Friday, July 14, 2017


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.


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


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


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:


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


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.