Monday, May 23, 2016

Summer Reading

I've been dissatisfied with the texts I've used for my introduction to philosophy class but have yet to find any better ones. It's not that the texts themselves are not good enough (for the most part), it's that what I want is so particular the only way I'm going to find a book that meets all my requirements is if I write it myself. Overall I prefer a topical approach rather than a historical introduction or an anthology, although I sometimes think about having the course be the reading of several complete historical texts rather than short readings: a couple of Plato's dialogues, BoethiusConsolation of Philosophy, Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy, Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, etc. I think reading a bunch of short excerpts is like taking a three-day tour of Europe. You need to settle in and live there for a while to get an appreciation of the place.

The text I've used the most is Donald Palmer, Does the Center Hold? An Introduction to Western Philosophy, 6th edition. Palmer's book is structured closest to my Platonic ideal of a philosophy text (which isn't saying much), it's well-suited for college freshmen, and it's cheap. But I'm unhappy with some elements of it, not least his treatment of philosophy of religion. So I've been collecting introductory texts and I plan to spend the summer going over them, or at least some of them, to potentially replace Palmer but probably just to integrate some of their contents into the course. Maybe I should say I hope to spend the summer reading them, since plans change, and I can already foresee several events that will take precedence. Anyway, the books I have are:

-- Malcolm Clark, The Need to Question: An Introduction to Philosophy. The only text I've seen that addresses philosophy of language. Looks like it's from a Kantian perspective.
-- Reuben Abel, Man Is the Measure: A Cordial Invitation to the Central Problems of Philosophy.
-- Clark Glymour, Thinking Things Through: An Introduction to Philosophical Issues and Achievements, 2nd edition. This one looks like it goes into much more detail but over fewer subjects than I want. So greater depth, smaller scope. Nevertheless, it looks very good, and I might consider switching to it if I think it's accessible to freshmen.
-- Daniel J. Sullivan, An Introduction to Philosophy: Perennial Principles of the Classical Realist Tradition. A Catholic introduction.
-- Phil Washburn, Philosophical Dilemmas: A Pro and Con Introduction to the Major Questions and Philosophers, 4th edition. The format of this book looks excellent, giving the strengths and weaknesses of numerous philosophical issues and conundrums. I might consider switching to it, although it's an expensive text (most of them are), and I want to use a cheap one if possible.
-- Andrew Pessin and S. Morris Engel, The Study of Philosophy: A Text with Readings, 7th edition. Mostly text with short readings at the end of each chapter.
-- Lewis Vaughn, Philosophy Here and Now: Powerful Ideas in Everyday Life, 2nd edition. I've used this, and it's really excellent. My only objections are that it doesn't address some of the subjects I want addressed and it's expensive. But I might consider switching to this one too.

Another book I'll look at that isn't technically an introduction to philosophy text is Alasdair MacIntyre's God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition.

I put these on the sidebar in my GoodReads widget which I have neglected for the past year. I also have several anthologies, which, as I say, is not my preference. However, I plan to take a close look at them to see if they can convert me:

-- Andrew Bailey and Robert M. Martin, First Philosophy: Fundamental Problems and Readings in Philosophy, 2nd edition.
-- Gideon Rosen, Alex Byrne, Joshua Cohen, and Seana Shiffrin, The Norton Introduction to Philosophy.
-- Steven M. Cahn, The World of Philosophy: An Introductory Reader.
-- John Perry, Michael Bratman, and John Martin Fischer, Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and Contemporary Readings, 7th edition.
-- William F. Lawhead, The Philosophical Journey: An Interactive Approach, 6th edition.
-- John Chaffee, The Philosopher's Way: Thinking Critically about Profound Ideas: A Text with Readings, 5th edition.

I'm also slated to teach an introduction to ethics course next fall. However, in this case, the university wants me to use a particular text, so this summer I'll also be reading Nina Rosenstand, The Moral of the Story: An Introduction to Ethics, 7th edition. It's on the sidebar too.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Some comments on the flood, part 1

The account of Noah and the flood is one of those Bible passages held up as being inconsistent with contemporary science -- probably only the creation account receives more fire. In fact young-earth creationists use the flood accounts to justify their positions. According to them, all the geological strata, along with the fossils embedded in them, were laid down by the flood. Some even suggest that the earth was much smoother at the time of the flood and that the mountain ranges formed during it. This is why young-earth creationism is often called "flood geology". The anti-science impression is compounded by how the young-earth folk tie the flood account to the creation account: on the second day of creation, God separated the waters above from the waters below. The waters above, they contend, refers to a primeval water canopy that surrounded the earth which created a sort of tropical paradise where it never rained (as claimed in Genesis 2:5). The flood took place when this canopy collapsed and fell to the earth.

Now, as far as I can tell, the only part of this scenario that was widely accepted prior to the mid-19th century is the claim that the flood was global. I'll deal with that issue in part 2. For now I'll focus on the other issues.

The concept of a primeval water canopy comes from the visions of Ellen White which started in the 1840s and which formed the basis for Seventh-Day Adventism. Seventh-Day Adventism was originally a cult as they considered White's visions to be as authoritative as the Bible. They have since backed away from that stance and are generally considered to be an authentic Christian denomination today -- although I note that Walter Martin, in his magisterial The Kingdom of the Cults, had a 100-page appendix entitled "The Puzzle of Seventh-Day Adventism". Contemporary young-earth creationism is virtually identical to -- and historically derived from -- White's visions.

However, I'm going to ignore the dubious provenance of young-earth creationism in order to focus on some of the problems with how it uses the flood to create an alternative view of earth's history. With regards to the water canopy theory, they point out that the Bible states that the waters were separated to be above and below an expanse, which the text specifically defines as the sky or heavens (שָׁמָ֑יִם). This term had numerous meanings in ancient Hebrew: the Bible uses it to refer to the air or space around us (I owe this point to Dallas Willard's comments in The Divine Conspiracy, chapter 3), the air or space above us, the earth’s atmosphere, outer space, or the spiritual realm where God dwells. Thus one could correctly say that birds fly in the heavens, clouds float in the heavens, stars shine in the heavens, and angels dwell in the heavens. The spiritual heavens are themselves divided further into the seven heavens, not just in Jewish tradition, but in many ancient cosmologies.

In order to defend the canopy theory, one would have to say that the expanse (that is, the heavens) refers specifically to the earth's atmosphere. But I think it is more plausible that it refers to the air or space that is around and above us, and that the waters above them simply refers to clouds and precipitation. My reasoning for this is that, first, if the phrase "the waters above" does not refer to something common in our experience (like precipitation, water that falls from above), then it is completely obscure. Genesis 1 does not define what "the waters above" is, so if it is not meant to refer to an aspect of our common experience (just as "the waters below" refers to rivers, lakes, oceans, and their underground sources), it could be forced to mean nearly anything.

Second, there is biblical evidence against the canopy theory. The text says that when the flood abated, the waters returned (וַיָּשֻׁ֧בוּ) to where they had been prior to the flood (Genesis 8:3). Therefore, if the water had originated in a canopy, it would have returned to form another canopy after the flood. Since the water did not reform into a water canopy that surrounded the earth, the floodwaters did not originate in such a canopy.

In fact there are other Bible passages which show that the waters above refers to clouds and precipitation. Proverbs 3:19-20 states that "By wisdom the LORD laid the earth's foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the deeps were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew." Referring to God's laying of the earth's foundations and setting the heavens in place clearly hearkens back to the creation account in Genesis 1. "The deeps were divided" sounds exactly like the separation of the waters below from the waters above ("the deeps" and "the deep" are common references to oceans and water in the Bible, even in Genesis 1 -- "darkness was over the surface of the deep"), and "the clouds let drop the dew" obviously refers to precipitation. Similarly, Proverbs 8:27-29 states "I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep." Again, "when he set the heavens in place" clearly refers back to the creation account in Genesis 1, and "clouds above" and "fountains of the deep" immediately brings to mind the concept of the waters above and the waters below, which would entail that the waters above refer to clouds.

The claim that it didn't rain on the early earth (and therefore that "the waters above" couldn't have referred to clouds and precipitation) is based on two passages: the first is Genesis 2:5, which states that "the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth [בָאָ֔רֶץ] and there was no one to work the ground." However, this verse is a part of the story of God's creation of Adam and Eve; it does not refer to the entire planet and all of earth history, but to the garden of Eden on the sixth day of creation. The term אָ֔רֶץ means "land", and often refers to local areas like this. So on the sixth day of creation, after God had set aside Eden but before he had placed the first people there, it had not yet rained in Eden. (This is assuming the Genesis 2 account should be taken fairly literally which may not be necessary.)

The other passage offered is Genesis 9:13-17 which states that God set the rainbow in the sky to represent his promise to never destroy the earth's population by flood again. This supposedly implies that there had been no rainbows prior to this, and hence, it had never rained. However, whenever God makes a covenant with people in the Bible, he takes something they're already familiar with and says, in effect, "From now on this represents my covenant with you" (other examples being baptism, circumcision, animal blood, and bread and wine). So Genesis 9:13-17 shouldn't be understood as saying that there had never been any rainbows, but that they were to represent God's covenant from that point on. Therefore, I conclude there is no biblical reason to suggest that the flood was the first time it rained on the earth, and that the passages from Proverbs mentioned above show that there are biblical reasons to think it had rained before.

The claim that the earth's landmass was smoother before the flood is not based on the flood narrative itself, but on some translations of Psalm 104:6-8 (I'll discuss this psalm in more detail in part 2) which, in describing a separation of land from water, refer to the upheaval of the mountains rather than the recession of the waters. For example, the NASB translates vs. 8 as "The mountains rose; the valleys sank down To the place which You established for them"; and the ESV as "The mountains rose, the valleys sank down to the place that you appointed for them." In contrast, the KJV translates this verse as "They [the waters] go up by the mountains; they go down by the valleys unto the place which thou hast founded for them"; and the NIV as "they flowed over the mountains, they went down into the valleys, to the place you assigned for them." It is not clear whether the verbs refer to the waters or to the mountains and valleys.

There are several responses to this:

1) Psalm 104 is a poetic reiteration of Genesis 1. Thus, verses 6-8 are not describing the events of the flood, but the events of creation week when God first formed dry land. So even if we should take these verses as referring to the mountains rising and valleys sinking, it's doing so in the context of creation week, not the flood.

2) Genesis 8:1-3 specifically states that during the flood it was the waters that receded, not the land that was raised.

3) To claim that over eleven miles of tectonic uplift (the difference between the deepest ocean chasm and the tallest mountain) could have taken place in a year's time (the duration of the flood) poses insurmountable problems. A magnitude six earthquake only creates two inches of uplift. Multiply this by 180 million. In such a situation, the passengers on board the ark could not have survived. Moreover, there would have been aftershocks which would have been powerful enough to completely wipe out the survivors.

At this point, some will no doubt object that to say these things couldn't happen is simply to disbelieve in a God who performs miracles. Surely God could have uplifted the mountains supernaturally rather than through tectonic uplift so that the lives of those on board the ark were not threatened. Or surely he could have supernaturally preserved their lives, and supernaturally prevented the aftershocks from destroying the postdiluvian population.

But the problem with these suggestions is not that they are miraculous; the problem with them is that they are ad hoc. That is, they are made in the absence of any biblical evidence in their favor, in order to salvage the young-earth creationist / flood geology model. The more a theory goes beyond the given facts, the more ad hoc, or contrived, it is.

In fact, Henry Morris , the founder of young-earth creationism, makes this point fairly well. In The Genesis Record he writes:

It would be helpful to keep in mind Occam's Razor (the simplest hypothesis which explains all the data is the most likely to be correct), the Principle of Least Action (nature normally operates in such a way as to expend the minimum effort to accomplish a given result), and the theological principle of the Economy of Miracles (God has, in His omnipotence and omniscience, created a universe of high efficiency of operation and will not interfere in this operation supernaturally unless the natural principles are incapable of accomplishing His purpose in a specific situation), in attempting to explain the cause and results of the great Flood.

Unfortunately, Morris violates these principles themselves, not least in The Genesis Flood, the book that launched the young-earth creationist movement in 1960 by introducing the Seventh-Day Adventist interpretation of Genesis (based on Ellen White's visions) to a broader Protestant audience. In it, Morris and his co-author John Whitcomb attempt to respond to the argument that the eight people on board the ark could not have fed, cared for, and cleaned up after more than a few thousand animals at most, by suggesting that many of the animals may have gone into hibernation. However, most of the animals taken on board wouldn’t normally hibernate, those that do would only do so for a season and not for the year that they were on the ark, and hibernating for such a significantly longer time would create severe health problems for the animals. Morris and Whitcomb then state that God could certainly have performed such an act, and that anyone who questions this doesn’t really have faith in a God of miracles. But of course, the objection to this is not that it is miraculous but that there is no biblical evidence that any of it happened. That is what makes it so implausible, that is what makes us groan and put our heads in our hands when we hear such contrived attempts to salvage a bad explanation, not the fact that it espouses a miraculous explanation.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Friday, May 13, 2016

Almost gone

The world's oldest person just passed away. Which, I guess, means that she's not the world's oldest person anymore. What gets me though is that she was born in the 1800s, specifically on July 6, 1899. In fact, her death means that there is only one person now alive in the entire world who was born in the 1800s (at least if this list is accurate), and she just barely made it in, being born on November 29, 1899. Yes, I know that the year 1900 was the last year of the 19th century, so when this current oldest person passes away there will still be people who were alive during the 19th century (assuming they don't die sooner). But there's something about the odometer rolling over that makes it more significant for me. I've written about this before here and here, but when the last person of a certain era dies (the last World War I veteran, the last survivor of the Titanic, etc.), a direct connection to the past has been permanently broken. It seems so heartbreaking, but it's just a natural part of life.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

OK, this is kinda freaking me out

Iran just tested a missile with a reported range of 1,250 miles. That would put most of the Middle East within range, including all of Israel -- the latter being significant since Iran tested a missile a couple months ago with "Israel must be wiped off the face of the earth" written on it in Hebrew. In fact, when you put a radius of 1,250 miles on a map centered on the two most northwesterly and southeasterly points in Iran (or close to it: I used the towns Maku and Saravan as my two foci), it's pretty disturbing:


Theoretically, these missiles could reach anywhere within the green. In the southeast that includes over half of India including New Delhi, Mumbai, and Hyderabad. In the west and northwest it includes all of Bulgaria, all of Turkey, most of Romania and the Ukraine, about half of Greece (including Athens), half of Egypt, a large swath of southwestern Russia . . . I mean, holy crap. We could even expand the green by putting foci in the northeasterly and southwesterly most points of Iran as well. I mean, just from the map above, parts of China are within range. I really hope we're not heading for World War 3 but I'm losing confidence daily.

Update (14 May): Speaking of China, it looks like they're raring for a fight too. See here and here.

* I'm not sure why the circles are elongated towards the top. I would guess it's taking the bulge of the equator into account, but they didn't look like that on the website. Type in the two towns and see for yourself.

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Rage against Identity

I've mentioned before that one of the books Dallas Willard was writing at the time of his death was The Rage Against Identity: Philosophical Roots of Deconstructionism. It's still listed on his website as one of three ongoing projects today, three years after his death. He uses this phrase in his book Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ in the following passage:

Today you will hear many presumably learned people say that there is no such thing as human nature, or that human beings do not have a nature. Now, there is a long historical development back of this view, which we cannot deal with here, and it is not entirely without an important point. But that point is mis-made in the statement that human beings do not have a nature. It then becomes a part of the unchecked political and moral rage against identity that characterizes modern life. This is a rage predicated upon the idea that identity restricts freedom. If I am a human being, as opposed to, say, a brussels sprout or a squirrel, that places a restriction upon what I can do, what I ought to do, or what should be done to me.

According to Willard, this shows that, among other things, the confusion surrounding what human beings are is characterized by deep, knee-jerk prejudices that (it is thought) do not need to be defended, nor can they be challenged.

We especially have in mind opinions to the effect that a human being is purely physical, just an animal -- basically, just the human brain. Or the opinion that human beings are, as such, good, or not to be forced to do anything they don't want to do. Or the opinion that human beings do not actually have a nature and that all classifications of them -- male/female, black/white, and so on -- are "social constructions" with no reality apart from the judgments and motivations of social groups or cultures. At present, governmental and social institutions are heavily invested in such opinions favoring the social construction of the human being. 
This current state of affairs may prevent otherwise thoughtful people from seeing the value of what has traditionally been regarded as the best of "common sense" about life and of what has been preserved in the wisdom traditions of most cultures -- especially in two of the greatest world sources of wisdom about the human self, the Judeo-Christian and the Greek, the biblical and the classical.

This wisdom saw expression in the cardinal virtues. Another book by Steve Wilkens and Mark Sanford entitled Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives briefly mentions this in their chapter on individualism.

In classical thought, the four cardinal (or basic) virtues were identified as prudence, courage, moderation and justice. The idea was that a person became free when she lived according to such virtues. In other words, the limitations to our freedom were viewed as internal, moral obstacles that could be overcome by developing and internalizing these virtuous characteristics.

This brings us back to Willard. His point in discussing this "rage against identity" is its relevance to spiritual growth, and spiritual growth -- as he repeatedly points out -- is an internal affair.

Often what human beings do is so horrible that we can be excused, perhaps, for thinking that all that matters is stopping it. But this is an evasion of the real horror: the heart from which the terrible actions come. In both cases, it is who we are in our thoughts, feelings, dispositions, and choices -- in the inner life -- that counts. Profound transformation there is the only thing that can definitively conquer outward evil.

The cardinal virtues are there to liberate us from the inner restrictions to our freedom. By mastering them, we become free. But contemporary culture focuses on external restrictions to our freedom, which, being external, cannot be treated by internal transformation. They can only be treated by changing the external conditions. But since a great deal of the external conditions involve other people, this means that changing other people takes priority over changing ourselves. That is, changing what we do not have direct control over takes priority over changing what we do have direct control over. This is bound to fail.

One conclusion to derive from all this is that the "rage against identity" -- the refusal to accept that there is a specifically human nature and that our inner lives can be more or less in consonance with it, with the implication that we should try to make our inner selves more consonant with this nature -- can easily become the attempt to bypass having to change the self in favor of trying to change (that is, manipulate or force) others to do what we want them to do instead of what they want to do. Note that I do not say that the rage against identity just is such an attempt to control others, although perhaps that case can be made.

And before you ask, I am no better than anyone else in this regard. I often see my problems as primarily about external conditions. I often want to solve problems by trying to control the things I do not have control over instead of trying to control what I do have control over. This inevitably leads to deep frustration and hopelessness. I'll even give you a poignant example: part of my motivation for writing this post is the social/political situation in the United States where ethnicity and gender are treated as if they were completely fungible concepts. We are told that if a white person decides she's black, or a man decides he's a woman, well then that's what they are, and any reticence on our part to acknowledge this is immoral prejudice. But this attitude only makes sense if there is no internal reality that dictates their identity. If there is such an internal reality, then they have to acknowledge it in order to achieve genuine freedom by pursuing the cardinal virtues. But insofar as making this point is part of my motivation, I'm more concerned about addressing this external (social/political) issue than the internal issues that are the real causes of my frustrations. I'm focusing outward rather than inward. Yes, focusing inward does not preclude addressing external issues, but in this case I'm trying to tell other people that they should accept the inner reality of human nature. I'm trying to control them, to get them to do what I want them to do, although in this case it's through genuine argumentation rather than through manipulation or force. Regardless, my focus has not been on changing myself but on changing others. So, if you'll excuse me, I have some work to do.

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.