Thursday, August 16, 2018

Recent acquisitions

Fiction:
Isaac Asimov and Groff Conklin, eds., Fifty Short Science Fiction Tales
Tom Boardman, Jr., ed., An ABC of Science Fiction
Ray Bradbury, The Golden Apples of the Sun
Orson Scott Card, Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus
Terry Carr, ed., The Best Science Fiction of the Year #5
Michael Crichton, Timeline
David G. Hartwell, ed., The World Treasury of Science Fiction
Zenna Henderson, Holding Wonder
Robert P. Mills, ed., The Worlds of Science Fiction
Tim Powers, The Anubis Gates
Charles Sheffield, Between the Strokes of Night
Dan Simmons, Carrion Comfort
Allen Steele, Spindrift
Neal Stephenson, Reamde

Nonfiction:
Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcy, How Now Shall We Live?
The Koran (Penguin edition), translated by N.J. Dawood

Comments by Jim S.:
Asimov/Conklin, Boardman, Bradbury, Carr, Hartwell, Henderson, and Mills are all short story collections. Card's Pastwatch is a repurchase; it was one of the books that was lost in shipping when we moved back to the States several years ago. The Anubis Gates is also a repurchase but that's because I gave my first copy to a friend to introduce them to the wonders of Tim Powers -- and then they didn't even like it. And for someone who studies Islamic philosophy, I've only ever used online versions of the Qur'an: I'm glad to finally have a hard copy (well, paperback actually) on my shelf. Technically, in Islamic theology, translations of the Qur'an are not the Qur'an, only the original Arabic is the Qur'an. This is why a lot of Islamic grade schools spend almost their whole time teaching children to recite the Arabic Qur'an from memory, regardless of whether they understand Arabic. Obviously this contrasts with Judaism and Christianity's approaches to the Bible.

All of these books were bought at a small local bookstore run by the municipal library, and most of them were 50¢ or $1.00. The nonfiction books were $2.00 each, and the Sheffield, incredibly, was 25¢, I think because the cover is slightly torn. Unfortunately, they don't have any philosophy that I could find.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Why Hume's Argument against Miracles Fails

David Hume famously argued against miracles, or more strictly against the rationality of believing in miracles, two and a half centuries ago. And while it was subject to objections immediately -- most notably that it is question-begging -- it is still influential, though, ironically, less in philosophy than in other fields. He presents it in section 10 of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (click the link and scroll down to page 55). My impression is that his argument is very widely rejected among philosophers -- even the Hume scholar Antony Flew, in his atheist days, argued that, as written, Hume's argument was unsuccessful -- but there are some who defend it. John Earman wrote Hume's Abject Failure: The Argument against Miracles, but then Robert Fogelin wrote A Defense of Hume on Miracles. I'm afraid I haven't read either book. Yet.

Roughly, the argument is as follows: the more frequently something occurs the more probable it is that it will occur again, and the less frequently it occurs the less probable it is that it will occur again. A miracle would be the rarest of all events, totally unique, and would go contrary to our universal experience. Therefore it would be maximally improbable: virtually any explanation would be more probable than that a miracle took place. The usual example of an alleged miracle that enters into the discussion is Jesus' resurrection. According to Hume, regardless of the evidence, it would be more rational to accept any theory, even a conspiracy theory, than to accept the resurrection. So the idea that everyone just went to the wrong tomb, or that Jesus' survived the crucifixion, or that Jesus had an evil twin (these are all real alternative explanations that have been given) are more rational than that a miracle took place.

It seems to me that Hume's argument makes three assumptions that are not justified: that the universe is mechanistic, static, and closed. The mechanistic part essentially means that there is no event in the universe that is not completely determined by the physical events preceding it. The problem with this is that we have reason for thinking this is not the case. On one side we have the apparent randomness of quantum events. I say "apparent" because it's not necessary to believe that these events really are random. Bohmian mechanics explains just as much data as the Copenhagen interpretation, but Bohmian mechanics is strictly deterministic. Nevertheless, it seems to be more ad hoc than explanations which grant that some quantum events are not inevitably produced by preceding events. So many scientists would deny that the universe is mechanistic in the way that Hume's argument requires. On the other side we have the possibility of free agents with free will whose actions are not completely determined by the physical events preceding them. Naturally, free will is an enormous and enormously controversial subject, but at least we can say that most people intuitively believe in it, the arguments against it are indecisive, and the arguments for it, also indecisive, are, nevertheless, reasonably strong. Of course neither of these issues (quantum indeterminacy and free will) speak directly to the possibility of miracles, but they do speak directly to Hume's argument against miracles, since his argument only makes sense within a mechanistic framework.

Hume's second assumption is that the universe is static. This is not the same thing as being mechanistic: a system could be mechanistic without being static, but a static system would automatically be mechanistic. Here the idea is that even if the universe is mechanistic, it is not necessarily static in the way Hume's argument requires. New things may occur, first time events may take place, even though everything is mechanistic and determined. Take a system in which a drop from a river flowing through a forest is deposited in a large basin at a higher altitude every minute or so. This system is completely mechanistic. Accounting for evaporation, say that after 10,000 years, the amount of the water is so immense that the basin splits and disintegrates, dumping the huge mass of water on the forest and river below, obliterating the whole area and completely changing the environment. Ex hypothesi that had never happened before. Using Hume's criteria, we should assess the probability that it would happen as maximally improbable. But clearly it's not. In fact, we could probably predict that something like that would happen. Again, this doesn't speak directly to the possibility of miracles but to Hume's argument against them. If the universe isn't static then there is no reason to accept his probability account.

The third assumption is the big one: that the universe is closed. This is basically a challenge to the idea that the more something happens within a system the more probable it is that it will happen again. But if the universe is open, then there may be forces that exist independently of the universe which can produce effects within it. In fact, these could potentially even be mechanistic, static supernatural causes, but due to their transcending the universe do not happen predictably within our space-time frame.

Of course, the meaning of "miracle" is "sign": it's a sign of a transcendent agent acting in order to bring about an effect within the universe. An unprecedented supernatural event that just seemed random would not bespeak of an agent who intended to bring it about for a reason, but miracles do precisely that. With Jesus' resurrection, it's pretty obvious. To paraphrase Wolfhart Pannenberg, the significance of the resurrection is not that some guy came back to life, it's that this particular guy did -- a guy who acted and spoke as if he had the authority that only God can have, and was arrested for blasphemy and put to death for sedition. For that guy to rise from the dead amounts to his divine vindication. Of course, this is not a logical absolute, it's a common sense assessment. If there were a mechanistic, static, yet transcendent cause that brought it about, it would be an enormous coincidence that a guy who was executed for making radical claims about God and the resurrection of the dead would effectively have his execution reversed; that by sheer coincidence a resurrection from the dead just happened to that one guy who said death could not hold him. That would be incredibly improbable. But of course no one is making that claim.

Friday, May 4, 2018

The Summer of Dune

Several years ago I finally got around to reading Dune and absolutely loved it. I went on to its sequel, Dune Messiah, then realized I wanted to read all of Frank Herbert's books in one go, so I put it off until I bought all of them and had the time. I'm usually reading a novel and a short story collection at any given time, so I decided to make all the novels I read this summer Herbert's Dune novels. I'll re-read the first two, and then continue on to Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse: Dune. Herbert's son has cowritten several sequels, prequels, and interquels to his father's legacy, and I might check those out, although the reviews don't treat them as anywhere near as good.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

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.

Props
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

Amazing!

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



Monday, February 5, 2018

Ugh

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.