Sunday, February 28, 2010

Breaking News from the 17th Century

The good news is that a lost letter of Descartes' has been found. The bad news is that he may have been murdered by a priest (although the evidence seems very sketchy). Via KBJ and Bill Vallicella respectively.

Friday, February 26, 2010


-- The Huffington Post finally has a Religion page. Prior to this religious issues were posted on the Living page, which seemed insufficient to me.

-- A short history of the search for perpetual motion.

-- Here's a collection of all of Calvin's snowmen from Calvin & Hobbes.

-- Keith Burgess-Jackson has been blogging John Stuart Mill's autobiography for a while, one paragraph at a time. Here's his first entry on his old site, and here's his latest. On his old blog he went from paragraph 1 to 52 (in reverse order), and his new blog goes from there to 114 so far.

-- Here is an outstanding and moving post on the accomplishments of the Iraq War. Highly recommended.

-- On the alternative energy front, the possibility of using algae to produce biofuels. I still have a high view of these, despite the incorrect claims that it could only produce fuel at the cost of producing food.

-- Here's an interesting account of a would-be spy and cracking his code. Here's another spy story.

-- Did Gollum have schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder? Via the Volokh Conspiracy.

-- A lot of people have been giving President Obama grief over his handling of the war on terrorism so far, so I think it's only fair to recognize his outstanding recent accomplishments in the Afghanistan theater. A huge military operation is underway to push the Taliban out, and Pakistan has finally been convinced to start turning over Taliban leaders.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Channeling Gaunilon

Via Bill Vallicella. My take on this -- to live up to the blogosphere's tradition of commenting on things you don't fully understand -- is that it's not clear to me why the fact that we can imagine something being true of A but not of B entails that A and B cannot be identical. Take someone who thinks the evening star and the morning star are two different entities rather than the same thing (namely, the planet Venus). That person could then make claims that are true of the evening star which are not (so he thinks) true of the morning star. "The evening star changed color or blew up" or whatever, "but the morning star remains the same as it always has." In other words, the fact that you can imagine something applying to the one without applying to the other could mean nothing more than that you've misidentified one thing as two. However, this may not apply to Plantinga's argument, since the evening/morning star is an object, and the individual is a subject; and it is precisely as subject that the apparent distinction between it and the body arises.

It looks to me that this modal argument shares a similar intuition with the Ontological Argument: if we can imagine X, then that imagining shows the actual possibility of X. As such, it seems to be subject to the common objection to the Ontological Argument: just because I can imagine X, it doesn't mean that X is actual, and X's actuality is necessary in order for the argument to hold. The counter-response in both cases is that the case under question has a particular quality such that such an imagining does entail its actuality. I tend to agree with Bertrand Russell, that Ontological Arguments are easily dismissed, but it's much harder to explain exactly what's wrong with them. Since Plantinga is one of the most prestigious contemporary defenders of the Ontological Argument, I suspect he might have a better grasp on this than I do.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Assurance of Salvation in Islam and Christianity

In this post, I argued that the God of the Qur'an is capricious, since he transcends our moral and rational categories. To demonstrate this, I gave a couple of examples from the Qur'an of God deceiving people to accomplish his objectives. By way of contrast, the God of the Bible does not and cannot lie (Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; Titus 1:1-2; Hebrews 6:13-20).

Another aspect of God's caprice in the Qur'an pertains to salvation. Whether one goes to Heaven or not is based on God's arbitrary will, and we can never have any confidence as to whether we will be rewarded or punished. In The Qur'an and the Bible in the Light of History and Science, William Campbell discusses this at the end of this chapter, demonstrating it with multiple passages from the Qur'an.

The only instance in the Qur'an (that I'm aware of) where God promises to send people to heaven is in Sura 9:111, which states,

Surely Allah has bought of the believers their persons and their property for this, that they shall have the garden; they fight in Allah's way, so they slay and are slain; a promise which is binding on Him in the Taurat [Torah] and the Injeel [Gospels] and the Quran; and who is more faithful to his covenant than Allah? Rejoice therefore in the pledge which you have made; and that is the mighty achievement.

This sounds like God will only promise to send someone to heaven if they kill and are killed while fighting for Allah's cause. So the only way to be assured of being heavenbound in Islam is if you're fighting (on the right side) in a holy war, in which you kill some of your enemies, and are killed yourself. Thus it is to one's soteriological advantage to make sure there is always a holy war going on and that one is, in some sense, participating in it, to the extent of killing people. As such, this is one of the Qur'anic passages focused on most frequently by Muslim terrorists.

Yet even this is not enough. After all, keeping a promise is a moral issue, and according to Islam God transcends our moral categories. If God could lie to Muhammad about the battle of Badr, why couldn't he be lying here?

The anxiety over one's eternal destiny in Islam goes all the way to the top. After saying or writing "Muhammad", Muslims add the phrase, "peace be upon him". They are praying that God grant Muhammad peace in the afterlife because God may choose to do otherwise. If Muhammad doesn't have assurance of salvation, what hope does an average Muslim have? A fascinating book by Christian missionary Jens Christensen, which can be read online, entitled Mission to Islam and Beyond gives an excellent exposition of the anxiety of salvation in Islam, illustrating it with some of the rightly guided Caliphs and other early Muslims (starting from the bottom of page 277).

One of the things that often surprised me in my first studies of Islam was the note of despondency and insecurity that is found in the deathbed utterances of so many of Islam’s great men. For example: Abu Bakr was a prince among men, of sterling character and a true Muslim. It is said of him that he was so fearful of the future and laboured so much under distress that his breath was often as of a roasted liver. According to two traditions he is supposed to have said to Aisha on the day of his death: ‘Oh my daughter, this is the day of my release and of obtaining of my desert—if gladness it will be lasting; if sorrow it will never cease’.

Do you see those two ‘ifs’? Nothing in Islam can remove them; not even the fact that Abu Bakr was given the title Atik (Free) because Muhammed is supposed to have said to him: Thou art free (saved) from the fire.

Likewise, when Umar was lying on his deathbed he is reported to have said:

‘...I am none other than as a drowning man who sees possibility of escape with life, and hopeth for it, but feareth he may die and lose it, and so plungeth about with hands and feet. More desperate than the drowning man is he who at the sight of heaven and hell is buried in the vision ... Had I the whole East and West, gladly would I give up all to be delivered from this awful terror that is hanging over me.’ And finally touching his face against the ground he cried aloud: ‘Alas for Umar, and alas for the mother of Umar, if it should not please the Lord to pardon me’.

Do you see Umar’s difficulty? It is the uncertainty expressed in the ‘if’ of the last sentence. That ‘if’ does not express any feeling of uncertainty regarding Umar’s faith, Umar’s belief in one God, Umar’s trust and confidence in the prophet, or Umar’s lack of the good life. All of these things were in order as far as a human being could do that which is right. No. The ‘if’ refers to God; ‘if’—it should not please the Lord to pardon him. When Yazid was burying his father he is quoted as saying:

I will not magnify him before the Almighty in whose presence he has gone to appear. If He forgive him it will be of His mercy; if He take vengeance on him, it will be for his transgressions.

Here again you have the two ‘ifs’:

(a) If God forgive ...
(b) If God take vengeance ...

This remark of Yazid’s seems to me to epitomise the whole of Islam. When you for years have worked through the great and imposing structure of Islamic thought, it is desponding beyond words to find that the foundation of it all is that little word ‘if’. That ‘if’ is the feet of clay of the colossal and awe-inspiring image, known as Muslim theology. It comes out even where the author’s intention is just the opposite. For instance regarding Sura 39:53, which was mentioned before (see paragraph 11), in which it says Allah’s servants are not to despair for He forgives their faults altogether, Muhammed Ali comments as follows: ‘The mercy and love of Allah, which are much talked of in other religions, find their true and practical expression in Islam. No religion gives the solace and comfort which we find in this verse. It discloses the all-comprehensive mercy of Allah, before which the sins of men become quite insignificant. He is not a mere Judge who decides between two parties, but a Master who deals with His servants as He pleases, and therefore He can forgive the guilty without injustice to anybody’.

Note the last sentence: A Master who deals with His servants AS HE PLEASES, and therefore He can forgive, etc. Even the Ahmadiya, Muhammed Ali, with his very careful choice of words would not presume to say that this Master of whom he speaks does forgive, for He does as He pleases, and Muhammed Ali like all others cannot know what His pleasure will be.

As you have seen, it is ridiculous to tell a Muslim that his religion is a law-religion. It is, no doubt, in the sense that he feels it incumbent upon him to abide by a great number of rules and regulation as an expression of God’s will. And yet for the Muslim it is not really a law religion, for his obedience has no bearing on his final condition before Allah. On the other hand it is not an evangel, that is, the publishing of good news, for what good news can there ever be in that awful, uncertain, unpredictable ‘if’; and yet no man, from Muhammed himself right down to the lowest aboriginal Muslim, would ever presume to know or dare to predict what ‘if’ will mean for him.

This raises another issue for me: does the uncertainty of God's decision about whether a believer makes it to heaven extend to whether they get to stay in heaven? If one's salvation is completely subject to God's capricious judgment, why wouldn't his caprice extend to whether those who are in heaven remain there? I don't know enough about Islamic theology to answer this question. If this is the case, though, heaven could hardly live up to its name. One would be constantly wondering whether God will cast him out of heaven at any moment for no reason whatsoever.

The Bible states that our eternal destinies are entirely in God's hands as well, but states further that as long as certain conditions are met (genuine repentance and genuine faith in God), then God promises that we are Heaven-bound. And since he can't lie, we can trust him to keep his promises. One of the passages mentioned above, Titus 1:1-2, states this well: "Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ for the faith of God's elect and the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness -- faith and knowledge resting on the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time..." Of course, one can always engage in introspection and question whether one really has genuinely repented and accepted God; but this is not the same thing as knowing that God may arbitrarily send you to hell regardless of what you do, say, or believe. Christensen draws the distinction between the Islamic and Christian conceptions of salvation well:

There is also an ‘if’ in Christianity, but the great difference between it and the ‘if’ of Islam is that that ‘if’ is never predicated of God. The whole content of the Gospel is simply this one thing: to show mankind that God is faithful towards His creation. He has restricted Himself with pacts, covenants and promises; He has revealed Himself in a perfect union with manhood; He has carried the burden of man’s fall on Himself—all so that we may know Him and trust Him as the ‘Faithful One’, that is, as the One who keeps faith with His creation. The ‘if’ in Christianity is always predicated of man: if you will believe, if you will trust, if you will accept, then God is faithful, you can always count on Him.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Kim Stanley Robinson

I have a love/hate relationship with the writings of Kim Stanley Robinson. His SF books are wonderfully detailed and intricate, in a way that just puts you in the story. That's pretty impressive when the story takes place in a coffee shop on Mars. His short story "Enough Is As Good As a Feast" (in The Martians) is one of the most wonderful vignettes I've ever read. On the other hand, he expresses a lot of hostility to Christianity. His Mars trilogy only had one Christian in it, and she was (of course) a hypocrite. The Years of Rice and Salt is an alt-history imagining what if all the Christians and Europeans had been killed by the Black Plague so the Buddhists and Muslims could rule the world. Try to imagine someone writing a similar storyline where any other religion or people group was snuffed out without the author being excoriated. Plus, as much as I love his detail, he often seems as if he's trying to show off how much he knows. It can get annoying when it's a topic that I have little to no interest in.

Anyway, long introduction to an interesting review of a book by and about Kim Stanley Robinson that's reviewed at Boing Boing.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Thought of the Day

If person A has a moral obligation to help person B, it does not mean that B has a moral right to A's help. If I have a moral obligation to give money to someone, that person doesn't have a moral right to take my money, whether I offer it to them or not.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Some Issues in NT Historiography, part 5

I’ve dealt with the claim that there are parallels to the life of Jesus in world mythology before. I made three primary points:

First, virtually all scholars acknowledge that the gospels are not written in the literary genre of mythology or folklore or allegory. They are written in the genre of historical writing, specifically in the genre of ancient biography (I recently mentioned this here as well). The significance of this is that the understanding of how these different genres functioned in ancient literature only became known in the Modern era. Thus, in order to maintain the myth hypothesis, one would have to argue that the NT authors anticipated Modern discoveries and categories of thought, and then intentionally wrote a myth as if it were a biography in order to trick future analysis of their writings. This is obviously absurd.

Second, in order to find these parallels, the categories have to be so broad that they can apply to virtually anything. "Death and rebirth" (or alternately, "resurrection") means any kind of change, since you’re "dying" to the old way and being "reborn" to the new. To take another example, I’ve read a few dozen myths, or accounts of myths, that contain the "virgin birth" motif. So far, I can group them into three categories:

1) Virgin births in which the woman becomes pregnant by having sexual intercourse with a hero or god.

2) Virgin births in which the woman becomes pregnant via a substitute form of sexual penetration (the hero or god leaves his "seed" in a pool, a woman bathes in the pool ...).

3) Virgin births in which it is not related how the woman became pregnant.

It’s just weird to refer to a birth initiated by a woman having sex as a "virgin birth". And obviously, none of these categories parallels the virginal conception of Jesus, in which no sexual penetration of any kind took place. The only way these are similar to Jesus is that a woman became pregnant, and the supernatural is somehow involved. Thus we see that the people who call these myths "virgin births" are using Christian terminology so that the parallels don’t appear as vague -- then they turn around and marvel at the similarities.

Third, the attempt to compare Jesus to mythologies is completely rejected by historical Jesus scholarship, and has been for nearly a century. It still lives on in popular culture and college campuses, no doubt partially because many teachers and professors of other fields are unaware of historical Jesus scholarship, and use the classroom as a platform to expound their (mis)understandings of the nature of Christianity. Even C. S. Lewis thought that there were many parallels to Jesus in world mythology, but ironically, it actually played a role in his conversion to Christianity -- the parallels were there to "prepare the way" for acceptance of Jesus. In Christ, "myth became fact". Nevertheless, historical Jesus scholars believe (very reasonably) that Jesus should be understood in the context of first century Judaism rather than myths that have little to no similarities to Jesus, and at any rate had no historical connection to him and the early Church.

This leads me to my final point (in this post and this series): modern scholarship. When I first turned to historical Jesus studies to try to find a way to reject traditional Christianity, I was shocked at how much they accept. But others coming from a different direction may be equally shocked at how much they deny. I think a good case can be made based solely on what the scholars acknowledge as historically demonstrable, but here I’d like to focus on the perils of scholarship.

C. S. Lewis wrote a very succinct essay called "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism" (alternately titled "Fern-seed and Elephants" for reasons you’ll soon discover) in which he delineates a few of the problems with modern attempts to reconstruct a portrait of Jesus different from what the NT relays. While volumes of books have done this extensively, Lewis’s treatment deserves a detailed exposition.

First, bearing in mind that Lewis was a literary expert, he claims that many of these critics demonstrate a lack of literary judgment. After giving several examples of this he concludes, "These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence [against this] is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards away in broad daylight."

Second, Lewis points out that these critics claim that Jesus’ followers were completely wrong about who he was and what he did, but that they’ve recovered this information by reading the records his followers left behind. Lewis gives a few other examples of this sort of reasoning:

One was brought up to believe that the real meaning of Plato had been misunderstood by Aristotle and wildly travestied by the neo-Platonists, only to be recovered by the moderns. When recovered, it turned out (most fortunately) that Plato had really all along been an English Hegelian rather like T. H. Green. I have met it a third time in my own professional studies; every week a clever undergraduate, every quarter a dull American don, discovers for the first time what some Shakespearean play really meant. But in this third instance I am a privileged person. The revolution in thought and sentiment which has occurred in my own lifetime is so great that I belong, mentally, to Shakespeare’s world far more than to that of these recent interpreters. I see -- I feel it in my bones -- I know beyond argument -- that most of their interpretations are merely impossible; they involve a way of looking at things which was not known in 1914, much less in the Jacobean period. This daily confirms my suspicion of the same approach to Plato or the New Testament. The idea that any man or writer should be opaque to those who lived in the same culture, spoke the same language, shared the same habitual imagery and unconscious assumptions, and yet be transparent to those who have none of these advantages, is in my opinion preposterous. There is an a priori improbability in it which almost no argument and no evidence could counterbalance. (emphasis mine)

Third, as discussed in parts 1 and 2, these scholars equate "miraculous" with "unhistorical". This is simply a philosophical bias which can be (and has been) refuted. When a historian bases his theories on bad philosophy instead of historical evidence, he has ceased to speak to us as a historian.

Lewis’s fourth, and best argument is as follows:

What forearms me against all these Reconstructions is the fact that I have seen it all from the other end of the stick. I have watched reviewers reconstructing the genesis of my own books in just this way. ... I have watched with some care similar imaginary histories both of my own books and of books by friends whose real history I knew. ... Now I must first record my impression; then, distinct from it, what I can say with certainty. My impression is that in the whole of my experience not one of these guesses has on any one point been right; that the method shows a record of 100 percent failure. You would expect that by mere chance they would hit as often as they miss. But it is my impression that they do no such thing. I can’t remember a single hit. But as I have not kept a careful record my mere impression may be mistaken. What I think I can say with certainty is that they are usually wrong. ... Now this surely ought to give us pause. ... In order to decide how reliable the method is, what more could you ask for than to be shown an instance where the same method is at work and we have facts to check it by? Well, that is what I have done. And we find, that when this check is available, the results are either always, or else nearly always, wrong.

We can contrast this with the second point to make this even clearer: if those that lived in the same culture, spoke the same language, and shared the same habitual imagery and unconscious assumptions as Lewis could not reconstruct an accurate history of any of his works, how likely is it that those doing this with the gospels, who are working without these advantages, would do so successfully?

I don’t mean to imply that scholarship is a crock; far from it. Just that when it comes to the NT, some people hold it to different standards than they do other ancient documents. When held to the same standard, NT history is established at least as firmly as classical Rome and Greece. If it wasn’t for a bias against what the NT documents record, no historian in the world would ever doubt them. As Kreeft and Tacelli write,

If the books of the New Testament did not contain accounts of miracles or make radical, uncomfortable claims on our lives, they would be accepted by every scholar in the world. In other words, it is not objective, neutral science but subjective prejudice or ideology that fuels skeptical Scripture scholarship.

(see also part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4)

Friday, February 12, 2010

Alternate energy news

Glenn Reynolds links to a couple of interesting stories, one right after the other. One is about "deploying simple cell phone base stations that need as little as 50 watts of solar-provided power" to rural villages in Africa. Reynolds concludes, "This is the kind of solar application that makes sense even with current technology; using solar to replace coal plants in first-world countries is further down the line."

The other is about using solar power to convert water into hydrogen gas, which can then be used as fuel.

To generate the gas Thomas Nann and colleagues at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, dip a gold electrode with a special coating into water and expose it to light. Clusters of indium phosphide 5 nanometres wide on its surface absorb incoming photons and pass electrons bearing their energy on to clusters of a sulphurous iron compound.

This material combines those electrons with protons from the water to form gaseous hydrogen. A second electrode – plain platinum this time – is needed to complete the circuit electrochemically.

I find this very encouraging, despite Reynolds's snark about the University of East Anglia.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Moon and Bust

Selenian Boondocks has an interesting take on a one-way trip to the Moon -- that is, send people to the Moon, but in such a way that they have to use lunar material in order to make the trip back. He argues this is really the only way we'd get people back on the Moon before the end of the decade. Via Rand Simburg. I've heard these suggestion for possible Mars missions before, but not for the Moon. That's kind of odd, since it seems it would be much easier for the Moon; but I'm just a layman.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Days of Revelation

I've recently discovered that a book I've been wanting to read but have never had the time for is available to read online. I still don't have the time for it, but now I know it's available, and I'm looking forward to it when I get the chance. It's Creation Revealed in Six Days by P. J. Wiseman. The claim, as you can probably guess from the title, is that the days of creation are meant to refer to the six days on which God revealed the events of Genesis 1 to its human author. A very interesting and ingenious solution, although it seems to run up against the fourth commandment which states that we should work six of our days and rest on the seventh, just as God worked six of his days and rested (or is resting) on his seventh. However, I note that Wiseman has an entire chapter on this point, so we'll see.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Yet Still More Favorite Movie Scenes

Previous editions are here, here, and here.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels



The Muppet Movie


Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan

¡Three Amigos!

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Indivisible Intellect

I recently posted a review of The Achilles of Rationalist Arguments by Ben Mijuskovic (here). This book deals with the history -- primarily in the early Modern era -- of the idea that "The essential nature of the soul consists in its power of thinking; thought, being immaterial, is unextended, i.e., simple (having no parts); and what is simple is (a) indestructible; (b) a unity; and (c) an identity."

I have recently been pointed to this summary of Mijuskovic's writing on the Simplicity Argument, including another book, Contingent Immaterialism: Meaning, Freedom, Time and Mind, which looks pretty darn interesting. It also looks at recent developments in this argument, including a collection of essays entitled The Achilles of Rationalist Psychology. There are many more references at the link. It looks like my reading list just doubled.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)