on occasion and views it. That person would be acting hypocritically. Now say that person is the head of an anti-porn organization that wants to make pornography illegal. You may disagree, and it would probably depend on further circumstances, but I would still consider such a person to be a mere hypocrite, although this case is significantly worse than the first. She could certainly still believe that pornography is morally wrong, but insofar as she occasionally breaks down and views it, she is not in a position to tell the rest of us not to view it. Her own actions contradict her words. A recovering alcoholic who has been clean and sober for fifteen years can lecture us on the evils of alcohol, but someone who still gets drunk doesn't get to.

But now say that the head of the anti-porn organization is a porn star herself. I would no longer say she's merely a hypocrite, I would say she is a liar. I'd say either she doesn't actually believe that pornography is terribly harmful in the first place, or she just doesn't care. If she did believe that it is wrong and important, she wouldn't be doing what she's doing. I wouldn't know why she's heading up an anti-porn organization, but her actions would preclude her reasons being what she says they are.

Second case: Let's say President Trump announces that he wants to push Congress to make adultery illegal (and just in case it's not clear, I'm making this up). Say he argues that adultery is not only a terrible thing to do, one of the most immoral acts one could commit, it also violates the most important and sacred contract any of us will ever enter into -- all of which is true. And since breaking lesser contracts carries legal repercussions, breaking your marriage vows should as well. He references numerous studies showing that adultery has an enormous negative impact on social cohesion.

Now say it comes out that he is a serial adulterer himself: he has a mistress in every city, he's practically the patron saint of adultery. He might try to explain this away somehow, but that's not relevant for this thought experiment. All I'm asking is this: Would you believe that he really thinks adultery is a terrible thing to do? That it's really one of the most immoral acts one could commit? That it really violates the most important and sacred contract that he has ever entered into? I know what my answer would be: No, he does not really believe these things. If he did believe them, if he really believed them, he wouldn't be doing what he's doing. Sure, he's advocating for a law to make it illegal, but the reasons he's giving for it aren't his reasons. I don't know what his real reasons would be, but I'd suspect that enacting such a law would give him certain powers over certain people in an underhanded way. I would think he probably had some loophole in place that would allow him to continue doing whatever he wanted, probably the people of his social set too, while the law would apply to us lower class schmoes. To everything he says about the evils of adultery (which I agree with), I would respond, "But he doesn't believe that himself." I wouldn't be accusing him of mere hypocrisy, but of being a liar, of actually disbelieving that what he says is true and important.

Third case: Say a celebrity gives a speech about manmade climate change and about how we all need to lower our carbon footprint, and air travel is one of the biggest contributors to atmospheric CO2. This celebrity gives speeches like this numerous times a year, maybe even makes a documentary to advocate it. But the celebrity has his own private jet and leads a life of luxury (and hence, waste) that gives him a much higher carbon footprint than the rest of us. Regardless of his attempts to justify his lifestyle, I would ask the same question: Do you think this celebrity really believes what he is saying about climate change is true and important? And again, my answer would be: No. If he really believed these things, he wouldn't be doing what he's doing. He's not merely a hypocrite, he's a liar. And this case is not hypothetical like the above examples are. I'm thinking of Leonardo Dicaprio. I am arguing that Leonardo Dicaprio does not believe manmade climate change is true and important. He is a liar. And obviously it applies just as much to all of the other celebrities who are flying all over the world all the time while giving interviews about how they recycle and drive electric cars. Even if they fly commercial, they're still doing it a lot more than the rest of us who only fly a few times a year (if that) -- not to mention that they're doing it in first class which gives them a much larger carbon footprint per flight than us less important people who have to squeeze into the cattle car section.

To be clear, I don't begrudge them this lifestyle, but I do resent them telling me that I need to lower my carbon footprint while they live this lifestyle. It's like someone screaming at the top of her lungs, and right in my face, that I'm whispering too loudly. Once more, I'm not accusing them of merely being hypocrites but of being liars, of actually disbelieving that climate change is true and important. Whatever laws they're hoping to enact, there would of course be loopholes allowing them to continue their lives of luxury. If a celebrity could only fly a few times per year, they couldn't make a living, they couldn't retain their status as celebrities. So you can bet the family farm that whatever restrictions they're advocating for will have a clause that makes an exception for the important people like them.

Fourth case: Say a politician tries to enact legislation to lower our carbon footprints. But of course this politician lives a pampered life and flies all the time, maybe he's even important enough to fly in a private jet (provided by the taxpayers of course). He flies all over the world, constantly. Does he really believe climate change is true and important? Of course not. And like celebrities, the case here is not hypothetical but actual. I'm thinking of John Kerry, who, towards the end of his sojourn as Secretary of State flew to Antarctica, purportedly in order to investigate climate change but really because it was on his bucket list. That one trip put more CO2 into the atmosphere than fifty average Americans do in a year total. Anyone who really believed climate change is real and important would not make such a trip -- anymore than someone who thought pornography was so harmful that it should be made illegal would be a porn star. And also like celebrities, we can multiply politicians here as well. Al Gore kind of fits into both categories. He flies all over the world as much as any politician or celebrity, and his house uses as much electricity per month as the average American house uses per year.

Again, I don't begrudge them this: their jobs require them to travel all over the world, and while they could reduce it to some extent, I'd rather our leaders operated under the assumption that they don't need to keep an eye on their air miles. What I resent is that they want to make and enforce laws to prevent Johnny Q. Public from flying a few times a year in planes carrying hundreds of people while the political class are exempted so they can continue living, and flying, in luxury. If Al Gore really believed manmade climate change is real and important, he wouldn't be doing that. If John Kerry really believed manmade climate change is real and important, he wouldn't have the United States military fly him in a large plane to Antarctica. Since they are doing these things, I conclude that Al Gore and John Kerry don't really believe manmade climate change is real and important. They are liars. What are their real reasons for their claims to the contrary? I neither know nor care, but I suspect it would involve money, power, or both. All I know for sure is that it's not because they think it's true and important.

Bear in mind that I'm not challenging manmade climate change myself, or that it's important, perhaps important enough to enact legislation. I'm not suggesting that I don't believe it's true and important, Nor am I suggesting that the average person can't advocate for laws lowering our collective carbon footprint. I'm just arguing that these celebrities and politicians don't believe climate change is true and important. Their actions belie their words so dramatically, they cannot be seen as mere hypocrites but as liars.

Fortunately, I have a solution. Have all these celebrities and all these politicians limit their carbon footprints to that of the average American for ten years. If that doesn't affect the global production of CO2, then they can start lecturing us.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Quote of the Day

He scrambled through and rose to his feet. The air was cold but not bitterly so, and it seemed a little rough at the back of his throat. He gazed about him, and the very intensity of his desire to take in the new world at a glance defeated itself. he saw nothing but colours -- colours that refused to form themselves into things. Moreover, he knew nothing yet well enough to see it: you cannot see things till you know roughly what they are. His first impression was of a bright, pale world -- a water-colour world out of child's paint-box: a moment later he recognized the flat belt of light blue as a sheet of water, or of something like water, which came nearly to his feet. They were on the shore of a lake or river.

...

On one side the water extended a long way -- about a quarter of a mile, he thought, but perspective was still difficult in the strange world. On the others side it was much narrower, not wider than fifteen feet perhaps, and seemed to be flowing over a shallow -- broken and swirling water that made a softer and more hissing sound than water on Earth; and where it washed the hither bank -- the pinkish-white vegetation went down to the very brink -- there was a bubbling and sparkling which suggested effervescence. He tried hard, in such stolen glances as the work allowed him, to make out something of the farther shore. A mass of something purple, so huge that he took it for a heather-covered mountain, was his first impression: on the other side, beyond the larger water, there was something of the same kind. But there, he could see over the top of it. Beyond were strange upright shapes of whitish green: too jagged and irregular for buildings, too thin and steep for mountains. Beyond and above these again was the rose-coloured cloud-like mass. It might really be a cloud, but it was very solid-looking and did not seem to have moved since he first set eyes on it from the manhole. It looked like the top of a gigantic red cauliflower -- or like a huge bowl of red soapsuds -- and it was exquisitely beautiful in tint and shape.

Baffled by this, he turned his attention to the nearer shore beyond the shallows. The purple mass looked for a moment like a plump of organ-pipes, then like a stack of rolls of cloth set up on end, then like a forest of gigantic umbrellas blown inside out. It was in faint motion. Suddenly his eyes mastered the object. The purple stuff was vegetation: more precisely it was vegetables, vegetables about twice the height of English elms, but apparently soft and flimsy. The stalks -- one could hardly call them trunks -- rose smooth and round, and surprisingly thin, for about forty feet: above that, the huge plants opened into a sheaf-like development, not of branches but of leaves, leaves large as lifeboats but nearly transparent. The whole thing corresponded roughly to his idea of a submarine forest: the plants, at once so large and so frail, seemed to need water to support them, and he wondered that they could hang int he air. Lower down, between the stems, he saw the vivid purple twilight, mottled with paler sunshine, which made up the internal scenery of the wood.

C.S. Lewis
Out of the Silent Planet

Jim's comments: "Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind." So wrote Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason (A52/B76). And I guarantee you, C.S. Lewis had that phrase (or at least Kant's theory of judgment) in mind when he wrote the above passage. "You cannot see things till you know roughly what they are" is basically saying the same thing as "intuitions without concepts are blind." Lewis then spends some time fleshing this out by his character's inability to "see" what is right before his eyes. Until he has the category of "vegetation" he was unable to make sense of what his senses were telling him. (And it's interesting that he describes that as "his eyes mastered the object"). This whole passage is a subtle critique of empiricism, that the mind can be a blank slate upon which our senses write. Lewis is pointing out, along with Kant, that there have to be concepts already in the mind (or at least categories for Kant) in order to comprehend what our senses perceive. Anyone who wants to teach a course on philosophy in science-fiction should spend some time on this passage and what follows, since the problem comes up more than once.

I'm reminded of a time that I was at a small party at someone's house, and I fell asleep on the floor. I awoke to something being placed on my tongue (apparently my mouth had fallen open) and laughter around me. Perhaps indicating my future as a philosopher, I decided to see if I could figure out what it was on my tongue without looking at it. But there was a problem: it hurt. Or it seemed to, and then I immediately thought, "No it doesn't." And then "Yes it does," and then back-and-forth several times. I remember being amazed that I couldn't tell if I was in pain or not just by the feel. Shouldn't you be able to know something like that? It seemed like it was a while, but I'm sure it was just a few seconds before I reached up and took a tissue out of my mouth which had mint toothpaste on it. The mintiness was sharp and I hadn't been able to tell whether or not it hurt.

So three points about this: 1) it seemed that I had to know what it was before I could process the information my senses were relaying to me. I wonder if I could have figured it out if I'd waited longer though. Perhaps babies really are born as blank slates, but they obtain Kant's categories or concepts at some point naturally without anything else already in the mind, it just takes a while before it connects. Maybe there's a point where the amount of information becomes so great that the mind finally clicks and starts forming concepts or starts processing it according to Kant's categories. But this is highly speculative. On the face of it, it seems to create an enormous problem for empiricism.

2) This says nothing against the first part of Kant's statement, that "Thoughts without content are empty". You still need the information provided by the senses in order for your thoughts to be about anything. Abstracting some kind of knowledge without any sensory input -- as Descartes tried to do with his cogito and Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) tried to do with his "flying man" -- is highly questionable. As the ancient and medieval Aristotelians said, nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses. We need the empiricist’s sense data in order to have something to apply the categories to; but we need the rationalist’s a priori categories in order to understand the sense data.

3) Whether or not you're in pain is generally considered one of the few things that you can't be mistaken about. And here I have a case from personal experience where I literally couldn't tell if I was in pain. So it suggests there are no indubitable beliefs. Very interesting.

Finally, let me just say that I'm reading Out of the Silent Planet to my son, and we found online someone's illustrations of the first several chapters that looked like it would be a great graphic novel (although the sorns don't look creepy enough). You can see them all here, or you can start with the first page here, and then click the left arrow button to go through them. Well worth it.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Is there a reason why we can't just land somewhere?

Robert Zubrin has an article on NASA's Worst Plan Yet, the plan to build a space station in orbit around the Moon.

We do not need a lunar-orbiting station to go to the Moon. We do not need such a station to go to Mars. We do not need it to go to near-Earth asteroids. We do not need it to go anywhere. Nor can we accomplish anything in such a station that we cannot do in the Earth-orbiting International Space Station, except to expose human subjects to irradiation ... If the goal is to build a Moon base, it should be built on the surface of the Moon. That is where the science is, that is where the shielding material is, and that is where the resources to make propellant and other useful things are to be found. ... In contrast, there is nothing at all in lunar orbit: nothing to use, nothing to explore, nothing to do. ... Explaining his winning strategy for war with Austria, Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “If you want to take Vienna, take Vienna.” Well, if you want to go to the Moon, you should go to the Moon. You don’t go 99 percent of the way there and then hang out in orbit where you can do nothing.

I don't really know enough about this to justify having an opinion, but I have one nonetheless: I agree with Zubrin. As he says in that article, there was some hope that President Trump would push for a return to the Moon within four years, and landing on Mars within eight. I think we should set up permanently occupied stations in both places, rotating crews in and out whenever it's appropriate and feasible (for Mars it would have to be when it's in opposition with the Earth). Moreover, this would generate a great deal of industry and technological advancement, which would obviously involve a lot of job creation.

I recently watched this video that tours the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station...



...and I thought, "Wouldn't it be awesome to have something that extensive on Mars?" I know it's not realistic. The reason spacecraft and space stations have so little ... well ... space inside is because you have to fill it with breathable air, which they have at the South Pole but don't in space or on Mars. You could probably have something that converts the much thinner Martian atmosphere into breathable air, but that would be a huge expense, and the less space inside that you need to fill with air, the cheaper it would be. But, man. Wouldn't it be awesome?

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Quote of the Day

There is so much loneliness all around us. I once found myself in London with several days on my hands while waiting for a charter flight back to the United States. A great deal of my time was spent in Westminster Cathedral (not Westminster Abbey) in meditation and prayer. In the abbey one senses the great past -- the majestic history of the English people and of God's dealings with them. In the cathedral, by contrast, which is some distance up from the abbey toward Victoria Station, there is a divine presence beyond all national histories. Something about the vast, obscure interior of that building impresses me with the nearness of God.

In front of the cathedral is a square with benches, some tables, and off to one side a religious bookstore and a McDonald's -- golden McArches and all. Here street people of London come to sleep safely in the morning sun, if it is shining, and to glean scraps of haute cuisine left by those who dine with McDonald.

I recall watching one woman on a number of occasions as she slept -- with children and pigeons flocking around her. She was blond, a little heavyset and about middle-aged. While she showed the marks of street life, she looked very much like many a wife at the center of a happy family. And I thought, Whose daughter is she? Whose sister, or mother, or neighbor or classmate? And here she is -- alone, alone, alone!"

A similar but even more profound feeling had come over me when our first child was born. I realized painfully that this incredibly beautiful little creature we had brought into the world was utterly separate from me and that nothing I could do would shelter him from his aloneness in the face of time, brutal events, the meanness of other human beings, his own wrong choices, the decay of his own body and, finally, death.

It is simply not within human capacity to care effectively for others in the depths of their life and being or even to be with them in finality -- no matter how much we may care about them. If we could only really be with them, that would almost be enough, we think. But we cannot, at least not in a way that would satisfy us. For all of us the words of the old song are true: "You must go there by yourself."

That would be the last word on the subject but for God. He is able to penetrate and intertwine himself within the fibers of the human self in such a way that those who are enveloped in his loving companionship will never be alone. This surely is the meaning of the great affirmation at the end of Romans 8:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (vv. 35, 37-39)

Even our anguish over those dear to us can be completely put to rest when we see they are living in the presence from which nothing can separate them. The final and complete blessing and ultimate good, the summum bonum of humankind, comes to those with lives absorbed in the Way of Christ -- life in the presence of God. The completely adequate word of faith in all our sorrows and all our joys is "Immanuel, God with us!" Thus we sing:

Where'er Thou art may we remain;
Where'er Thou goest may we go;
With Thee, O Lord, no grief is pain,
Away from Thee all joy is woe. 
Oh may we in each holy tide,
Each solemn season, dwell with Thee!
Content if only by Thy side
In life or death we still may be.

"In your presence," the psalmist says, "there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore" (Ps 16:11). Even in the valley of the shadow of death there is nothing to fear. Why? Because "you are with me" (Ps 23:4).

On the other hand the fact that only God can take away our aloneness by his presence explains why the ultimate suffering and punishment is separation from the presence of God. The psalmist cries out in terror, "Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me" (Ps 51:11).

Dallas Willard
Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Recent acquisitions

I purchased some of them, the others were given to me, either by the publishers to consider using in classes, or by a friend/benefactor of mine.

Nonfiction:
Matthew W. Bates, The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament and Early Christian Interpretations of the Old Testament
Patricia S. Churchland, Touching a Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves
Jack S. Crumley II, Introducing Philosophy: Knowledge and Reality
Christopher M. Graney, Setting Aside All Authority: Giovanni Battista Riccioli and the Science against Copernicus in the Age of Galileo
Gilbert Harman, Thought
Maralee Harrell, What Is the Argument? An Introduction to Philosophical Argument and Analysis
Mary Beth Ingham and Mechthild Dreyer, The Philosophical Vision of John Duns Scotus: An Introduction
Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, with Spiritual Maxims
Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification
Joshua M. Moritz, Science and Religion: Beyond Warfare and Toward Understanding
Ted Peters, God in Cosmic History: Where Science and History Meet Religion
Eric Priest, ed., Reason and Wonder: Why Science and Faith Need Each Other
Barry Stroud, The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism
Roger Trigg, Beyond Matter: Why Science Needs Metaphysics
Peter Unger, Ignorance: A Case for Scepticism
Peter Unger, Philosophical Relativity
Dallas Willard, The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus

Fiction:
H.P. Lovecraft, The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft
Robert Silverberg, ed., The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, volume 1

Saturday, May 6, 2017

I really hope there's no cosmic significance to this

So there's a "game" of sorts that if you click on the first link in the main text of any Wikipedia article, and then click the first link of the post that it leads to, etc., eventually it always leads you to "Philosophy". I thought this provided some weak support for the importance of philosophy and therefore weak justification of my decision to become a philosopher. So I tried it.

For the first entry (which I've since forgotten) I clicked on the phonetic pronunciation rather than the first link in the body of the text. I realized this was an error, but it led me to Help: IPA for English page which then led me to "International Phonetic Alphabet" and then "Alphabet". This then led me to "Letter (alphabet)" to "Grapheme" to "Linguistics" to "Science" to "Knowledge" (getting close) to "Fact" to "Experience" to "Knowledge"... Wait, "Knowledge" again?

So, yeah, I got stuck in a circle that never leads to "Philosophy". "Knowledge" leads to "Fact", "Fact" leads to "Experience", and "Experience" leads right back to "Knowledge". Fortunately, I can take some small comfort in this, as I'm an epistemologist; maybe it's a good sign. Unfortunately, I tend towards foundationalism instead of coherentism, so if it's a sign, it's a frustrating one.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The elephant in the classroom

OK, there's another controversy in the ranks of professional philosophy, but it's about a subject I have no expertise in. Rebecca Tuvel, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Rhodes College published an essay in Hypatia, which, although they merely claim to be a journal of feminist philosophy, is really the journal of feminist philosophy. Her essay, which went through the usual peer review process, is entitled "In Defense of Transracialism". I read it, although, as I said, I have no expertise here. Roughly she argues that transracialism (the idea that someone can appropriately identify as a member of a different ethnicity than her ancestry indicates) is defensible for approximately the same reasons that transgenderism (the idea that someone can appropriately identify as a member of a different gender than her genetic makeup indicates) is. Moreover, any objections one might raise to transracialism would apply mutatis mutandis to transgenderism. Tuvel is clearly an advocate for transgenderism -- which apparently is not the correct term anymore, but I'm unable to find the right one, so apologies to anyone offended by my use of it -- and so is presenting these claims from a sympathetic position.

Out came the knives. A group of feminist philosophers wrote an open letter to Hypatia demanding they retract Tuvel's essay and apologize for it, which Hypatia promptly did. However, others have been deeply offended at this, as it amounts to a demonization of a junior scholar by the higher-ups. Think of it from her position: judging from her entry at philpapers, this is only the third essay Tuvel has published (as well as two book reviews), but the second published in Hypatia. She received her copy of the journal and probably thrilled to see her name in print. Then she was singled out by just that group of academics she was hoping this essay would appeal to, and had her hard work disparaged as not academically serious and immoral. I mean, how devastating would that be? (Having said that, I'm even more junior than her as I'm just a lowly adjunct. Nevertheless, I've published significantly more than her in about the same period of time.) You can read accounts of the story at Daily Nous and New York Magazine, both of which are pretty critical of the letter writers and Hypatia.

However, it seems to me that everyone, or at least the intelligentsia, is ignoring the elephant in the room. Tuvel essentially presented a modus ponens argument:

If transgenderism is appropriate, then transracialism is appropriate.
Transgenderism is appropriate.
Therefore, transracialism is appropriate.

Tuvel's primary focus is on demonstrating the first premise. The second premise she takes as given. But this leaves it open to a point that G.E. Moore made. Moore didn't like skeptical arguments like that he might just be a brain in a vat being stimulated to think he was a philosopher at Cambridge. The idea here is that, since my experiences would be the same whether they were really happening or whether I was a brain in a vat, then I don't know for certain that I'm not a brain in a vat, since there's no test I can perform to adjudicate between these two possibilities. Any test I could think up would be just as explicable under the brain-in-vat theory. But if that's the case, then I can't know the most elementary things about my body, like that the hand I'm holding up in front of my face is really there and is really my hand. The argument was essentially:

If I don't know that I'm not a brain in a vat, then I don't know that this is my hand.
I don't know that I'm not a brain in a vat.
Therefore, I don't know that this is my hand.

This, like Tuvel's argument, is in modus ponens form. But then Moore argued that one man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens. Once the first premise is granted, we can just as easily argue:

If I don't know that I'm not a brain in a vat, then I don't know that this is my hand.
I do know that this is my hand.
Therefore, I do know that I'm not a brain in a vat.

So you see where I'm going with this. Once Tuvel has demonstrated the first premise, one could just as easily argue the modus tollens to her modus ponens:

If transgenderism is appropriate, then transracialism is appropriate.
Transracialism is not appropriate.
Therefore, transgenderism is not appropriate.

And that, I believe, is what her critics are freaking out about. While Tuvel was trying to present a modus ponens argument, it can just as easily be turned around into a modus tollens argument. And that's a problem because most of the people who accept transgenderism do not accept transracialism. More that that, transracialism is seen as absurd by hoi polloi. By claiming that the arguments against it apply just as well to transgenderism, Tuvel has essentially given away the store. She has given the great unwashed a reason to reject the propriety of transgenderism, she has revealed that the emperor has no clothes. The vast majority of people just don't accept that you can choose to become another race by virtue of how you feel. But then consistency would require them to say the same thing about gender.

So there are three possible responses to this. 1) Bite the bullet and accept both transracialism and transgenderism, which is what Tuvel was trying to recommend. 2) Reject both transracialism and transgenderism, which is probably what most people would do, or at least most people outside of academia. 3) Reject Tuvel's case that the two stand or fall together. The problem with this is that by arguing for the first premise, Tuvel has placed the burden of proof on her interlocutors. They must explain why the arguments against transracialism don't apply to transgenderism, and why the reasons for accepting transgenderism don't apply to transracialism. Please note that I'm not indicating which conclusion I tend towards, I'm just analyzing what I take the issue to be.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Quote of the Day

Testimony is the source of an enormously large proportion of our most important beliefs; it is testimony and learning from others that makes possible intellectual achievement and culture; testimony is the very foundation of civilization. The Enlightenment looked down its rationalistic nose at testimony and tradition, comparing them invidiously with science; but, without learning by testimony, clearly, science would be impossible. Newton stood on the shoulders of giants; indeed, every scientist must stand on the testimonial shoulders of others. Nearly all of what we know of the history of humanity or the structure of the universe we know by virtue of testimony; but it is also by virtue of testimony that I know such homelier items as what my name is and that I live in Indiana. You visit Armidale: you believe that it is indeed Armidale you are in, and that Armidale is in New South Wales. I have never visited Armidale and indeed have never ventured beyond the borders of Königsberg; but you rely upon testimony for your knowledge of those items as much as I do. You are also dependent upon testimony for your knowledge that New South Wales is in Australia (a fact you perhaps learned from a map or encyclopedia) and that there is such a nation as Australia.

Sigmund Freud, that Enlightenment figure born out of due time, offers an account of religious belief that, oddly enough, includes testimony as a special case: "Religious ideas are teachings and assertions about facts and conditions of external (or internal) reality which tell one something one has not discovered for oneself and which lay claim to one's belief." (Obviously testimony involves "teachings and assertions about facts and conditions of external [or internal] reality which tell one something one has not discovered for oneself and which lay claim to one's belief.") He immediately goes on to contradict this account of 'religious ideas' by claiming that what distinguishes religious ideas from testimony is that what you learn by way of testimony you can always check or verify for yourself, thus finding out whether what you were told is true.

But surely this is Enlightenment optimism run amuck. Can I really discover, in a way independent of testimony, that in the fifth century B.C. there was a war between the Athenians and Spartans? Can I discover in this way that Plato was a philosopher? Or that the woman I take to be my mother really was? Or that I was given the name I think I was? Or that there is such a country as Australia? Indeed, the mayor of Armidale himself depends upon testimony for his knowledge that it is Armidale of which he is the mayor; and though a lifelong resident of Australia, he too depends upon testimony for his knowledge that Australia is the continent of which Armidale is a tiny part. You say: perhaps he just to himself: "Armidale is a part of _______," where the blank is to be filled by his own name of the land he sees around him, land on which Armidale is obviously to be found. But if _______ is his name for Australia and is bestowed or introduced by way of the description 'the land around here' or 'the land I now see', the proposition he expresses by 'Armidale is a part of _______' is not the one we expressed by 'Armidale is in Australia."To express the same or an equivalent proposition, his sentence would have to contain a name of Australia; and it is not easy to acquire a name of Australia on one's own. He might try to name Australia by picking it out with a definite description: 'the continent of which where I stand is a part' or 'the country to which this land belongs'; but of course it is only by testimony that he knows there is such a continent or country, or indeed any continents or countries at all.

We are therefore dependent upon testimony for most of what we know. Further, it is likely that most of our beliefs are such that the very possibility of our forming them is dependent upon testimony. For if there were no such thing as testimony, as a source of belief, then, in all likelihood, there would be nothing but the most rudimentary sorts of language. I don't mean to endorse Wittgenstein's enigmatic suggestions to the effect that it is impossible (in something like the broadly logical sense) that any person have a private language; that is as may be. (And the way it may be, I think, is at best inconclusive.) But it seems likely, as a matter of contingent fact, that language and testimony are mutually dependent phenomena in such a way that apart from testimony, there would be no language. And without the resources conferred by language we should have been unable to form any but a small proportion of the beliefs we do in fact hold.

Alvin Plantinga
Warrant and Proper Function

Jim's comments: Sometimes my students are skeptical of whether you could know something simply on the basis of testimony. I think this is understandable: it seems that the person who believes something on the testimony of someone else has not come into direct contact with the truth of the claim, but only, at best, indirect contact. The intuition is that she doesn't believe the claim because it is true, but only because the other person is trustworthy or something. I think this is mistaken, and in the future I may have them read this passage by Plantinga.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The old oldest person and the new oldest person

I'm a couple weeks late on this, but I knew I would have to write about the death of Emma Morano, the last woman who was born in the 1800s: November 1899 in particular. She passed away over Easter weekend. A lot of the reports claimed she was the last person born in the 19th century, but the year 1900 was the last year of the 19th century, and the current oldest person in the world was born in March of that year. Of course, I understand the significance of the odometer rolling over: having someone alive who was born in a year beginning with a one-eight just seems like a bigger deal that someone with a one-nine. Nevertheless, we have two people still around who were born in 1900, the last year of the 19th century. And there's another interesting thing about the newest oldest person: she's from Jamaica, where she was born, and which was part of the British Empire at the time. So she's the last person alive who was a subject of Queen Victoria. Wow.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Concord Sonata

I studied music and developed an appreciation for nontonal music. It's an acquired taste and it wilts if I don't feed it. But whenever I want to get back into it, I listen to The Concord Sonata by Charles Ives. I don't know why, but I'm always able to enjoy it. I understand if you don't like it, or even if you loathe it. Like I said, I can't explain why I find this piece so attractive, so listenable. I love the performance below, but there's another performance on YouTube that tracks the sheet music here. That's just to the first movement, the other movements are separate videos.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Time-travelling to see Jesus can be hazardous

For your Good Friday reading, I respectfully submit "Let's Go to Golgotha!" by Garry Kilworth.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Feser on Kim

Ed Feser comments on Jaegwon Kim's supervenience and attempted solving of the mind-body problem from Physicalism, or Something Near Enough. I've read it, but didn't remember Kim's use of Jonathan Edwards's occasionalism which is what Feser addresses. That just means I have to read it again, which I am happy to do. Kim is a master. Good stuff.

Looking back at the last few posts, I guess I could have collected them together as a linkfest. Oh well.

Friday, April 7, 2017

History and myth

Here's a six year old article on Four Myths about the Crusades. The myths in question are: 1) The crusades represented an unprovoked attack by Western Christians on the Muslim world; 2) Western Christians went on crusade because their greed led them to plunder Muslims in order to get rich; 3) Crusaders were a cynical lot who did not really believe their own religious propaganda; rather, they had ulterior, materialistic motives; and 4) the crusades taught Muslims to hate and attack Christians.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Link

Here's a great short story by Robert Silverburg entitled "Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another". The second soldier is Socrates. I feel enriched after reading it.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Shadows

Under emptied blue skies the party of eight camels zigzagged onward southeast through the parallel dunes of the vast Bani Mukassar, keeping to the gravelly desert floor and crossing the dunes at shallow gaps that notched the mountains of sand like passes. All four of the travelers preferred to ride during the day, when the sun blotted out the malign stars, but twice when they had had to march for a long distance along a dune to find a crossing place, they made up for the lost time by riding at night -- and though on one of these long, plodding nights there was no moon, the planet Jupiter glowed brightly enough in the sky to cast shadows on the dimply glowing sand, and Hale could see a faint luminosity around his companions and the camels. His party was now very far away from any outposts of men, and when he looked up at the stars of the Southern Cross in the infinite vault overhead, or gauged his course by the position of Antares in Scorpio on the southern horizon, it seemed that the postwar world of London and Paris and Berlin was astronomically distant and that he and his companions were the only human beings seeing these stars.

Tim Powers
Declare

While his mate searched deebies, Bhatterji turned away from the damaged cage. He noticed that he was casting a shadow and, turning to look, saw the smoky opal gleam of Jupiter off the fore starside quarter. It was a minute disk, not even a tenth the size of the Moon over the Bay of Bengal, and for just a moment, Bhatterji wondered what he was doing here, so far from the temples and the forests and the jangly cities. He remembered that Miko came from Amalthea and one of the wranglers from Callisto. They had signed the articles within a day of each other on the previous transit. Yet Circumjovia was the new frontier. Odd, how people fled from heavens that others scrambled to reach.

Michael Flynn
The Wreck of The River of Stars

They passed by the rows of spacecraft until they arrived at a small open space at then end of the port. There, a small spaceship -- a dinghy, really -- sat by itself. Next to it stood a group of people who had apparently been waiting for her. The Milky Way slowly swept by the open side of the port, and its light cast long shadows from the dinghy and those standing next to it, turning the open space into a giant clock, over which the roving shadows acted as hands.

Cixin Liu
Death's End

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

Abortion

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

Flatlined

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

Wow

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

Comments:

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.