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.

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.

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

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.