Sunday, November 16, 2014

Oh man

Here are some photos taken by the Philae lander from the surface of a comet. It took a little while to load, but it's worth the wait. I just showed them to my son and told him that, before now, only God had seen this sight. I actually have tears in my eyes. I prayed for this the night before Philae landed. God is amazing.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Restored posts

For those of you listening at home, I took three posts offline a year and a few months ago because an article I wrote was being published in an academic journal, and I wanted to avoid any appearance of impropriety. I figure it's been long enough now, so I've just restored them. The posts were:

The Central Issue; or, Location Isn't Everything
Size Doesn't Matter, part 2 (if you want to start with part 1, which wasn't taken offline, click here)
"The alien who lives among you", part 1

All three are on science and religion. The third one was meant to be the first in a series (obviously) but I never wrote any more posts on it. Even though I'm on a blog-break, I'm planning to restart the franchise and write a series of posts on what the discovery of extraterrestrial life might mean for religion. Stay tuned. In the meantime, you can check out some of my more interesting posts.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Friday, July 25, 2014

OK... I guess I'm taking a break from blogging. For whatever reasons, I'm finding it very difficult to find the motivation to blog. I'm certainly busy, but I was busier during my Doctoral studies and I managed to blog fairly consistently then. I expect I'll start blogging again when fall term starts.

So there's a lot of stuff going on in the world right now, but rather than go into all of that, I'll just provide you with a list of things I have been / am / will soon be reading:

Elizabeth Asmis, "Free Action and the Swerve," Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 8 (1990): 275-91.

Michael Bergmann, Justification without Awareness: A Defense of Epistemic Externalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Walter G. Englert, Epicurus on the Swerve and Voluntary Action. American Classical Studies, 16. Atlanta, Scholar’s Press, 1987.

Brain Leahy, "Can Teleosemantics Deflect the EAAN?" Philosophia 41 (2013): 221-38.

Tim O'Keefe, Epicurus on Freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

David Sedley, "Epicurus' Refutation of Determinism," in Συζήτησις: Studi sull’epicureismo greco e romano offerti a Marcello Gigante, G. Macchioroli, ed. Napoli: Bibliopolis, 1983: 11-51.

Feng Ye, "Naturalized Truth and Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism," International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 70 (2011): 27-46.

Update: Perhaps, if time allows (which it probably won't), I'll soon be reading these books too:

Henry E. Allison, Kant’s Theory of Freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Karl Ameriks, Kant’s Theory of Mind. Oxford: Clarendon, 1982.

Saturday, June 28, 2014


I apologize for not posting anything for so long. I think this is the longest I've gone without blogging since I started in 2003. As you can guess, I have not had much spare time of late. I'm starting to get some now. Starting to. To tide you over, here are a few more links:

1. Hilary Putnam is blogging! And you can leave comments! I'm adding his blog, "Sardonic Comment", to the sidebar. Via Maverick Philosopher.

2. An objection and response between Patricia Churchland and Colin McGinn. Also via Maverick, who concludes (correctly in my view) that McGinn has the better of it.

3. An inferior exchange (actually an interview) between Tim Maudlin and Gary Gutting on science and religion. Maudlin is a philosopher of science, but it's hard to believe that, given how misinformed he is. It's just embarrassing. Via Keith Burgess-Jackson who calls it "about as stupid an exchange as I have encountered".

4.  Burgess-Jackson quotes David Brink on moral realism. Brink writes, "Moral realism is roughly the view that there are moral facts and true moral claims whose existence and nature are independent of our beliefs about what is right and wrong". Burgess-Jackson says he does not share Brink's intuition on this, but I certainly do. If moral facts did not hold independent of whether anyone believed them, then I don't see how you can make room for moral progress, since that would involve advocating moral claims that no one had hitherto recognized. You can easily construct thought experiments where everyone holds false moral beliefs -- say that all 10-year old children should be forced to kill each other in gladiatorial contests until only a few are left, this is done every year in order to keep the population down, and has been done for the entire history of the human race. This is morally atrocious, yet in that scenario, no one thinks it is immoral, including ex hypothesi, the 10-year-olds. I maintain that in those circumstances it would still be immoral. I don't see how you can maintain that without accepting moral realism. However, this is not really my field, and I am very open to correction. Burgess-Jackson has been thinking about it for longer than I have.

5. Ed Feser criticizes an introduction to philosophy that misstates the cosmological argument in the usual way (as I've commented on here). I have some criticisms of my own of another intro to philosophy that I plan to blog about it in the near future.

6. The Venus Express is getting ready to descend into Venus's atmosphere. Very exciting.

7. In light of the push for space tourism -- that is, constructing spacecraft to take paying passengers up into space -- one company is jumping the gun by doing it cheaper with balloons. They should be up (ha!) and running in 2016.

8. Saturn's moon Titan may be older than Saturn itself.

9. Ten things Kvothe absolutely needs to do in day 3 of Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicles. The first two volumes are entitled The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear. I'm not really a fan of fantasy, but I make an exception for Tolkien and Rothfuss. They think it's too obvious that there be a connection between Cinder and Denna's patron, but I suspect there will be. I'd also add an eleventh point: we are told a few times that Kvothe's father seduced his mother away from court life, and then we learn that the Maer's new wife hates the Edema Ruh (Kvothe's family's performing troupe) because one of her relatives was seduced away by one. So yeah, Kvothe is almost certainly going to be revealed as having royal blood. Plus, Rothfuss has to bring in those freaky-deaky giant spider-things that he started the series off with.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014


Apologies again for not posting much of late. In the meantime, here are links to some interesting things I would have posted sooner if not for my frenetic schedule.

1. Malcolm Young of AC/DC is ill and unable to perform. However, AC/DC denies that they are retiring.
2. The Hackers Who Recovered NASA's Lost Lunar Photos.
3. Super Planet Crash!
4. Muslims becoming Christians.
5. Atheists becoming Christians.
6. Mapping Great Debates: Can Computers Think? This is a series of posters on issues on philosophy of mind and artificial intelligence (like the Chinese Room and Gödelian arguments), which organizes everything into charts. It's immensely helpful and I highly recommend it.
7. Mickey Rooney died. He was one of the last surviving actors from the silent film era, and the only one who was active the whole time. I was always kind of amazed by him: here was a guy who was making movies in the 1920s -- the freaking 20s -- and he was still making movies in the 2010s. One of his last roles was in the Night at the Museum series, the third of which began filming in January. I can't find anything indicating whether he had filmed his scenes before he died. But that would be amazing: his first movie came out in 1926 and his last movie will come out in 2014 or 2015. That's an insanely long career. I find this makes me sad, similar to how I felt when the last veteran of World War I died. These people are a connection to the past, and when they die, that connection is broken. I tried to express my appreciation for such connections with this short story. I'll feel the same way when the last person born in the 19th century dies. Currently there are 14: one born in 1898, four born in 1899, and nine born in 1900. (It must be weird to be the oldest person in the world: everyone else in the world who was alive at the time of your birth has died.) Wikipedia has lists for the last surviving veterans of wars, last surviving US war veterans, and last survivors of historical events. Reflecting on them makes the march of time seem like such a tragedy.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

More Favorite Movie Scenes

The Dark Knight


Boondock Saints 2: All Saint's Day

The Book of Eli

Die Hard (1)

The Matrix Reloaded


The Empire Strikes Back (Star Wars Episode V)

Burn after Reading

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Fun and Fancy Free / Mickey and the Beanstalk

Wreck-It Ralph

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


Sorry for not posting much of late, I have a lot going on right now. I'll get back to what's important as soon as I can.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Interesting fact o' the day

The Old Testament was translated into Aramaic in ancient times, as well as several other languages. When they translated Genesis 1:1 ("In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth") they made an interesting error. The third person singular perfect mode of the verb "to create" in Hebrew is bara. But after they translated this into the Aramaic word for create, they kept the Hebrew word bara in the text. I say this is an interesting error because bara is an Aramaic word with a completely different meaning than the Hebrew "to create". In Aramaic bar means "son" (Simon Barjonah, blind Bartimaeus, etc.), and  an aleph (or "a") at the end of a noun is the definite article. So the Hebrew verb "to create" and the Aramaic noun "the son" are identical. Since they kept this term in the text when they translated it into Aramaic, the first verse of the Aramaic Bible reads "In the beginning the Son of God created the heavens and the earth."

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Because I care

Award winning sandwiches, with recipes. You're welcome. Seriously, nearly all of these look absolutely amazing.

Monday, March 24, 2014

On Suns and Soldiers

Here's an interesting article on the science-fiction author Gene Wolfe, via Glenn Reynolds. I wrote about Wolfe before here, and I fear he's too much of a real literary writer for me. I read a collection of his short stories, Strange Travelers, and the meaning of most of them went over my head.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Quote of the Day

Bayes's theorem allows us to calculate the conditional probability of an event in a context (K) from various other conditional probabilities in that context. In our setting -- assessing the credibility of testimony concerning miracles -- the conditional probability we are interested in is credibility, the probability that a miracle occurred given the testimony that it occurred (P[M/T&K)]). Bayes's formula equates that with a ratio involving the prior probability of such a miracle (P[M/K]) and the reliability of the witness: the likelihood of the witness saying that the miracle occurred, when it did occur (P[T/(M&K)]), together with the likelihood of the witness saying that the miracle occurred, when it did not occur (P[T/(-M&K)]):

P[M/(T&K)] = P[T/(M&K)] P[M/K] / P[T/(M&K)P[M/K] + P[T/(-M&K)P[-M/K]

The more reliable the witness, the greater the credibility of the testimony. But also, the more unlikely the event to which the witness is testifying, the smaller the credibility of the testimony.

Before considering numerical values, let's simplify a bit. Let c, credibility in context K, represent P[M/T&K)], and let p, the prior probability of a miracle occurring in K, represent P[M/K]. Let's assign it the value 10-m. Let l, the probability that the witness giving a miracle report is lying in K, represent P[T/(-M&K)], and assume it has the value 10-r. Then, assuming that the probability that someone witnessing a miracle will report it is relatively high, and that lK is significantly greater than p, Bayes's formula allows us to approximate the credibility of a witness in context K as follows:

cK ≈ pK  / lK = 10r - m.

Now, to get actual probabilities out of Bayes's theorem, we need to have values for the prior probability of the miraculous event occurring and values for the reliability of the witness or witnesses. Assessing these is of course immensely difficult. But let's make a rough estimate for a report claiming someone to have been raised from the dead.

First, we need to estimate the prior probability of such an event. The Bible contains several such reports, but their veracity is in question. Since the beginning of time there have been, within an order of magnitude or so, about ten billion human beings on the planet. And there have been only a few scattered reports of resurrections, whose credibility is in question. So, let's estimate the probability of resurrection, given the available evidence, at 1 in 10 billion: 10-10.

The reliability of witnesses is perhaps easier to estimate. People are generally reliable, especially on matters such as whether someone is walking on or through the water, whether someone is alive or dead, etcetera. Indeed, as Donald Davidson has argued, the possibility of linguistic communication depends on such reliability. In the case of a miracle report, we must estimate the probability that someone, a disciple of Jesus, say, will report a miracle if it occurs. Presumably the probability is very high, though it is not 1, as Peter's denial of Jesus illustrates. So, let's estimate the probability, cautiously, at .99. What about the probability that someone will report a miracle even if one does not occur? David Owen and others have assumed, given the values we've estimated so far, that this will be unlikely, having probability .01. Hume clearly thinks it is higher; disciples having a tendency to inflate the reputation of their leader. Still, very few spiritual leaders have been alleged to have the ability raise people from the dead. (No such reports are associated with Confucius, Laozi, the Buddha, Zoroaster, or Mohammed, for example.) So, let's estimate this, cautiously, at .1.

Now, given these estimates, Bayes's theorem tells us that the probability of someone's being raised from the dead, given testimony to such an event, is approximate 10-9: one in a billion. Hume appears to be vindicated. The probability we should rationally assign to someone's being raised from the dead, even given testimony that it has occurred, is very low. Even if we abandon our cautious estimates above, raising the witness's reliability to .999 and lowering the likelihood of a false report .01, the odds of the report's being correct are approximately 10-8, one in a hundred million. Hume is right that "no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish" (90) -- so long as the miracle in question is isolated, violates a law of nature (or at least has an extremely low prior probability), and is attested by a single witness.

But now, suppose that we have not one witness but several. As John Earman and Rodney Holder have observed, having multiple witnesses changes the outcome of our assessment of miracle reports dramatically. Oddly, few other philosophers have thought the number of witnesses makes any difference. Dawid, Gillies, and Sobel, for instance, speak simply of "a witness or group of witnesses." Yet an analogy to law should suggest that this is absurd. It matters how many independent witnesses testify similarly. One witness who identifies the perpetrator has some effect on the probability of guilt or innocence; a dozen who independently do so have a much more powerful effect.

If we were to take Hume's argument as showing that testimony can never establish the likelihood of a miracle, as he wants us to, it would prove too much. Hume's argument depends solely on the thought that miracles are extremely unlikely. So, his argument should apply to anything that has a very low priori probability. It thus, if successful, will imply that we can never be rationally justified in believing that an extremely unlikely event has actually occurred. But that is outrageous.

Consider a situation that might be represented by similar calculations: a case of medical diagnosis. Suppose that a highly reliable test diagnoses you as having an exceptionally rare disease. Say that the reliability of the test is .999; it is wrong in only one case in a thousand. And suppose the disease is very rare, afflicting only one person in a million. What is the probability that you actually have the disease? According to Bayes's theorem, only about 103 - 6 = 10-3, that is, about one in a thousand! Although the test is right 999 times out of a thousand, its positive result in your case will be a false positive 999 times out of a thousand.

This result is surprising. But think of how the test might function applied to all the roughly 300 million residents of the United states. About 300 would have the disease, and the test would accurate give a positive result for (nearly) all of them. But 299,999,700 people would not have the disease, and the test, wrong only one time in a thousand, would nevertheless produce about 300,000 false positives. So, the test, applied to the population of the U.S., would come up positive 300,300 times, and be right in only 300 of them. We tend to ignore base rates (that is, low prior probabilities) in our thinking, something some psychologists have dubbed a "cognitive illusion." So, one test, even if it is highly reliable, is not very good evidence that any particular person has a rare disease.

But it would be absurd to conclude from this that we can never have good reason to believe that any particular person has a rare disease. True, any single test, taken by itself, is poor evidence. But, faced with a positive result, what might we do? We might repeat the same test. We might administer additional tests. We might look for symptoms. In short, we might gather additional evidence.

Analogously, faced with a miracle report, we ought rationally to gather additional evidence. Just as we might seek additional tests, we might, for example, seek testimony of additional and independent witnesses. Suppose we have n independent witnesses, all of equal reliability. Then Bayes's theorem tells us that the credibility of their reports, taken together, is:

P[M/(T&K)] = P[T/(M&K)]n P[M/K] / P[T/(M&K)]n P[M/K] + P[T/(-M&K)]n P[-M/K]

Approximating as before, we get something that breaks down as nr approaches m:

cK ≈ p / lKn = 10nr - m

Let's apply this to the medical diagnosis case. We have 300,000 false positives and only 300 true positives. Suppose we apply a second medical test the reliability of which equals that of our first test, getting it right 999 times out of a thousand, but the errors of which are probabilistically independent of those of the first test. The second test will give a positive result in (almost) all the 300 true positive cases. It will also give a false positive result in 300 of the 300,000 false positives from the original test. So, we end up with 600 positives, of which half are real. The probability of having the disease, given positive results on both tests, is about .5. The second test, or "witness," if you like, raises the probability from one in a thousand to an even bet.

The same principle applies to the case of Biblical miracles. Given our cautious estimates, it would take ten witnesses to make the miracle have close to .5 probability (actually .4749), and twelve (!) to make it highly likely (.9888). Give our incautious estimates -- appropriate for the most trusted disciples, such as Peter, James, and John, say -- these levels are reached much more quickly. Five independent witnesses give the miracle an even chance of occurring; six make it highly probable.

One might object that the disciples are not independent witnesses, but very much under one another's influence; that the four Gospels are not entirely independent, but depend on many of the same sources; that many miracle reports were recorded long after the miracles are supposed to have taken place; and so on. There is something to these objections, though less, perhaps, than many think. Minor differences in the Gospel accounts offer evidence of independence. All the Apostles who faced imprisonment, beatings, and martyrdom for their testimony had strong incentive to recant anything for which they did not have overwhelming independent evidence. The Gospels appear to have been written within the lifespans of those who knew Jesus and witnessed the events recorded in them. But return to Paul's argument concerning the Resurrection. Writing perhaps just twenty to twenty-five years after the event, he points to hundreds of witnesses. Not all are independent, but many are. The credibility he attaches to the Resurrection is thus, reasonably, very high, even setting aside his own experience on the road to Damascus.

Paul was in a far better epistemic state with respect to Christ's Resurrection than we are, say, with respect to the attack on a canoeing President Carter by a crazed, swimming rabbit in 1980. That was surely an improbable event, a little further removed in time, witnessed by only a few government employees whose reliability may not compare very well with that of the disciples. Yet most of us -- rationally -- believe that it occurred. If we are to throw out belief in Biblical miracles on Humean grounds, we should throw out many of our historical beliefs on those very same grounds, for they would fail Hume's test too, and for the very same reasons.

Daniel Bonevac
"The Argument from Miracles"
Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion, volume 3.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

First person

Here's an interesting article critical of the attempt to reduce mind, particularly the first person experience, to the physical workings of the brain, a third person experience. I agree with his overall point, but am very underwhelmed by his positive case for the irreducibility of the mind to the brain. Via Ed Feser. I also collected the links to Feser's debate with Keith Parsons here.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Nazi philosophy

Martin Heidegger has long been accused of being too cozy with the Nazis. Somewhat understandably, as he was one -- at least he joined the Nazi party in Germany in the lead-up to World War 2. His apologists have argued that this was an act of prudence on his part rather than allegiance. However, some of his previously unpublished notes have just been published, and they apparently paint a very negative picture (via Bill Vallicella). Heidegger seems to have been really committed to the Nazi cause, and he saw his philosophy as an expression of it. This is, at the very least, extremely embarrassing for those who have embraced Heidegger's positions without any awareness of its (apparently, allegedly) deep connections to Nazism.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

To read

Greg Littmann, "Darwin's Doubt Defended: Why Evolution Supports Skepticism," Philosophical Papers 40/1 (2011): 81-103.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Up yours, death

In some ancient near-east religions, death was said to swallow its victims. For example, in the Baal cycle, Death, personified as Motswallows Baal (UT 67,i,67, which I think corresponds to KTU 1,4,vii,14-20). The Bible repeats this imagery in a few passages, with Mot being replaced by Sheol, or sometimes Erets, the earth. Isaiah 5:14 says "Sheol expands its jaws, opening wide its mouth"; Proverbs 30:15-16 and Habakkuk 2:5 describe Sheol as being unsatisfiable (which could be described as having an insatiable appetite); and then you have the whole account of Korah and his compatriots being swallowed by the Erets and going alive into Sheol in Numbers 16:28-34 (and elsewhere).

But the Bible also offers a divine response to this theme in Isaiah 25:6-8, in a description of Yahweh's banquet. Whereas death swallows its victims, verse 8 says Yahweh swallows death:

he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.


Monday, March 3, 2014

Bible blog

A former professor of mine has started a blog that focuses on the Bible, theology, and spirituality here.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

This is so cool

They're planning to bring extinct animals back to life, starting with carrier pigeons and moving on from there. Neologism of the day: de-extinction.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Derrida's revenge

Remember the Sokal hoax? Physicist Alan Sokal wrote a nonsensical article, filled with postmodern gibberish and a few scientific terms tossed in and submitted it to a postmodern journal. The article had no meaning whatsoever. They accepted it and published it. Many scientists and philosophers saw this as justification of their belief that postmodernism was nonsense on stilts and that no actual claims were being made. Jacques Derrida was a particular target of their ire: Quine, Searle, and others strongly objected to Derrida's acclaim, arguing that he was just moving words around without saying anything. I've seen challenges to Derrida's supporters asking what difference does it make when we rearrange the paragraphs in his essays. And then we have the glorious Postmodern Generator: every time you click refresh, a new, unique, and totally meaningless postmodern essay is produced.

I'm an analytic philosopher, so my sympathies are partially on the side of the critics. However, I think their objections are far too strong. A great deal of Continental philosophy is wonderful and meaningful. For some such philosophers exactitude is a failing, so they do not produce in-depth analyses: rather they speculate. And it is often very difficult to understand precisely what is being said. But there are analytic philosophers who are fairly indecipherable as well, such as Quine himself, or Millikan. A lot of it becomes so technical that it is impossible for the uninitiated to understand. So I guess I'm willing to give the Continental philosophers the benefit of doubt in thinking that, insofar as I don't understand them, it's because I'm effectively one of the uninitiated.

I'm bringing this up because of a very disturbing story. Two academic publishers are removing 120 scientific articles from their databases that are nonsensical gibberish. They were produced the same way the Postmodern Generator produces essays, through a computer program to make the articles seem like they're saying something when they're not. The articles were published between 2008 and 2013. So this seems to be comeuppance of those who promote the Sokal hoax and the Postmodern Generator: allegedly the same thing can be done with scientific papers.

There are two mitigating factors, however: First, they were not published in academic journals, they were published in conference proceedings. Such publications often do not have any peer review, and so it's not as if the nonsense went through this process and went unnoticed. In fact, many conferences do not require submissions to be in the final form of the essay or presentation that will be presented. All one has to do is submit a short abstract summarizing the essay, and if it's accepted, then whatever you present will automatically be accepted into the conference proceedings. If the "authors" who used the computer program to construct meaningless papers wrote a meaningful abstract, then the paper is automatically slated to be published. And of course, many conferences are desperate for presenters, so they'll accept virtually anything that's submitted. So even if the abstracts were just as meaningless as the papers, the conference organizers may have just glanced at it and accepted it.

Second, all of the papers in question were "authored" by Chinese people, and perhaps the organizers of the conference gave them the benefit of doubt and thought that the incoherence was just a non-native English speaker struggling to explain complicated subjects. In other words, maybe they did the same thing I do when I read Continental philosophy that I don't understand. This only goes so far though: if the papers were literally meaningless, at some point you think you'd notice that nothing is actually being asserted.

Still, despite these caveats, I'm a little floored by this. I kind of chuckle about the Sokal hoax, but when I read about this I immediately tried to find some reason to explain it away. I'm just unable to believe that it's a general problem, whereas with the pomo stuff I wouldn't be that surprised if it was. I also have to say that the editors of these conference proceedings, as well as all the other contributors, now have black marks on their CVs, and I think that shows how immoral these acts were. The editors were trying to participate and contribute to academic thought, and now their names are associated with gullibility, fraud, and an uncritical attitude, all of which are verboten in academia. The "authors" of these articles have harmed a lot of people. Of course, that was also the case with the Sokal hoax, but for some reason, I never really thought about it there.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Updating the sidebar

When I started this blog I wrote posts describing most of the categories on the sidebar, and made the title of each category on the sidebar link to the corresponding post. But I've decided to rewrite them because I've made enough changes to justify it. I wrote a new post for the Ministries category , and I just updated the Posts of Interest category on the sidebar to include more links but making it more concise. Just so you know, I'll be doing that for the other categories in the coming months.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Two witnesses

I've encountered Christians who, in an attempt to argue for a young earth, claim that we could only know if something took place if there were people there to witness it. Since there weren't any people before there were any people, we can't (or at least don't need to) accept the various scientific evidences showing the earth and universe to be billions of years old. The only person there was God, and -- so the young earth proponent argues -- God tells us in the Bible that the earth and universe are young.

Now I have contested the claim that the Bible actually states or implies that the universe is young. Additionally, I have argued  that the Bible states that the universe, the cosmos, nature, is an understandable revelation from God to everyone who has ever lived -- that is, people who lived in times and places that had no access to the Bible still received revelation from him through nature, and this revelation was understandable to them without the Bible. In other words, nature does not have to be viewed through the lens of Scripture before we can trust what it seems to say. But in order to take this claim about human witnesses head on, we can more specific: in the Bible the elements of nature are sometimes called upon as witnesses of the events which took place in their presence. For example, God states that heaven and earth will be a witness to his promises to the Hebrews (Deuteronomy 4:26; 30:19; 31:28; Psalm 50:4-6). The prophets call upon nature to bear witness to the truth of their message (Deuteronomy 32:1; Isaiah 1:2; Jeremiah 6:19; 22:29; Micah 6:1-2). Often, stones are set in place or altars are made -- Hebrew altars being simply uncut rocks piled on top of each other (Exodus 20:25; Deuteronomy 27:5-6; Joshua 8:30-31) -- so that these elements of nature can bear witness to promises made between God and people, or just between people (Genesis 28:16-19; 31:43-53; Joshua 22:26-34; 24:26-27; Isaiah 19:19-20). Obviously these latter cases are not exactly the same as the former cases, since they involve human beings altering nature in order to bear witness to something. I'm including them because they alter nature in an extremely limited way, by simply moving a rock into a different position, or moving several into a pile.

The witness of nature (general revelation) is even put side by side with the witness of the Bible (special revelation) (Deuteronomy 30:19/31:19/31:26-28; Psalm 19). This isn't because either of these witnesses can't be trusted by itself -- that we need one of them in order to verify or falsify the other -- but because they are complementary. That is, they are equally valid and true, although not necessarily equally illuminating (obviously, special revelation tells us more about God than general revelation).

This contrasts strongly with the biblical statements about the reliability of human witness. We are warned that we need more than one person as a witness, for the simple reason that people lie (Numbers 35:30; Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15; Matthew 18:16; 1 Timothy 5:19). A moment's reflection will make evident why there is such a disparity between the witness of nature and the witness of human beings: nature and its elements don't have wills, and thus cannot lie or misrepresent. They can't give a false impression of what has transpired, because they can't alter the effects that events have had upon them. Were this not the case, then all of the Scripture passages which tell us that God reveals his faithfulness and steadfastness through nature would simply be wrong.

So, contrary to this claim that we need human witnesses before we can be justified in believing something took place, the Bible suggests that the witness of nature is more trustworthy. Again, this witness is limited: nature can't tell us about Jesus, it can't tell us about God's salvation plan. But we can't use the fact that it's limited to reject nature's witness altogether. The Bible doesn't allow us to.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

AC/DC's fast tracks

Back in the day, I had all of the AC/DC albums up through The Razor's Edge except Powerage which underwhelmed me (my favorite was Let There Be Rock which is just the hardest rocking thing I've ever heard). I've always had a special appreciation for their fast tracks, so below are those I remember. If I'm missing any, let me know.


Baby Please Don't Go

Beating around the Bush


This Means War

Fire Your Guns

Sunday, February 23, 2014


Sorry readers, I've been really swamped for the last few weeks and didn't have time to blog. Here are a few tidbits to tide you over.

1. If you're feeling a little down about how badly people suck, read this.

2. You can play Sid Meier's Civilization online. Yes, this was part of the reason why I didn't have time to blog. Sorry.

3. Theist philosopher Edward Feser and atheist philosopher Keith Parsons look like they're going to have an online debate. It should be interesting.

4. My post on the appearance of age issue generated some comments over at Quodlibeta, to which I've just responded.

5. Here's a publication list on philosophy of mind. I'm particularly interested in the subcategory of Gödelian arguments.

6. A friend back in Belgium emailed me an interview with Alvin Plantinga in the New York Times: "Is Atheism Irrational?"

7. 17 great films you might have missed. Of them, I've only seen Sunshine, which is absolutely brilliant, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which I bought cheap, saw once, and haven't seen again. Not that it's bad, it's just over-long. A friend described The Man from Earth before I found this list, but didn't remember the title. Now that I know it, I very much want to see it. And I just read Children of Men a few months ago, and wouldn't mind seeing the movie.

Friday, February 7, 2014


 Alonzo Church was "A deeply religious person [and] a lifelong member of the Presbyterian church." I never knew that. Heaven certainly has more than its fair share of logicians.

Monday, February 3, 2014


I have put a short list of ministries at the top of my sidebar. The reason they're at the top (except for the brief explanation of what my blog's title means) is because they're more important than anything else. I won't be adding more ministries to this list, for the simple reason that there would be no justifiable stopping point. There are simply too many worthy ministries, and I would always be guilty of excluding very deserving ones. For example, while I recently mentioned Heifer International, I didn't put them on the sidebar because it would just open a floodgate. The sidebar list is just a few ministries I knew of and was (and am) encouraged by when I started this blog. However if you want to mention some more ministries in the comments (with links if possible) have at it.

The first is International Justice Mission. I love these guys. They go to countries where child prostitution is illegal but the laws against it are largely unenforced, and work together with the local authorities to rescue children out of it. In other words, they go in and get the children out. They walk the walk. And it's not just with child prostitution; they work against manual slavery, and other forms of violent persecution. Several years ago I read a book by the president of IJM, Gary Haugen, entitled Terrify No More about a particular project in which they freed dozens of children. If you have some extra cash, you might want to consider donating it to IJM. Organizations like this are what money is for.

Second and third are Medical Teams International (formerly Northwest Medical Teams) and Mercy Corps. I know these organizations because they're both based in Portland, where I'm from. They go all over the world getting people the food, medicine, and amenities they need. Ditto with the money thing.

Finally, the Hunger Site. You might already know about this: you simply go to the site, click on the button, and food will be donated (by advertisers) to people all over the world who need it. You can only click once a day. I had it as my homepage on my old computer, and that made it very easy to remember. I've fallen way out of the practice over the last few years, and part of the reason I'm writing this post is to shame myself into getting back on board. If you're wondering whether it's on the up-and-up, here's a Snopes article on it. The Hunger Site also has a topbar linking to similar sites, which you can also click once a day, focusing on literacy, breast cancer, animal rescue, etc. You can click on each one of them once a day, and it only takes a minute out of your time, so there's no reason not to do it.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

To read

"Teleology: A Shopper's Guide" by Edward Feser (Philosophia Christi 12/1 [2010]: 142-59).

Thursday, January 30, 2014

OK, this is adorable

Picasso had a wiener dog. I know this because my son just brought home a book from the library entitled Lumpito and the Painter from Spain. The dog, Lump (pronounced "loomp" which is the German word for "rascal") was owned by a friend of his, but when the friend brought Lump to Picasso's house, the dog basically dumped the friend for Picasso. The friend, a renowned photographer, later wrote a book: Lump: The Dog that Ate a Picasso, which I'm going to get as soon as I can justify it. The dog even has his own Wikipedia page because Picasso painted him into several of his works. You can read an article about him here. And here's a Google image search for "Lump Picasso".

Monday, January 27, 2014

OK, this is terrifying

Here. It's about the Senkaku Islands that are claimed by Japan, China, and Taiwan, and the suggestion is that war's a-comin'. Given the allies each country has, it would probably be a world war.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

10 years

Happy 10th anniversary to the Opportunity Rover on Mars. It was originally slated to last for only three months, but with a strong expectation it would continue beyond that date. I doubt anyone really expected 10 years though. Its twin, the Spirit Rover, petered out in 2010.

Friday, January 24, 2014

On the Appearance of Age; or Putting the "omph" in omphalos

I just finished reading Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson, whose short story "Utriusque Cosmi" made me a lifelong fan no matter what else he writes. The premise of Darwinia is that in 1912 Europe essentially disappears and is replaced by an alternate Europe with roughly the same coastlines, rivers, mountains, etc., but no sign of human civilization, and with plants and animals from a very different evolutionary history than our own. Wilson uses this to ask questions about one of the primary arguments young-earth advocates use in order to avoid the scientific evidence that the earth and universe are billions of years old: the claim that God created things with a false appearance of age. Wilson's main character speculates about this issue:

Certainly Europe had been remade in 1912; just as certainly, these very trees had appeared there in a night, eight years younger than he found them now. But they did not seem new-made. They generated seed (spores, more precisely, or germinae in the new taxonomy), which implied heritage, history, descent, perhaps even evolution. Cut one of these trees across the bole and you would find annular growth rings numbering far more than eight. The annular rings might be large or small, depending on seasonal temperatures and sunlight ... depending on seasons that had happened before these plants appeared on Earth.

Similarly, young earth creationists claim that God created trees with annual rings, polar ice sheets with annual layers, and coral atolls with daily band deposits for days, years, and millennia that never happened. One prominent way they do this is to suggest that when God created the stars, he also created beams of light in transit between those stars and the earth (and presumably everywhere else in the universe). Otherwise, light from stars that are more than a few thousand years away from us wouldn't have reached us yet, and so couldn't be observed.

The problem here is very much the same as with tree rings that indicate weather conditions from years that, ex hypothesi, never happened. As I wrote here, when we observe light from distant objects, we don't just observe objects, we observe events. For example, astronomers regularly observe supernovae in other galaxies, millions of light years away. Now say God created the beams of light from those galaxies in transit a few thousand years ago. In that case, the light that left those galaxies immediately upon their creation would still have a long way to go before it reaches us; what we observe is just the beam God created between these galaxies and us. So when did these supernovae take place? Are they taking place now, that is, when they are observed by us? But then in a few million years, we'll see them again when the light they produce reaches us. It seems that since the light showing a supernova taking place was created in transit, these supernovae never happened.

Now this scenario is extremely contrived or ad hoc. But that's not the problem I have with it: the problem I have is that it ascribes deception to God. God is painting scenes on the sky that never happened, he is manipulating the universe to make it appear differently than what it actually is. But the God of the Bible cannot lie. It's not merely that he does not (in that he's never had occasion to) or will not (in that he chooses not to) but he cannot. It is contrary to his nature.

In response, I've heard young earth advocates challenge this, by suggesting that this puts God in a box. God can create any way he wants to: why should we assume that it's contrary to his inscrutable will to create, say, a car that looks rusted and dilapidated? Or take a Scriptural example: God had the Hebrews wander in a seemingly random manner in order to trick Pharaoh into thinking that they were confused and could be easily defeated (Exodus 14:1-4). So God can manipulate for purposes that will often be beyond our ken.

There's two answers to this. First, it seems to me that creating something that manifestly displays properties it doesn't really have would still qualify as deception (and thus as lying). By "manifestly" I do not mean "superficial", I mean something that is not ad hoc or contrived. If you built a car but designed it to look like an old rustbucket when it actually is not, would you be trying to deceive people? Whatever reason Pharaoh had for thinking that the path the Hebrews were wandering in was random, he had a much stronger reason for thinking that God was guiding them: he had just had ten plagues visited on his nation which were explicitly revealed to be a punishment from God for his failure to let the Hebrews go. Once he let them go, they traveled in such a way to look as if they were hemmed in by the desert, but Pharaoh could not have thought that meant they could be recaptured without ignoring the much more obvious, dramatic, and explicit events that had just taken place.

Perhaps I'm wrong about this though. Perhaps creating a car that looks old when it is not would not automatically count as a lie. But here's my second point: it would count as a lie if God told us the car was a reliable and trustworthy revelation from him. And this is exactly what God says of the natural world. He tells us that nature is true revelation (which is redundant) from God, which is clear and understandable to all people in all times and places -- including times and places that did not have access to the Bible or any other form of special revelation. God never told Pharaoh that he would reveal himself through the route the Hebrews would travel after their departure from Egypt, but he did tell him to let his people go. If God created a new car that looked rusted and dilapidated and then told us that this car could be trusted to reveal the truth, he would be lying, because it wouldn't reveal the truth. And God can't lie.

In response to this, young earth proponents will often give Scriptural examples of God creating things with a false appearance of age, and then suggest that this could be true of the universe as a whole (which, incidentally, commits the fallacy of composition). Here are the three examples I've encountered:

The creation of Adam and Eve. Many argue that when God created Adam and Eve, he didn't create them as zygotes which then slowly grew to infancy, childhood, and eventually adulthood -- he created them as adults. Since they were created "full grown" they bore the appearance of an age that they didn't actually have.

Now I will not argue here about how literally we are supposed to take the story in Genesis 2, I'll grant that it's literal for the sake of argument. Nor will I enter into an extensive analysis as to whether the biblical text really commits us to the claim that God created Adam and Eve as adults. I'll grant this too. Even with this, I think it is still enormously problematic to suggest that God created Adam and Eve with a false appearance of Age.

This can be illustrated by asking whether Adam's and Eve's cells and organs had physical indicators that they had been alive for twenty (or so) years. For example, according to this scenario God presumably created Adam and Eve with adult-sized hearts. But it doesn't follow from this that these hearts bore the wear and tear of having been beating for twenty years -- he created them brand new, not with a false appearance of age. Let me reiterate that: they would have appeared adult-sized AND brand new. The claim that being created as adults means being created with an appearance of age presupposes that size and age are essentially the same thing. This is obviously false.

Second, if the fact that they were created as adults indicated a false appearance of age, then we have opened a door we definitely do not want to go through. If Adam's and Eve's bodies bore a false appearance of age, we have no grounds for denying that their minds may have as well. In other words, God may have created Adam and Eve with false memories of childhoods which never happened. And thus, there is nothing to prevent us from maintaining the same thing of our own memories. God, in other words, would be implanting false memories into our minds. I've never seen anyone suggest anything like this, and it seems so absurd, and so blatantly contrary to God's truthful character, that I doubt any Christian would seriously propose it. But it's unavoidable that this would be a possibility if we try to argue that God's creation of Adam and Eve as adults implies that he created them with a false appearance of age.

Finally, the bodies of Adam and Eve are not here for us to examine to see if they really do bear a false appearance of age. But the universe is here for us to examine. We should always try to understand the unclear in light of the clear, not the other way around. We can't employ what is, at best, a highly speculative interpretation of Scripture in order to deny the reality of the world around us.

Jesus changing water into wine. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus changed water in several jars into wine (John 2:1-11). Wine is by its very nature an aged substance. It takes time to ferment. When Jesus made wine instantaneously out of water he either radically sped up the fermentation process, or he created the wine with the appearance of having experienced the fermentation process when it had not. In either case, the wine would have borne a false appearance of age.

However, it is not evident that the molecular structure of wine by itself indicates a particular age or appearance of age. The fact that alcohol is naturally produced by fermentation does not imply that if God supernaturally changes H2O molecules into alcohol molecules, he makes them with the appearance of having been produced by fermentation. Just as the previous argument equates size with age, so this argument equates molecular structure with age, which again is obviously false.

I think some people who argue that changing the water to wine indicates an appearance of age are thinking of a wonderful passage by C.S. Lewis  in his book Miracles about Jesus' miracles of fertility. Lewis points out that the water to wine and the multiplication of bread and fish (Mark 6:30-44; 8:1-13) are doing something in a different way that God usually does through nature. Bread is multiplied in that a single seed grows into a full plant; fish are multiplied by procreation; and water is changed to wine through the growth of grapes and fermentation. "Thus, in a certain sense, He constantly turns water into wine".

Of course, it all turns on the phrase, "in a certain sense". Water, after all, doesn't ferment. The point of these miracles, Lewis argues, is that it shows that God is the God of fertility, the God of the vine, "He is the reality behind the false god Bacchus". God usually accomplishes these things through the universe he made, but he can also do it directly, "short circuit[ing] the process". To suggest that in these acts God is creating something with a false appearance of age is to completely miss the point. The miracle of changing water to wine was a miracle of transformation, not one of aging: God supernaturally changed the molecular structure of the water in the cisterns into the molecular structure of wine. In other words, God created all the elements of wine other than water and then placed them in the water. This doesn't mean that God "sped up" the natural process of fermentation any more than when someone mixes water with dehydrated wine (yes there is such a thing). Moreover, as with the bodies of Adam and Eve, the wine Jesus made from water is not present for us to examine. We simply cannot conclude, therefore, that it bore a false appearance of age.

Some may think that if we deny the possibility of God creating with a false appearance of age, we are claiming that he can't speed up natural processes. But I don't claim this. God can speed up (or slow down, or change in any way he wants) the processes of nature at his discretion. My claim is merely that, if he does, the objects acted upon would bear witness to his divine intervention. Or perhaps these critics are thinking that any proposed first state can be given a naturalistic history. Thus, it is impossible for God to not create without some appearance of age. This seems to assume that God's miracles could actually occur by natural processes given enough time, just as wine, bread, and fish can be produced by natural processes. Then, when God performs a miracle, he speeds up these natural processes. I simply disagree: while some miracles may be something that could occur naturally (perhaps the miracle then being in their timing; the parting of the Sea of Reeds might be an example), this is not the case for all of them. There are some miracles that could never occur naturally without divine intervention, so they wouldn't represent a false appearance of age. Water in a jar will never turn into wine by itself no matter how much time you gave it. Natural processes will not bring a dead man back to life with a glorified body if you wait long enough.

The budding of Aaron's staff. In Numbers 17, we are told that the Israelites were jealous of the special position God had given Moses and Aaron, so God had Moses take the staffs from the leaders of each of the twelve tribes and place them in the tent of meeting. The following morning, Aaron's staff had sprouted and budded, producing blossoms and ripe almonds. However, the miracle here was not that God "sped up" a natural process, but that he brought a dead piece of wood back to life. All of the reasons why the bodies of Adam and Eve and Jesus' transformation of the water into wine don't imply a false appearance of age also apply here. And just like the other two examples, we don't have Aaron's staff to examine to see if it really does exhibit a false age. How do we know that, upon closer examination, the bodies of Adam and Eve, the wine made from water, and Aaron's staff wouldn't give evidence that they had been supernaturally altered? Wouldn't it be more reasonable to conclude that God wouldn't cover up or conceal such remarkable examples of his power by making them appear normal when they weren't?

None of the examples above constitute examples of God creating things with a false appearance of age, and hence we have no grounds for asserting that he may have done so with the universe as a whole. We know that creation can be trusted to reveal the truth about itself, since God has gone to such lengths to tell us that it is a revelation by which he makes himself known to humanity. If this revelation weren't trustworthy, it's inexplicable why God would tell us that it is, unless God himself is a deceiver. That is not an option for the Bible-believing Christian.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Reading Dennett

I'm slowly learning that if I have a strong drive to read certain philosophy books, I should just give in to it. Currently, I have a hankering for all things Dennett. I just ordered The Intentional Stance, but I don't have the strength of character to wait for it to arrive, and have begun skimming through Brainchildren. The latter has an interesting self-portrait near the end where Dennett characterizes his work. He certainly seems to have a high view of himself, but then again he is lauded all over the place, so I guess it's excusable. My impression is that, given that extreme positions are bound to get more attention just because they're extreme, a large part of Dennett's popularity is that he's taken an extreme position and defended it very adroitly (and I was a little surprised to see that Dennett recognizes his position is an extreme one). However, a lot of his defense is more rhetorical than philosophical, and that accounts for another part of his popularity: cleverness is more prized than correctness, even in philosophy sad to say. He comes up with much more than his fair share of cute turns-of-phrase. Not that there's no place for that, it helps make one's claims more memorable. But with Dennett it seems, at some point, the cute turns-of-phrase start masking over a deep failure on his part to really wrestle with positions he disagrees with.

At any rate, I really wanted to read Dennett chronologically: start with Content and Consciousness, and then work on from there. But circumstances have conspired against me. However, the self-portrait in Brainchildren says that his focus remains on the problems of content and consciousness, and to this end, The Intentional Stance is all about content while Consciousness Explained is all about ... wait for it ... consciousness. Those well-versed in Dennettiana will see that I'm skipping over his work on determinism and free will, Elbow Room (see? clever little phrase to refer to free will there), but I'll eventually get back to that, as well as his update on the subject Freedom Evolves.

Here's a passage from the self-portrait in Brainchildren:

The first stable conclusion I reached, after I discovered that my speculative forays always wandered in the same place, was that the only thing brains could do was to approximate the responsivity to meanings that we presuppose in our everyday mentalistic discourse. When mechanical push came to shove, a brain was always going to do what it was caused to do by current, local, mechanical circumstances, whatever it ought to do, whatever a God's-eye view might reveal about the actual meanings of its current states. But over the long haul, brains could be designed -- by evolutionary processes -- to do the right thing (from the point of view of meaning) with high reliability. This found its first published expression in Content and Consciousness (1969, sec. 9, "Function and Content") and it remains the foundation of everything I have done since then. As I put it in Brainstorms (1978a), brains are syntactic engines that can mimic the competence of semantic engines.

Now I happen to think that this is absolutely fatal for Dennett. First, he acknowledges that, on naturalistic premises, our brains cannot do what we think they do, what we experience them doing. It can only approximate such activities. It seems that my thirst, my desire to quench it, and my belief that there is some juice in the refrigerator functions as at least a partial explanation of why I went to the fridge, got out the juice, and drank some. But if naturalism is true, then, according to Dennett, our brains only simulate this. It only seems that the meaning of my thoughts causes my action, but that would constitute a semantic engine -- where the meaning is what is making things run. What's actually happening is that it's the little bits of matter moving as they do that causes my action, which constitutes a syntactic engine -- where the individual letters, the smallest constituents that we put together to make meaning, are what is making things run. If you can explain everything by just appealing to the marks on the page, why would you need to appeal to the meaning of the poem that they form? Indeed, how could the meaning cause anything? Only the marks on the page have real, physical existence, and so only the marks can enter into causal relations. As Dennett puts it in his debate with Plantinga, a semantic engine, at least a naturalistic semantic engine, is like a perpetual motion machine: impossible. And rather than see this as an indictment on naturalism, Dennett cheerfully gives up the meaning. I say this is fatal because I think it makes knowledge and rationality impossible, rendering every thought, Dennett's included, suspect.

Incidentally, I couldn't find any reference in Brainstorms to the distinction between syntactic and semantic engines, but I did find it in Elbow Room, so I assume that's a misprint (or a misread on my part). Also incidentally, a large part of my interest in The Intentional Stance will be on chapter 8, "Evolution, Error, and Intentionality" which you can read online here.

Friday, January 10, 2014


Yup, that's a picture of a planet orbiting a star. Sixty-three light years away. Taken by an earth-based telescope. We are living in the future.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Catching sharks by hand

In a recent post of some of my favorite movie scenes I included a scene from Kon-Tiki, a recent film dramatization of Thor Heyerdahl's successful attempt to build a raft of balsa wood in South America and sail it across the South Pacific. If you haven't read the book, I highly recommend it, it's excellent. Unfortunately, the only video I could find of the scene I wanted had it set to autoplay, so everyone who has been visiting this blog since then was treated to the sounds of a commercial followed by the scene. I just did another search and found the same scene on YouTube, albeit longer (which is a good thing), and have replaced the video in the post. I will try to avoid the siren call of autoplaying videos in the future, and my apologies to everyone who was annoyed by it. Like me.

Incidentally, the scene dramatizes a regular occurrence during the actual Kon-Tiki expedition: when there were sharks in the water, and thus a danger if any of them fell overboard, one of the men would hold a fish out over the edge of the raft. A shark would come up, bite the fish, and then dive. The man would then grab the shark's tail (which Heyerdahl wrote was as rough as sandpaper) and pull the shark up onto the raft, and then run to the other side of the raft while it flopped around until it died. They regularly cleared the water of sharks in this way, and there's a series of pictures in the book of Thor Heyerdahl catching a shark with his bare hands. It's pretty amazing.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Two more must-reads

"Leibniz on Natural Teleology and the Laws of Optics", Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 78/3 (2009): 505-44, and "Leibniz's Optics and Contingency in Nature", Perspectives on Science 18/4 (2010): 432-55, both by Jeff McDonough. Biology and similar sciences impute functions to structures, organs, and organisms, and the concept of function is expressly teleological. McDonough's essays look at how Leibniz argued that teleology attaches itself to the harder sciences as well, such as physics and chemistry. Very interesting.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

2013 in retrospect

was what this post was going to be about, but I'm going to settle for two links. First, the most stunning images from (and of) space in 2013. Second, Dave Barry's review of 2013. Enjoy!