Monday, March 26, 2018

More books

Dallas Willard, who passed away in 2013, is still publishing books five years later. Just released last month is Life Without Lack: Living in the Fullness of Psalm 23, based on a series of talks he gave and edited by Larry Burtoft and Willard's daughter Rebecca Willard Heatley. Due to be released in June is The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge, one of the philosophical books he was writing at the time of his death, and which was completed by three of his students. I noted here that these students were working on it, but that my hope was that someone would write another book he was writing, The Rage against Identity: Philosophical Roots of Deconstructionism. I'm also sad to note that the page on Willard's website that asked for prayers for his ongoing projects, including Disappearance and Rage, has now been removed. It made no sense to keep it, but it still makes me sad.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Accommodating evil

I didn't comment on this at first, but I was pretty disgusted at the way the media fawned over North Korea's cheerleaders and Kim Yo Jong at the beginning of the Olympics. I think I understand their motive: they're trying to paint North Korea as not that bad in order to minimize American public support for a war with them, and doing one's part to avoid war is not in itself a bad thing. (If I'm imputing an incorrect motive to them, I apologize.) Having said that, if you end up accommodating evil in order to avoid war, you stand a good chance of being on the "greater evil" side of things, and I think that's exactly what's happened here. I hadn't put my thoughts together on this, but then I read this tweet from a couple of weeks ago:

Yeah, that's pretty much it. People who have lived in agony for decades will have the last of their hope stolen away by Westerners pretending like their suffering isn't worth getting in a tizzy over. The media is effectively running defense for a regime that is as evil as Nazi Germany -- I don't think that's an exaggeration at all. Not long after reading that tweet, I found an article that expresses my concerns in more detail here.

And since we're on the subject of Nazis, one of the claims made of them and Hitler is that they were Christian. There's a lot of back-and-forth over this, but here's two articles (here and here), that are interesting although one-sided, arguing that the Nazis were vehemently opposed to Christianity. He brings to bear a lot of quotes from Hitler and the most prominent Nazis expressing their disdain for, and desire to destroy, Christianity. This makes sense given their hatred of Judaism, since Christianity can easily be seen as a form of Judaism. I would have liked to see quotes from similarly important Nazis expressing the opposite view and weighed them against each other, but I also would have ascribed less weight to them, since quotes from such people expressing a positive view of Christianity could more easily be explained as political pandering than quotes expressing a negative view of Christianity could be.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Quote of the Day

The story of witch-hunting has two settings: a dark, medieval world ignorant of science and under the sway of religion and superstition, and a later enlightened period when reason banished superstition and men were freed from the fear of witches. We might loosely call these periods the "Dark Ages" and the "Enlightenment" respectively.

The idea of the Dark Ages, with its flat earth and excommunicated comets, however, is mythical and reinforces the modern mind's conviction of its own tolerance and rationality. The belief that the church uncritically accepted bizarre and sensational tales about witches is equally ill-founded. The story of witch-hunting, however, relies on these stereotypes of the Dark Ages and the Enlightenment. Thus, for Lecky, witchcraft was due to a "general credulity" that declined only when "prevailing modes of religious thought" gave way to reason. However, it is not in general possible to draw the sharp distinctions between "modes of religious thought" and early science, which Lecky blithely assumes. Indeed, early modern science, far from universally rejecting witchcraft, sometimes assisted in its investigation. In England, midwives and physicians medically examined suspects for "witch marks" -- the physical signs said to be associated with witchcraft. In the Lancashire witch trials of 1633, Sir William Harvey, who had discovered the circulation of blood in 1628, led a team of doctors and midwives to provide such expert medical evidence.

Historians have long recognized that there is something wrong with the thesis that witchcraft ended with the Renaissance and Enlightenment. As long ago as 1969 Hugh Trevor-Roper asked why, if this view is correct, the witch craze grew in particular in the two centuries that followed the Renaissance recovery of Greek ideas of reason rather than in the Dark Ages of the medieval period.

Lecky's confidence that science would bring enlightenment and progress is viewed more critically now than it was in the nineteenth century. The violence and persecution of the modern world is on a scale that far outweighs the cruelties visited on women accused of witchcraft. The Enlightenment faith in reason no longer seems plausible. Instead, witchcraft is seen as a sign of the way people understood the world they lived in. This puts it in a more complex and concrete context of social, economic and political history: the status of women and the routes to power open to them, the conflicts and tensions of village life and the specific anxieties of poor people over the health of animals or the growth of crops. Within this setting, witchcraft is a rational, though superstitious, response to illness and catastrophe.

Like our other stories, that of witch-hunting has its conventions and props. Probably the best known is the broomstick, used by witches to fly by night to their "sabbaths." This prop is almost universal in modern portrayals and together with a pointed hat is essential garb for the well-dressed witch.

The ancient belief that witches can fly was dismissed by canon law as a folktale. Indeed, papal rulings, canon law and Inquisitorial Directories tended to reject the exotic manifestations of witchcraft as pagan superstition until Heinrich Krämer and Jakob Sprenger published their Malleus Maleficarum in about 1486. This book repeatedly appears in the story of witch-hunting on account of its bizarre and sensational content, which fits well with the stereotype of medieval religion.

Heinrich Krämer and Jacob Sprenger, Dominican Inquisitors, believed that they had a special mission to prosecute witches. However, the local priests and the German church authorities did not agree with them and opposed their activities. They appealed directly to the new pope, Innocent VIII, who supported them by issuing a bull, Summis Desiderantes, against witchcraft in 1484. He also commissioned Krämer and Sprenger to write a guide for witch prosecutors. And so the Malleus Maleficarum was born.

The orthodox story regards Krämer and Sprenger's notorious book as typical of the bigotry and cruelty of the medieval church throughout Europe. Carl Sagan describes it as a "technical manual for torturers" and implies that it was widely used by the Inquisition in "God's work" of torture and burning. Even distinguished historians refer to it as "the guide and beaconstar of the . . . Inquisition," "a handbook used at witch trials" that "codified the belief in witches for the sixteenth century, a century which witnessed their burning in every part of Europe."

This reputation as the standard manual of the church is wholly undeserved. The Malleus Maleficarum was in fact treated with suspicion by the Inquisition and was not extensively used in witch trials. From Venice to Germany and the Netherlands, studies have shown little or no reliance on it: "Its influence and authority have been vastly exaggerated by most scholars." Moreover, its language made it "accessible only to scholars and not to many lawyers or even to the average judge."

Torture and justice
The second prop in the story of witch-hunting is the torture chamber. The popular picture of the Inquisition, from Monty Python's famous "Spanish Inquisition" sketch to films like The Name of the Rose, is of the fanatical and routine use of torture to force victims to confess: "The most horrendous tortures were routinely applied to every defendant, young or old, after the instruments of torture were first blessed by the priest."

It is undoubtedly true that torture was widely used in many judicial proceedings from the fifteenth century onward, and many sickening accounts of the horrors endured by astonishingly courageous women and men survive. But when Carl Sagan writes that torture routinely proved the validity of witchcraft accusations, he is drawing on the widespread and uncritical acceptance of the story that the church, especially the Inquisition, mercilessly and indiscriminately used torture in witchcraft trials.

Recent historical scholarship has recognized that the Inquisition compared favorably with contemporary standards of secular justice. "In contrast to the secular courts, the Inquisition was a model of moderation and due process. The Holy Office was sceptical about the validity of confession obtained by torture, and did not employ torture as a matter of course." In Protestant countries, torture was used in witchcraft trials in both Scotland and Northern Europe, although the worst excesses occurred when political intrigue was suspected. However, there "seems not to have been one single occasion where torture of a woman for suspected witchcraft was licensed" in England, despite the fact that women were commonly whipped to obtain evidence in criminal cases and torture was used for milder felonies, including burglary and assault.

The background for the use of torture in witchcraft trials was its use in criminal proceedings generally. Some historians have argued that the use of torture grew as formal tribunals displaced trial by ordeal or combat. As courts increasingly used new standards of proof, obtaining and sifting evidence became more important. Whereas the survival, or otherwise, of a suspect subjected to trial by ordeal itself demonstrated either guilt or innocence, the newer courts required other means of testing the truth. In this context, torture became a means of rational investigation, replacing the "trial by swimming" that a suspect might face in summary village justice. Inquisitorial skepticism about the results of torture was often associated with the better organization of church proceedings and the better standard of education of its officers. For example, the moderation of the Venetian Inquisition resulted from its local strength, close accountability to Rome and the high standards of training and discipline. The lay courts often lacked these qualities and treated their suspects more severely. "Given . . . a strong Inquisition which followed the guidelines laid down for it by the Church, witchcraft prosecution was unlikely to result in mass hysteria and persecution."

Philip J. Sampson
Six Modern Myths about Christianity and Western Civilization

Monday, February 12, 2018


Just watch these two videos. My favorite part is the top staff at 4:21 in the second one.

Monday, February 5, 2018


A cab driver tried to run down a Jewish boy and his father in Belgium. Several years ago, an old professor of mine who's Jewish, and who had lived in Belgium before I did, told me he would be scared to live in Europe today -- "today" meaning several years ago. It's only getting worse. Here's a case I personally encountered over there about five years ago.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Quote of the Day

I still lived in an almost exclusive dedication to my theoretical work -- even though the decisive influences, which drove me from mathematics to philosophy as my vocation, may lie in overpowering religious experiences and complete transformations. Indeed the powerful effect of the New Testament on a 23-year-old gave rise to an impetus to discover the way to God and to a true life through a rigorous philosophical inquiry.

. . .

When, however, I wrote the Ideas -- in six weeks, without even a rough draft to use as a foundation, as in a trance -- read them over, and printed them right away, I humbly thanked God that I had been allowed to write this book, and could do no other than to stand by it, in spite of the many shortcomings of the work in details. And I must go on thanking him that he allows me to visualize ever new horizons of problems in the continuing unfolding of the old yet constantly growing themes, and allows me to open every new door.

Edmund Husserl
Letter to Arnold Metzger
Translated by Erazim Kohák
In Husserl: Shorter Works
edited by Peter McCormick and Frederick A. Elliston

Jim's comments: Husserl. Wittgenstein. Gödel. ChurchPeirce. How many of the great logicians after Boole were theists? I'm not sure if Gödel and Peirce were specifically Christians, and Boole himself was a deeply religious Unitarian. I also note that both Husserl and Wittgenstein don't really give arguments for why they accept Christianity. But it's still pretty interesting.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

On not exaggerating the impact of nuclear weapons

So in Hawaii, they accidentally sent out news that said "Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediately shelter. This is not a drill." Understandably, there was pretty widespread panic. One man had a massive heart attack. Obviously, the concern was that North Korea had sent it, so some people wanted to blame the President for it, although it seems to have been a mistake made on the state level.

Nuclear weapons are one of those things that people just have a magical view of. Plain old radiation is another one. It's the ultimate evil, it's the end of everything, anything that gets close to it is dead or poisoned forever. I don't mean to minimize the impact of nuclear weapons, but they're just a type of large bomb with the potential to cause long-lasting injury and illness for those who survive. That's terrible enough that we don't need to exaggerate it. Considering the type of bomb North Korea could potentially use, you'd have to be relatively close to ground zero to be affected by a nuclear bomb going off. You can go over to Nukemap, type in Honolulu, type in 150 kiloton yield (or scroll down to "North Korean weapon tested in 2017"), and hit detonate. The large majority of Oahu wouldn't even be touched. In fact, you should move ground zero over to Pearl Harbor, which is what a bomb would probably be targeting, or maybe Marine Corps Base Hawaii near Kaneohe. Regardless, most of the island would be untouched. Then change the location to your own home town and see how far the impact would be.

Yes, there are significantly bigger bombs out there -- Nukemap lets you go up to the 100,000 kiloton Tsar bomba the Russians tested in 1961 -- which have huge yields. And under many circumstances, a city would be hit by multiple bombs in order to increase the yield as well. But the concern now is with North Korea, and they simply don't have the capacity to do much. Again, I'm not trying to downplay it, I just want to ease people's fears. If this doesn't help, just ignore it.

Friday, January 12, 2018

New world music

I love the music of Antonin Dvorak (or Dvořák if you want to be fancy), and the piece that brought me into the fold is the famous Largo from his New World Symphony.

I never thought much about what was "New World" about it -- if I thought about it at all I probably figured it was originally performed in the States or something. Well, I recently discovered that the haunting and simple melody the Largo begins with was meant to sound like a Negro spiritual. And not only was Dvorak successful in capturing that sound, one of his students eventually wrote lyrics to it and made it into an actual song, "Goin' Home." Of course, the "home" in question is heaven.

I still can't believe how beautiful all of this is. It captures the yearning for heaven as good as anything I've ever heard.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Recent acquisitions

For Christmas I received the best present you can give someone like me: gift cards for Powell's books. Online I bought 20 books for $40, then I went into the stores and used up the rest of the cards. It was glorious. I've also received some other books recently from various provenances.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (Great Books of the Western World, vols. 19-20: Aquinas I-II).
F. Samuel Brainard, Reality's Fugue: Reconciling Worldviews in Philosophy, Religion, and Science.
Confucius, The Analects.
W.T. Jones, Kant and the Nineteenth Century: A History of Western Philosophy IV.
Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics.
Maurice Mandelbaum, The Problem of Historical Knowledge: An Answer to Relativism.
Ronald H. Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks: Did the New Testament Borrow from Pagan Thought?, 2nd ed.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future.
Charles S. Peirce, Selected Writings (Values in a Universe of Chance).
Leslie Stevenson, Seven Theories of Human Nature, 2nd ed.
Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Brian W. Aldiss, Helliconia Spring.
John Barnes. Orbital Resonance.
James Blish, The Quincunx of Time.
Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine.
Arthur C. Clarke, 2010: Odyssey 2.
Arthur C. Clarke, 2061: Odyssey 3.
Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood's End.
Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous with Rama.
Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, The Light of Other Days.
Gardner Dozois, ed., The Year's Best Science Fiction, vol. 5.
Harry Harrison and Carol Pugner, eds., A Science Fiction Reader.
Robert A. Heinlein, Glory Road.
Robert A. Heinlein, The Star Beast.
Elizabeth Moon, Lunar Activity.
Larry Niven, Rainbow Mars.
Larry Niven, The Draco Tavern.
Larry Niven, The Integral Trees.
Ben Orkow, When Time Stood Still.
John Ringo, Live Free or Die.
Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion.
J.R.R. Tolkien, Book of Lost Tales, part 1.
John Twelve Hawks, The Traveler.
Gene Wolfe, There Are Doors.


1. First and foremost, I received Dozois's fifth volume of his Year's Best SF free from someone on a comments thread on another blog. I pointed out that I had most of the series, and she said she had one of the ones I was missing and offered to mail it to me. I am very, very thankful to her. With this, I now have volumes 3-32 and 34. Volumes 1 and 2 are collectors' items and absurdly expensive, so I don't plan on getting those. Volume 33 is recent (published in 2016, collecting stories from 2015), so I'll wait until it's cheaper.

2. A bunch of these books were very cheap. The ones I bought for 95¢ are 2010, 2065, Light of Other Days, Helliconia Spring, and The Traveler. The ones I bought for $1.50 are Quincunx of Time, Orbital Resonance, Book of Lost Tales part 1, There are Doors, A Science Fiction Reader, The Analects, The Case for Faith, and Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. Thirteen books for $16.75.

3. I've been wanting to get a collection of Peirce's writings for a while, so I'm very happy with that purchase -- as I am with the Kant, the Wittgenstein, and the Nietzsche. I want a broadly representative library of the more important philosophical works in history. I say "library" -- right now they all fit on two shelves, two feet wide.

4. I'm also very happy with the Aquinas: it doesn't contain all of the second and third parts of the Summa, but I'm happy to have it on my shelf. Until now, the only Aquinas I had was his commentary on Boethius's De Trinitate. This is one of a few volumes I have in the Great Books of the Western World series; I also have two volumes on Aristotle and one on Kant. Next, I plan to get some of the science editions, like volumes 16 (Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Kepler) and 49 (Darwin).

5. I had the first edition of The Gospel and the Greeks, but it got lost in shipping when we moved back to the States a few years ago. I'm glad to have it again. Admittedly, it's written by a philosopher rather than a historian or theologian, but he really debunks the whole "Christ myth myth" very well, if my recollection is accurate. I got two other books that are re-purchases of books that got lost in shipping as well. First, The Analects. I toyed with Confucianism in my early-20s, although I appreciated Taoism much more at the time. I'm still fascinated by the history of Chinese philosophy. Second, The Case for Faith which is a collection of interviews with theologians, philosophers, and other assorted folks dealing with some of the most prominent objections to Christianity. I appreciate books like this because, due to my particular mindset, they played a big role for me in my early days as a Christian. Nevertheless, they sometimes end up looking like the little Dutch boy trying to prevent the flood by putting his finger in the dam.

6. Elizabeth Moon is most known for her military science-fiction. I'm not averse to military sci-fi per se (witness my purchase of Live Free or Die), but none of the synopses I've read of Moon's books in that genre have appealed to me. However, two other books she wrote did, and they are both fantastic: The Speed of Dark and Remnant Population, both of which show the great value of people who are often discarded in our society (an autistic in Speed of Dark and an elderly widow in Remnant Population). The book I just bought is a collection of her short stories, which I think includes some military sci-fi, so we'll see if I get hooked.

7. Bradbury may not be deep literature, but he is able to encapsulate emotions better than any writer I know. His short story "The Fog Horn" is just the definition of loneliness. And Dandelion Wine is a perfect expression of nostalgia.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Happy anniversary to me

As of today I've been writing this blog for ten years. Ten freakin' years. It's older than my kids. Here's my first post.