Monday, April 18, 2016


OK, I can finally exhale. I was going to start blogging more, then I had to review the proofs and compile the index for a book that's coming out in a couple months, and the stress was ... considerable. Actually, I still have a couple weeks before the end of the term, then I correct final exams, and then I can exhale. In the meantime, for your reading pleasure, I present you with "Pray the Lord My Mind to Keep" by Cornelius Plantinga.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Quote of the Week

The late Dr. Kurt Koch, a Christian psychologist who has looked into paranormal events, claimed that "psychic powers as strong as those possessed by Uri Geller come from the sins of sorcery committed by one's ancestors. It would be better if he did not use them, but rather, if he would ask God for deliverance." But Koch believed in the reality of psychic powers because he observed a psychic bend spoons and read minds -- that is, he believed in what he saw. Koch had no knowledge of magic tricks, never enlisted any magicians to assist him in his investigations, and has been fooled by Christian magician Danny Korem. The "incredible abilities" Koch wrote about can be found on the shelves of any library in the pages of a children's magic book. As Bob Passantino has stated, "Christian bookstores are full of personal stories, testimonies, and experiences ... characterized by subjective emotionalism, undocumented assertions, and little or no biblical or theological evaluation."

When André Kole was performing in Germany, Kurt Koch and his associates were convinced he was using supernatural powers -- to the point of harassing André on stage during his performances, in hopes of getting him to publicly admit his satanic power. But a magician is nothing more than an actor playing a part. There is no magician on earth who wields any supernatural ability. As André pointed out, "Here is a man who most of the Christian world looked to as being the leading authority on the occult, accusing me, a magician, of having supernatural powers! I was not able to convince him otherwise. That fact alone completely discredits his ability to discern the difference between genuine supernatural power and common trickery."

A similar example was the brilliant scholar Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes novels. Doyle was convinced that the famous magician and escape artist Harry Houdini possessed supernatural powers of "dematerialization." Houdini did everything short of exposing his methods to try to convince Doyle otherwise.

André Kole and Jerry MacGregor
Mind Games: Exposing Today's Psychics, Frauds, and False Spiritual Phenomena

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Quote of the Week

In my time I have heard two quite different arguments against my religion put forward in the name of science. When I was a youngster, people used to say that the universe was not only not friendly to life but positively hostile to it. Life had appeared on this planet by a millionth chance, as if it at one point there had been a breakdown of the elaborate defenses generally enforced against it. We should be rash to assume that such a leak had occurred more than once. Probably life was a purely terrestrial abnormality. We were alone in an infinite desert. Which just showed the absurdity of the Christian idea that there was a Creator who was interested in living creatures.

But then came Professor F.B. Hoyle, the Cambridge cosmologist, and in a fortnight or so everyone I met seemed to have decided that the universe was probably quite well provided with inhabitable globes and with livestock to inhabit them. Which just showed (equally well) the absurdity of Christianity with its parochial idea that Man could be important to God.

This is a warning of what we may expect if we ever do discover animal life (vegetable does not matter) on another planet. Each new discovery, even every new theory, is held at first to have the most wide-reaching theological and philosophical consequences. It is seized by unbelievers as the basis for a new attack on Christianity; it is often, and more embarrassingly, seized by injudicious believers as the basis for a new defence.

But usually, when the popular hubbub has subsided and the novelty has been chewed over by real theologians, real scientists and real philosophers, both sides find themselves pretty much where they were before. So it was with Copernican astronomy, with Darwinism, with Biblical Criticism, with the new psychology. So I cannot help expecting, it will be with the discovery of "life on other planets" -- if that discovery is ever made.

C.S. Lewis
"Religion and Rocketry"
The World's Last Night and Other Essays

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Violence in the name of God

Some nonreligious friends of mine were recently texting me and each other about the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and how the specific religion of the terrorists was irrelevant. I loathe texting because my responses are always too long for that format; by the time I type something in, the conversation has shifted, so it is no longer clear what I am responding to. Regardless, my friends brought up alleged terrorist attacks by Christians to suggest that all groups, or at least all religious groups, are equally prone to terrorism, none more so than any other. They suggested several unconvincing cases, but I think the best recent example of this would be Anders Breivik, the Norwegian who killed 70 teenagers at a summer camp, and who described himself as Christian. However, he also stated explicitly that he was not a religious person, had only tried praying once in his life, and wanted to establish a secular society, not a theological one. "Christian" for him meant "traditional": he wanted to fight multiculturalism and re-embrace the traditional cultures of Norway and Europe in general, and historically Christianity was a strong presence in those cultures (the fact that these cultures shunned murder and terrorism seems to have escaped him). He stated that it was possible to be a "Christian-atheist", that is, an atheist who wants to preserve the traditional European culture and legacy but who does not believe in God or Jesus and does not accept what we usually think of as Christianity.

Of course you could find horrific acts done in the name of Christianity throughout history; for that matter, you could find horrific acts done in the name of any ideology -- religious, atheistic, political -- as long as it has a sufficient number of members. This, I assume, is what my friends were referring to when they said (texted) that people use ideology for an excuse to commit evil acts, and we shouldn't blame the ideology in question. They were really only saying that we shouldn't blame Islam for Islamic terrorism and seemed to be suggesting that we could blame Christianity for the alleged examples of Christian terrorism, but really they were just illustrating how people were employing a double-standard in blaming Islam for the evil committed in its name but excusing Christianity for the evil committed in its name.

I'm afraid I don't think it's that simple. As I've written before, ideas have consequences and different ideas have different consequences. There will always be people who will  find some excuse to commit evil regardless of their ideology, but to suggest that therefore no ideology is more prone to violence than any other is absurd. A pacifistic ideology is less likely to lead to violence than an ideology that advocates war and human sacrifice. Moreover, the idea that religious ideologies are uniquely prone to violence (and all equally so) is simply indefensible. You can use the same categories we just used: a pacifistic religion is less likely to lead to violence than a religion that advocates war and human sacrifice. This seems painfully obvious to me, yet much of discussion on this subject only makes sense if we presuppose the absurdity that all religions, by their very nature, are inherently, and equally, violent.

My friends pointed to the recent case of a guy who shot up an abortion clinic. His family said he was Christian but also that he was mentally ill. To blame his acts on Christianity instead of his mental illness seems needlessly inimical. Nevertheless, my friends' point was that he opposed abortion because of his Christian beliefs, and this is what motivated him to commit his evil act. So there's a simple move from his Christian belief to his act of murder.

The problem with this is that you could blame virtually any disagreement for violence this way. If a person thinks that his belief B is true and important and kills another person for disagreeing with him, it was belief in B that led the first person to the violence. Except it wasn't: you have to add another belief to the mix -- namely that it is acceptable and perhaps laudatory to defend or enforce true important beliefs, or at least some of them, by committing violence against those who don't hold them -- and it is this other belief, call it O, that provides the motive for the violence. We can make it more subtle by asking whether a person has a belief that entails O, implies O, or perhaps is just compatible with O.

Now here's the point: some ideologies have these "other" beliefs, beliefs like O or those that lead to them, and some don't. It is perfectly reasonable to ask of a particular ideology whether it contains beliefs like this or whether it doesn't. And you're going to get different answers from different ideologies and in particular from different religious ideologies. You just have to take it on a case-by-case basis. It is not hatred, it is not phobic, to ask this. You can ask this of Christianity, you can ask this of Islam, you can ask this of atheism, of democracy, of Marxism, etc. To suggest that no ideologies contain beliefs like O or beliefs that lead to O is silly and false: of course some do. To suggest that all ideologies contain beliefs like O is also silly and false. To suggest that all ideologies of a particular type (religious or political ideologies, say) contain beliefs like O would require one to demonstrate the connection between this particular type and O -- and in the case of religious and political ideologies, such a demonstration is not forthcoming: some do, some don't. Just because some religious ideologies contain beliefs like O. It doesn't follow from this they all do. This is just sloppy thinking.

The two ideologies we're really dealing with here are Christianity and Islam. So does Christianity contain a belief or doctrine like O or that can be reasonably interpreted as leading to or implying O? I'm sure I'm biased here, but I don't think it does, and in fact I think Christianity contains beliefs and doctrines that preclude O. I'm thinking here of claims such as that all human beings are created in God's image, and so all are of infinite and equal value. That the law can be summed up by two commandments: love God and love other people. That it is impossible to love God while hating someone, since the hated person is created in God's image. That God is love itself, and that he loves each individual so much that he became a human being and willingly experienced the very worst humanity had to offer -- and in so doing reconciled us to him. That all people, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, or social standing are of equal value to God because God loves them equally, including those who hate him. So human value is determined by the fact that we are created in God's image and that God loves us. These are not arbitrary passages, they are central doctrines, universally accepted throughout Christian history. To reject them is to reject Christianity. Of course there will be some people who do reject them while insisting nevertheless that they are Christians (think of the Westboro Baptist church). But any large ideology will have people who are only in it nominally, using it somehow as a mask to cover whatever terrible things they want to say and do. Having said that, it's not my place to say whether someone has truly accepted Christ in their hearts: human beings are very complex, and we have an incredible and disturbing ability to deceive ourselves. My point is rather that Christianity does not contain any beliefs like O or that imply or entail O, and in fact it contains beliefs -- central doctrines even -- that are incompatible with beliefs like O.

By saying this I don't mean to imply that the only valid form of Christianity is pacifistic. Certainly some do interpret it that way, but it has usually been understood to leave room for self-defense, warfare, and often capital punishment. Whether the claim that all human beings are created in God's image and that God loves everyone, thus imbuing every person with infinite and equal value is incompatible with warfare and capital punishment is certainly debatable -- I even know Christians who think it is incompatible with self-defense, and that they are morally obligated to not defend themselves or their loved ones if they are attacked, which I think is insane and morally reprehensible. But that's not the question: the question is whether warfare and capital punishment are equivalent to O, the belief that it is acceptable and perhaps laudatory to defend or enforce true important beliefs by committing violence against those who don't hold them. But neither warfare nor capital punishment -- assuming the debatable point that they are compatible with the central Christian doctrines above -- meet this definition (and obviously neither does self-defense). Regardless of whether one agrees with the proffered rationales behind war and capital punishment, they are not the same as O. You can be opposed to warfare in all cases without thinking it's always undertaken in order to visit violence on those with whom you disagree -- another Christian doctrine is just war theory, according to which war has to meet certain moral conditions in order for it to be appropriate. You can be opposed to capital punishment without thinking that the only reason for it is to visit violence on those with whom you disagree. This is sufficient to demonstrate that warfare and capital punishment are not equivalent to O, regardless of whatever else we think of them.

A critic might make the counterargument that the central doctrines I've mentioned are contradicted by some Bible passages. God loves all people equally? But he says he hated Esau. God commands us to love others? But Jesus says we have to hate our own families in order to be his disciple. The problem with this is that the central doctrines have always been understand as the definitive claims, so that these "problem passages" have to be explained in light of the much more prevalent passages that support the doctrines. Whether or not the explanations work is not my point; I'm just saying that these passages were not seen historically as contradicting the central doctrines, and it is the central doctrines that are relevant as to whether Christianity is compatible with O. Certainly, some people have taken these problem passages individually and superficially, using them as a justification for evil. But this can only be done by ignoring the larger context of the Bible as a whole, since this larger context includes the central doctrines which are incompatible with interpreting these passages as equivalent to O. Again, this is not just my interpretation: these central doctrines are universally accepted throughout Christian history. It's not just my reading, my understanding of what the Bible says, it's what Christianity teaches and has always taught.

The critic might press the point by pointing to events described in the Bible where God seems to sanction violence, and excessive violence at that. The usual suspect here is the conquest of Canaan in the book of Joshua, when God told the Israelites to conquer a land militarily, often with the addition of leaving no one alive, including children. This has been a huge source of discussion throughout Christian history precisely because it is enormously difficult to reconcile with the doctrines mentioned above, and others. However, regardless of how we reconcile it (assuming it can be), the history of Christian and Jewish thought testifies that the rationale behind this series of events was believed to be unique to that particular time and place, applying only to those specific circumstances, and was not a model for future acts. It was not understood as a paradigm for the Jew or Christian, or the Jewish or Christian nation, to follow. Again, my goal here is not to provide some explanation for whether the conquest of Canaan can be made consistent with the doctrines that God is love, loves everyone equally, etc. My point is just that the violence involved in the conquest of Canaan does not, and has never been understood to, illustrate central doctrines. The central doctrines are those mentioned above and which preclude beliefs like O.

What about Islam? The Hadith say that God created Adam in his image, and some Islamic thinkers and mystics have repeated this point. However, they don't seem to understand it the same way that Jews and Christians do: a primary claim of Islam, a "central doctrine", is that there can be no representation of God, no "image" of him. Any attempted portrayal of God would inevitably distort him and so be blasphemous. Some Muslims (not all, despite belief to the contrary) extend this act of reverence to depictions of Muhammad and other prophets by not drawing or painting their faces, or by scratching out the faces painted by other Muslims. But if there can be no representation of God, then human beings cannot really be representations of him by being created in his image. To think they are is heretical.

Moreover, the Judeo-Christian doctrine of imago Dei involves the claim that God creates human beings so that they have certain properties that God has in a higher or purer fashion. We have a sense of rationality, a sense of morality, and a sense of beauty because God is the ground of rationality, morality, and beauty. They are rooted in his very nature. These are points of contact between God and humanity. But another central doctrine of Islam is that God is completely transcendent, and that therefore there can be no point of contact between God and humanity. Even Muhammad didn't receive the Qur'an from God, he received it from the archangel Gabriel who had received it from God. There are important qualifications to this: for example, the Qur'an states that God is closer to us than we are to our own jugular veins. But I don't think this negates the point that there is no direct connection between God and humanity in Islam.

Another point: the Judeo-Christian points of contact between God and humanity are traits we have that are aspects of God's nature (rationality, morality). But in Islam God has no nature: if he had a nature then he couldn't do something contrary to it (otherwise it wouldn't be his nature), and this is to limit God's omnipotence. Some Christians think this too, and in fact some Muslims deny it and affirm that God does have a nature: I think the Mu'tazilite school did so. But denying that God has a nature is a minority view in Christianity, and the almost universal view in Islam.

OK, so Islam denies that human beings are created in God's image in the Judeo-Christian sense, which is what forms the basis of affirming that all human beings are of infinite and equal value. God has ultimate value, he is the source of all value, so being created in his image we have derivative value. But this doesn't mean that Islam denies that all human beings have value: maybe they have a different basis for affirming it. In fact, above, I gave a second reason Christianity affirms it: God loves us all equally, including those who hate him and are in a state of rebellion against him. Perhaps Islam states something like this, thus providing them a basis for affirming that human beings are of equal value, which would therefore seem to be incompatible with beliefs like O.

Unfortunately, this turns out to not be the case. Throughout the Qur'an, God is quoted as saying that he does not love an awful lot of people -- specifically non-Muslims. The only people he loves are Muslims. And this forms the basis for human value in Islam. The better a Muslim you are, the more human you are. If you're not a Muslim at all, you're screwed.

Now does this entail or imply O, that one is justified in committing violence against those who do not agree with you? Actually, I don't think it does: just thinking other people aren't as fully human as you are does not say anything about violence. Once again, you'd have to import O into the system, a belief that does entail violence. However, I do think that this view of human value is compatible with O. This view of human value does not, in itself, give one a reason to commit violence. But it doesn't give one a reason to not commit violence either. It may not push one towards O, but there is nothing in it to ward it off if one has some other motive to accept O.

So the next question is whether Islam provides another motive. We saw above that there are some Bible passages which could be interpreted as advocating violence if taken superficially and out of their larger context where they are outnumbered by passages stating the opposite. The Qur'an seems to be differently proportioned along these lines: passages which advocate violence heavily outnumber those which advocate peace. Of course, on the one hand, it's not just a matter of counting passages, but of central doctrines. On the other hand, central doctrines are usually central because of the scriptural evidence behind them. Perhaps Islam only allows violence in the case of warfare or capital punishment -- although I note that Islam has no just war doctrine, so the criteria that prevent warfare from being equivalent to O in Christianity are not evident in Islam. Perhaps, again, they have other criteria to avoid this equivalence. However, at this point, I'm going to pass the buck to the Muslim world to tell us, both historically and contemporarily, how they have understood these passages, and what Islam's central doctrines are. I'm not asking for minority views but for the majority view, at least among Muslim theologians and philosophers.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Hey there

Sorry for being out of the blogging business for so long, I got kind of burned out by the comments in this post over at Quodlibeta, although it was probably just the straw that broke the camel's back. It's not like I'm not writing, I have a book and an article coming out, I just haven't been blogging. Anyway, I'm writing a post that I'll put up in a couple days or so in order to see if I can force myself out of this slump and back into the thick of things. I'm not sure if the post will be any good, I'm just trying to kickstart something.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

A different kind of link

I just played this video for my kids (ages 5 and 7) as a reward for picking up their room. I fear it makes me a bad father. (I stopped it before the final few seconds, btw.)

Monday, October 5, 2015

Quote of the Week

The narration of events on the fourth day raises several questions. Does the text state that the sun, moon, and stars were created on the fourth day? If so, how could the universe, "the heavens and the earth," which would have surely included the sun, moon, and stars, have been created "in the beginning" (1:1)? Could the author speak of a "day and night" during the first three days of Creation if the sun had not yet been created? Were there plants and vegetation on the land (created on the third day) before the creation of the sun?

Keil represents a common evangelical viewpoint; he suggested that though "the heavens and the earth" were created "in the beginning" (1:1), it was not until the fourth day that they were "completed." Keil's explanation can be seen already in Calvin, who stated that "the world was not perfected at its very commencement, in the manner in which it is now seen, but that it was created an empty chaos of heaven and earth." According to Calvin, this "empty chaos" was then filled on the fourth day with the sun, moon, and stars. Calvin's view is similar to that of Rashi: "[The sun, moon, and stars] were created on the first day, but on the fourth day [God] commanded that they be placed in the sky."

The Scofield Bible represents another common line of interpretation (the "Restitution Theory" or "Gap Theory"), which can be found much earlier in the history of interpretation: "The sun and moon were created 'in the beginning.' The 'light' of course came from the sun, but the vapor diffused the light. Later the sun appeared in an unclouded sky." According to this view the sun, moon, and stars were all created in 1:1 but could not be seen from the earth until the fourth day.

Both of these approaches seek to avoid the seemingly obvious sense of the text, that is, that the sun, moon, and stars were created on the fourth day. Both views modify the sense of the verb "created" so that it harmonizes with the statement of the first verse: God created the universe in the beginning.

There is, however, another way to look at this text that provides a satisfactory and coherent reading of 1:1 and 1:14-18. First, we must decide on the meaning of the phrase "the heavens and the earth" in 1:1 (see comments above on 1:1). If the phrase means "universe" or "cosmos," as is most probable, then it must be taken with the same sense it has throughout its uses in the Bible (e.g. Joel 3:15-16 [4:15-16]); thus it would include the sun, moon, and stars. So the starting point of an understanding of Genesis 1:14-18 is the view that the whole of the universe, including the sun, moon, and stars, was created "in the beginning" (1:1) and thus not on the fourth day.

Second, we must consider the syntax of verse 14. When one compares it to that of the creation of the "expanse" in verse 6, one can see that the two verses have a quite different sense. The syntax of verse 6 suggests that when God said, "Let there be an expanse," he was creating an expanses where none existed previously (creation out of nothing). Thus there seems little doubt that the author intends to say that God created the expanse on the first day. In verse 14, however, the syntax is different, though the English translations do not always reflect this difference. We should be careful to note that in verse 14 God does not say, "Let there be lights ... to separate...," as if there were no lights before this command and afterward the lights were created. Rather, the Hebrew text reads, "God said, 'Let the lights in the expanse be for separating ....'" In other words, unlike the syntax of verse 6, the syntax in verse 14 assumes that the lights were already in the expanse, and in response to his command they were given a purpose, "to separate the day and night" and "to serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years." If the difference between the syntax of verse 6 (the use of היה alone) and verse 14 (היה with an infinitive) is significant, then it suggests that the author does not understand his account of the fourth day as an account of the creation of the lights but, on the contrary, he assumes that the heavenly lights have already been created "in the beginning."

John Sailhamer
The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary
(Library of Biblical Interpretation)

Monday, September 28, 2015

Quote of the Week

Until quite recently, Islamic philosophy was regarded as a fringe phenomenon in the broad scope of the history of philosophy, worthy of inclusion only to the extent  that it played a role in the transmission and transformation of the Greek heritage before its final appropriation by the Latin philosophers and theologians from the thirteenth century onwards. While the absence of verifiable contacts between the principal proponents of Islamic and Christian philosophy after Averroes' death in 1198 CE may have legitimated the delegation of the study of the subsequent Islamic tradition to the orientaists, this was often coupled with the more derogatory thesis that there simply was no philosophical activity worthy of the name in the Arabic language after Averroes' allegedly unsuccessful attempt to defend philosophy against Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī's (d. 1111 CE) fatal blow dealt in his critical Tahāfut al-falāsifa.

It has since been conclusively shown that Ghazālī did not put an end to the development of philosophical thought in the Islamic world, either single-handedly or as the spearhead of a wider opposition from orthodox theologians. In fact, the contrary consensus is beginning to emerge according to which he may not even have intended anything of the sort. Instead, Ghazālī has been argued to have knowingly incorporated a great amount of philosophical material, not to mention the philosophical method of rigorous argumentation, into this own though, and to have been followed in this by Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī,another highly venerated Sunnī theologian. Thus, although self-proclaimed philosophers may have grown rare in the subsequent centuries of Islamic thought, philosophical activity prospered in Sunnī thological writing and teaching, quite likely down to our era.

On the other hand, Iran has fostered a thriving philosophical tradition through to the present day. In the light of our increasing knowledge of the development of this field of intellectual activity, it seems a safe estimate to say that post-Avicennian Islamic philosophers were not afraid of making departures comparable in extent to their early modern European peers. This is especially evident in the thought of Suhrawardī and Mullā Ṣadrā whose revisions of received views will be our major concern in the following. Nevertheless, the strictly philosophical value of this tradition is sometimes still obscured  by the fact that some of its most prominent Western scholars have tended to emphasize other, more mystical aspects of the philosophers' thoughts.

Jari Kaukua
Self-Awareness in Islamic Philosophy: Avicenna and Beyond

Jim's comments: The first paragraph is in accord with my own experience. I wrote one of my Master's theses on Islamic philosophy, and planned to do my Ph.D. on it as well -- specifically on the influence of Alexander of Aphrodisias's philosophy of mind on medieval Islamic philosophy of mind, particularly in al-Andalus. That's when I started writing this blog, and that's why I called it Agent Intellect, which is a term that comes from all these texts, commentaries, and commentaries on commentaries. The medievalist at my school was strongly encouraging me in this direction. But then a couple of "old-school" historians of philosophy let it be known (to him, and thus indirectly to me) that they would not accept my Doctoral candidacy if I applied to do it on Islamic philosophy. I've always suspected -- and that's all it is, a suspicion -- that they didn't think Islamic philosophy had anything of value to offer: the Muslims allegedly just held on to the great philosophies of the ancients, making a few developments here and there, but mostly just writing commentaries. I have a 1968 book on my shelves called Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature. About three pages include Muslim and Arabic contributions to this process, which is just mind-boggling: they should make up 75% of the book.

I think after 9/11 Westerners were desperate to find good things in Islam, and this has resulted in the pendulum swinging to the other end. Now we have people implying that medieval Islam represented all that was good and right in the world until Western civilization came along and wrecked it. I guess this is understandable, but it is, at best, an extreme exaggeration. For example, there was a traveling museum exhibit ten years ago or so that was on Islamic inventions (it started off at 20, then went up to 100 I think). The problem was almost none of the inventions were Islamic. They were inventions from various people groups all over the world who were conquered by Muslims and had their inventions "appropriated". What the museum directors meant to say was inventions that came to Western Europe via Islam, but that wouldn't have portrayed Islam as positively as they wanted (not to mention that the inventions would have got to Europe eventually, even without the Islamic intervention). When people learn that they're being fed half-truths like this, they tend to take other reports of the positive aspects of Islam with a grain of salt. So we need to balance it out by recognizing the real contributions Islam has made to medieval philosophy and science without going overboard by representing medieval Islam as some sort of Golden Age of intellectualism that was just as impressive as the contributions of Western civilization and Christianity.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Quote of the Week

Chastity is the most unpopular of the Christian virtues. There is no getting away from it: the old Christian rule is, "Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence." Now this is so difficult and so contrary to our instincts, that obviously either Christianity is wrong or our sexual instinct, as it now is, has gone wrong. One or the other. Of course, being a Christian, I think it is the instinct which has gone wrong.

But I have other reasons for thinking so. The biological purpose of sex is children, just as the biological purpose of eating is to repair the body. Now if we eat whenever we feel inclined and just as much as we want, it is quite true that most of us will eat too much: but not terrifically too much. One man may eat enough for two, but he does not eat enough for ten. The appetite goes a little beyond its biological purpose, but not enormously. But if a healthy young man indulged his sexual appetite whenever he felt inclined, and if each act produced a baby, then in ten years he might easily populate a small village. This appetite is in ludicrous and preposterous excess of its function.

Or take it another way. You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act -- that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us?

One critic said that if he found a country in which such striptease acts with food were popular, he would conclude that the people of that country were starving. He meant, of course, to imply that such things as the strip-tease act resulted not from sexual corruption but from sexual starvation. I agree with him that if, in some strange land, we found that similar acts with mutton chops were popular, one of the possible explanations which would occur to me would be famine. But the next step would be to test our hypothesis by finding out whether, in fact, much or little food was being consumed in that country. If the evidence showed that a good deal was being eaten, then of course we should have to abandon the hypothesis of starvation and try to think of another one. In the same way, before accepting sexual starvation as the cause of the strip-tease, we should have to look for evidence that there is in fact more sexual abstinence in our age than in those ages when things like the strip-tease were unknown. But surely there is no such evidence. Contraceptives have made sexual indulgence far less costly within marriage and far safer outside it than ever before, and public opinion is less hostile to illicit unions and even to perversion than it has been since Pagan times. Nor is the hypothesis of "starvation" the only one we can imagine. Everyone knows that the sexual appetite, like our other appetites, grows by indulgence. Starving men may think much about food, but so do gluttons; the gorged, as well as the famished, like titillations.

C.S. Lewis
"Sexual Morality" (chapter 5 of Christian Behavior)
Mere Christianity


Monday, September 14, 2015

Quote of the Week

It's not that science can't remind us of, or call attention to, modal truths that would be accessible without science. The surest proof of a possibility is an actuality. It would have been a lot harder to come up with a dream argument for skepticism if people didn't dream, or an argument from the possibility of hallucination if people didn't have non-veridical experience. But it would only have been more difficult. The possibilities upon which the arguments trade are real whether or not they ever materialize. The possibility that the neural activity associated with mental states differs from creature to creature, and even person to person, is (and was always obviously) real whether or not the possibilities materialize.

Indeed, after all of the empirical data are in, we might ask again: What distinctively philosophical  questions will be, or even could be, answered by science? What distinctively philosophical  controversies will be advanced, let alone settled? Suppose that we have obtained exhaustive correlations of the sort described above. Are we any closer to answering any of the following? Can you even imagine any empirical research that would shed light on any of the following?

(1) Are knowledge arguments for substance/property/fact/event dualism sound?

(2) Are there important distinctions to be made between substance/property/fact/event dualism? Is there such a thing as substance? What is the connection between differences between kinds of substances and kinds of properties exemplified by substance? What is the difference between a mental property and a physical property? What is the distinction between an event and a fact?

(3) Is functionalism a plausible account of the nature of mental states?

(4) On a functionalist account of mind, should we identify mental states with that which "realizes" the functional state (i.e. plays the functional role) or should we identify mental states with the exemplification of the second-order functional property?

(5) Do we "fix the reference" of predicate expressions picking out kinds of mental states with definite descriptions that nevertheless do not capture the meaning of the predicate expressions, or shall we view terms for kinds of mental states as having the meaning of definite descriptions? If either, what are the relevant definite descriptions?

(6) Should we be internalists or externalists about the identity conditions for mental states? If brain states are intentional (representational) what makes them intentional? Is it some feature intrinsic to the states, or has it more to do with the causal origin of the states. [sic] If the latter, why were we trusting first-person reports of mental states in trying to correlate neural activity with, say, desires or fears? Why would anyone have privileged introspective access to the character of a mental state whose identity conditions involve facts that are clearly the purview of empirical science?

Do any of the philosophers partnering with cognitive science think that they'll get any useful information from empirical science that will help them answer any of the above questions?

Don't misunderstand me. Many of the answers to these philosophical questions will clarify important empirical questions that someone might be interested in answering. If you decide that functionalism is true, you will probably need to turn to empirical science to discover what takes the value of the variable used in the specification of the functional state. If you become really interested in that question, then by all means stop doing philosophy for a while and do (or consult) the relevant empirical research. Alternatively, you could view your task qua philosopher as finished once you've come up with your functionalist analysis, content then to let the chips fall where they may with respect to the hard-wiring of the brain or the nature of a Cartesian ego.

If we decide that either mental predicate expressions, physical predicate expressions, or both have their reference fixed, or meaning given, by definite descriptions, and we can isolate the relevant definite descriptions, it may turn out that only the cognitive scientist can tell you whether or not the predicate expressions have an extension, and if they do what that extension is. I've already implied that I think it wildly implausible to suppose that our grasp of pain is somehow indirect (is "by description"), at least as we actually have an experience of pain of which we are consciously aware -- we'll talk about this issue in more detail shortly. I cant see how it can possibly turn that "is in pain" fails to pick out a property. Any view that allows for such a possibility is for that reason an implausible view. It's hardly the case, for example, that I think of being in pain as the property I typically exemplify when I'm bleeding all over the floor, or the property exemplification of which causes me to grimace, complain, answer questions in certain ways, or what have you. If such a view were correct, then, to be sure, it would be a matter of empirical investigation as to what that property is, and it might turn out in humans to be a pattern of neurons firing. When I think of Jack the Ripper, I think of a person who is causally responsible for certain atrocities committed at the end of the nineteenth century and there are any number of people who might turn out to be the referent of "Jack the Ripper." But I already know what property I'm talking about when I talk about pain. I don't pick it out via some metaproperty it exemplifies.

Richard Fumerton
Knowledge, Thought, and the Case for Dualism
(Cambridge Studies in Philosophy)

Friday, September 11, 2015


Not much to say really that I haven't said before: see herehere, and here.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Quote of the Week

Fifteen minutes later I breached the border of the woods and came back to colony ground to find four werewolves in a semicircle and Hiram Yoder standing silently at their focus. I dropped to the ground.

The werewolves didn't notice me; they were entirely intent on Yoder, who continued to stand stock-still. Two of the werewolves had spears trained on him, ready to run him through if he moved. He didn't. All four of them clicked and hissed, the hisses falling in and out of my sonic range; this was why Jane heard them before the rest of us did.

One of the werewolves came forward to Yoder, hissing and clicking at him, stocky and muscular where Yoder was tall and trim. It had a simple stone knife in one hand. It reached out a claw and poked Yoder hard in the chest; Yoder took it and stood there, silently. The thing grabbed his right arm and began to sniff and examine it; Yoder offered no resistance. Yoder was a Mennonite, a pacifist.

The werewolf suddenly struck Yoder hard on the arm, perhaps testing him. Yoder staggered a bit from the blow but stood his ground. The werewolf let out a rapid series of chirps and then the others did, too; I suspected they were laughing.

The werewolf raked his claws across Yoder's face, shredding the man's right cheek with an audible scraping sound. Blood poured down Yoder's face; he involuntarily clutched it with his hand. The werewolf cooed and stared at Yoder, its four eyes unblinking, waiting to see what he would do.

Yoder dropped his hand from his ruined face and looked directly at the werewolf. He slowly turned his head to offer his other cheek.

The werewolf stepped away from Yoder and back toward its own, chirping. The two who had spears trained on Yoder let them drop slightly. I breathed a sigh of relief and looked down for a second, registering my own cold sweat. Yoder had kept himself alive by not offering resistance; the creatures, whatever else they were, were smart enough to see that he was not a threat.

I raised my head again to see one of the werewolves staring directly at me.

It let out a trilling cry. The werewolf closest to Yoder glanced over at me, snarled and drove his stone knife into Yoder. Yoder stiffened. I raised my rifle and shot the werewolf in the head. It fell; the other werewolves bolted back into the woods.

I ran over to Yoder, who had collapsed on the ground, and was pawing gingerly at the stone knife. "Don't touch it," I said. If the knife had nicked any major blood vessels, pulling it out could cause him to bleed out.

"It hurts," Yoder said. He looked up at me and smiled, gritting his teeth. "Well, it almost worked."

"It did work," I said. "I'm sorry, Hiram. This wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for me."

"Not your fault," Hiram said. "I saw you drop and hide. Saw you give me a chance. You did the right thing." He reached out toward the corpse of the werewolf, touching the sprawled leg. "Wish you didn't have to shoot it," he said.

"I'm sorry," I said again. Hiram didn't have anything more to say.

John Scalzi
The Last Colony

Monday, August 31, 2015

Quote of the Week

The question then arises, "What sort of evidence would prove the efficacy of prayer?" The thing we pray for may happen, but how can you ever know it was not going to happen anyway? Even if the thing were indisputably miraculous it would not follow that the miracle had occurred because of your prayers. The answer surely is that a compulsive empirical proof such as we have in the sciences can never be attained.

Some things are proved by the unbroken uniformity of our experiences. The law of gravitation is established by the fact that, in our experience, all bodies without exception obey it. Now even if all the things that people prayed for happened, which they do not, this would not prove what Christians mean by the efficacy of prayer. For prayer is request. The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted. And if an infinitely wise Being listens to the requests of finite and foolish creatures, of course He will sometimes grant and sometimes refuse them. Invariable "success" in prayer would not prove the Christian doctrine at all. It would prove something much more like magic -- a power in certain human beings to control, or compel, the course of nature.

There are, no doubt, passages in the New Testament which may seem at first sight to promise an invariable granting of our prayers. But that cannot be what they really mean. For in the very heart of the story we meet a glaring instance to the contrary. In Gethsemane the holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from Him. It did not. After that the idea that prayer is recommended to us as a sort of infallible gimmick may be dismissed.

Other things are proved not simply by experience but by those artificially contrived experiences which we call experiments. Could this be done about prayer? I will pass over the objection that no Christian could take part in such a project, because he has been forbidden it: "You must not try experiments on God, your Master." Forbidden or not, is the thing even possible?

I have seen it suggested that a team of people -- the more the better -- should agree to pray as hard as they knew how, over a period of six weeks, for all the patients in Hospital A and none of those in Hospital B. Then you would tot up the results and see if A had more cures and fewer deaths. And I suppose you would repeat the experiment at various times and places so as to eliminate the influence of irrelevant factors.

The trouble is that I do not see how any real prayer could go on under such conditions. "Words without thoughts never to heaven go," says the King in Hamlet. Simply to say prayers is not to pray; otherwise a team of properly trained parrots would serve as well as men for our experiments. You cannot pray for the recovery of the sick unless the end you have in view is their recovery. But you can have no motive for desiring the recovery of all the patients in one hospital and none of those in another. You are not doing it in order that suffering should be relieved; you are doing it to find out what happens. The real purpose and the nominal purpose of your prayers are at variance. In other words, whatever your tongue and teeth and knees may do, you are not praying. The experiment demands an impossibility.

Empirical proof and disproof are, then, unobtainable. But this conclusion will seem less depressing if we remember that prayer is request and compare it with other specimens of the same thing.


For up till now we have been tackling the whole question in the wrong way and on the wrong level. The very question "Does prayer work?" puts us in the wrong frame of mind from the outset. "Work": as if it were magic, or a machine -- something that functions automatically. Prayer is either a sheer illusion or a personal contact between embryonic, incomplete persons (ourselves) and the utterly concrete Person. Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine. In it God shows Himself to us. That He answers prayers is a corollary -- not necessarily the most important one -- from that revelation. What He does is learned from what He is.

C.S. Lewis
"The Efficacy of Prayer"
The World's Last Night and Other Essays