Sunday, December 28, 2008

Thought of the Day

Brussels bustles with buses.
Say that five times fast.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


1. Christmas in Baghdad.

2. Outrage of the year.

3. The year in space.

4. Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Another Myth Bites the Dust

Humphrey, my co-blogger over at Quodlibeta has a devastating post refuting one more "example" of religion getting in the way of science and progress. In this case, it has been argued that Christians were against the use of chloroform during childbirth, because it thwarts God's will that such pain was increased after the fall of humankind as punishment. Humphrey absolutely eviscerates this claim.

Also, kudos to Humphrey for taking up the slack at Quodlibeta this month while the rest of us are too busy to devote enough time to it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Arguments and Authority

One of my pet peeves is when people confuse the fallacy of authority with the argument from authority. The former is better called the fallacy of irrelevant authority, since it's when you use the views of someone who is an authority in a particular subject to justify positions outside of that subject. It's the irrelevant part that makes it a fallacy, not the authority part. For example, I often see letters to the editor, editorials, and essays where the writer uses his status as an academic to promote his political views, even though his academic standing is in a field completely unrelated to political science. Such a person's political views carry no more weight than yours or mine or anyone else's.

By contrast the argument from authority is a perfectly valid form of argumentation in informal logic. It takes as its premise that an authority on a subject is more likely correct about that subject than not. In my opinion the most it can do is shift the burden of proof to one who is denying or arguing against the authority's position. Also, in order to have any strength, I think it has to be an argument from the consensus of authorities on a subject, since you can always find some authority in some discipline willing to make outrageous claims.

In formal logic, however, arguments from authority are invalid. This is because the validity of a syllogism is completely distinct from the person presenting it. However, again, some people think this means that any appeal to authority is invalid, regardless of whether it falls into formal or informal logic. For example, I've actually had discussions with people who think Jesus never existed, and when I mention that their view contradicts those of virtually all historians who have written on the subject, they yell, "Appeal to authority! Invalid!" Of course it's not invalid at all. It's perfectly appropriate to look to those who have devoted their lives to the study of the subject under debate to see how they have assessed the evidence. Again, I think it only goes so far -- it's a weak argument -- but it's still a valid argument, as long as you're working outside of formal logic.

(cross posted at Quodlibeta)

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Irish Breakfast

There's an Irish Pub in the town where I live, and some friends of ours sometime take us there for lunch after church. I always get the full Irish breakfast. There is just something glorious about a meal containing four different types of meat.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

God's Philosophers

James Hannam, my co-blogger and blog administrator over at Quodlibeta, has announced that his book God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science is going to be published by Icon Books next August. It has been a long hard road, so I congratulate him on this great news. You can still read the first chapter of God's Philosophers here. I'm very much looking forward to the rest of it.

Abortion and Gay Rights

1. Last week, a poster at the Jury Talks Back asked a good question: "Suppose the technology existed to safely remove a fetus from a womb at any gestational stage for incubation elsewhere until birth. If such “no-death abortion” was available to any woman who wanted it, would most abortion rights supporters stand down?" Patterico followed it up with a post on his own blog, saying that a pro-choice person he posed the question to was adamantly against it. JTB had a follow-up to the original post as well. I found it an interesting question, partially because I had the same idea when I was a teenager (again!) and toyed with the idea of becoming a doctor in order to pursue it -- of course I would have had to be a medical technologist instead, but I didn't think about it hard enough to realize that. The objections to this scenario on the blogs linked to above strike me as contrived: the baby might come to the mother 40 years later looking for a kidney transplant; it would allow rapists to propagate themselves; etc. The primary argument in favor of abortion has been that women shouldn't have to go through pregnancies when they don't want to. The above scenario would allow women to end their pregnancies. If a pro-choice advocate is still against it, then their real goal is not to allow women to end unwanted pregnancies. Their real goal is to kill unwanted fetuses.

2. The Volokh Conspiracy reports (from the Religious Clause blog) on an interesting case: a black woman, an administrator at the University of Toledo, took umbrage at an op-ed in her local newspaper arguing that gay rights are a type of civil rights and that homosexuals are equivalent to black people. She wrote a very respectful but dissenting op-ed of her own, a large part of which expressed the traditional Christian belief that homosexual behavior is a type of rebellion against God. Here is her op-ed. She was promptly fired. The university defended their action by saying her views on homosexual behavior make it impossible for her to fulfill her role as an administrator. She has pointed out that it has never prevented her from hiring gay people before during her 25-year career. Instapundit calls it a political firing, but it seems to be a religious firing to me.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Please pray

for those who have suffered from the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. I was going to hold off posting on it until we learned more; however the more I learn the less I want to post on it. It's just an atrocity and it reminds me that we need to continue taking the fight to the terrorists. There really is evil in the world and those who choose to align themselves with it must be stopped.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Anthropic Principle for Misanthropes, part 2

In part 1 I explained what the Anthropic Principle is and gave some examples to illustrate it. Basically, the idea is that certain conditions must be met in order for life to be possible anywhere in the universe at any time in its history. These conditions are so numerous and so unlikely that, when added together, they make it virtually impossible for there to be a planet capable of supporting life -- at least advanced life -- anywhere in the universe if left to chance. Since there is a planet capable of supporting life (Earth in case you were wondering) it suggests that it wasn't left to chance, that someone intended that the universe would be hospitable to life.

However, while the basic facts are not disputed by scientists in the relevant disciplines, the theistic conclusion is a matter of controversy; some scientists accept it, others don't (here's an interesting sample). In this post I'll go over some of the most common objections made against this inference. I'm saving two objections that require lengthier responses for the next post.

1. "We would not be here to observe the universe unless the very unlikely did happen, so of course we're going to notice how the universe 'just happens' to have the necessary conditions for life." This was my first thought when I heard about the Anthropic Principle for the first time. However, it really doesn't hold any water if you think about it for more than a few seconds. The fact that we are here of course proves that the necessary conditions for life's existence have been met, regardless of how unlikely it is; but the question is not whether these conditions have been met but how they've been met. And the fact that they are unlikely to the point of being impossible shows that they were not met by chance.

The common analogy I've seen in the philosophical literature is the firing squad. If a man were sent to be executed by a hundred sharpshooters and he survives the experience, he could draw two conclusions: they all missed by chance, or they intended him to live (by missing on purpose or filling the guns with blanks for instance). But he would not take the fact that he was alive as evidence that it happened by chance. He would not say, "I wouldn't be here to observe the fact that I'm alive unless I survived -- therefore they must have missed accidentally." In fact the more unlikely his "being alive" was, the more rational it would be for him to conclude that someone decided he should live. In the same way the rational conclusion to draw from the incredible degree of fine-tuning we find in the universe is that someone decided we should live.

2. "We don't have enough information to warrant drawing any conclusions, much less theistic ones." There is certainly some truth to this; the Anthropic Principle is a relatively young field of study, and we should bear this in mind. However, it should also be borne in mind that all of the research has consistently pointed in the same direction: that the prerequisites for life's existence are very specific. Perhaps future scientific discoveries will overturn this evidence, but this could be said of virtually any scientific claim (although it's less implausible for younger fields of study than older ones). At any rate, this isn't really an objection to the theistic conclusion, but to the data itself, and virtually all scientists in the relevant disciplines acknowledge the data.

I also have to say I find it interesting that when scientific discoveries can be seen as going against belief in God, this objection is rarely given. It's only when science seems to point to God that people start suggesting that we can't really draw any conclusions.

3. "We don't have any other universes to compare this one with, so we can't say how likely or unlikely it is for these conditions to be what they are." In the first post I stated that there are two levels to the Anthropic Principle: the conditions that have to be met within the universe, and the conditions that have to be met in the universe as a whole. The conditions that fall into the latter category are initial conditions that are simply given in the Big Bang itself. Since they are initial conditions, there are no prior physical conditions that force them to be the way they are, by definition. There are only two possible conclusions from this: first, that these initial conditions could have been different. Or second, that there were non-physical conditions forcing the universe's physical conditions to be what they are. The first leads to the problem the Anthropic Principle poses: that the universe simply shouldn't be able to support life if left to its own resources, and yet it does. The second leads to the conclusion that there is some non-physical reality, external to the universe, that is able to exert some degree of power over the universe. Thus, both of these conclusions have theistic repercussions.

As for the the conditions that have to be met within the universe, some of them are indeed speculative. For example, while we have no reason to think that planets inherently form with exactly the same surface gravity or axial tilt as Earth, we have not discovered enough extra-solar planets to test it directly. However, many of these conditions are not speculative, but are easily calculable. For example, in order for a planet to be able to support life it must be in a certain type of galaxy, in a certain part of the galaxy, orbiting a certain type of star, etc. It is easily observable and demonstrable how common these conditions are.

Moreover, the fact that we have a sample size of one actually supports the theistic conclusion. This will be demonstrated in the response to one of the objections in the next post.

4. "Chance and intent are not the only two explanations possible. There's also natural law. If there's a law which makes the universe and planets capable of supporting life, the odds of there being other possible life-sites in the universe would be very likely." Well, as pointed out above, the conditions necessary for the universe as a whole are initial conditions. As such, there is no preceding natural law forcing them to be they way they are by definition. The necessary conditions within the universe could, theoretically, be shown to be the result of as-yet-undiscovered natural laws. But in the absence of any evidence for such laws, this suggestion is completely ad hoc, since virtually anything could be explained as the result of some natural law we just haven't discovered yet. Besides, this would only push the problem back to the level of the universe as a whole: any law that makes the universe hospitable to life would have to be exactly what it is in order to ensure that the specific properties necessary for the existence of life are met. The universe would still be fine-tuned for the existence of life, and we'd still need an explanation for why this is the case.

5. "If you change one physical constant it may throw everything off-kilter, but then you can change the other physical constants to compensate for it, and bring it back to being a universe hospitable to life." Incredibly enough, scientists already thought of that. The obvious problem is that changing the other constants does not merely compensate for changing the first one; it would also have dramatic effects which would require us to change more constants, which would have their own effects requiring further changes, etc. There are a few cases where you could do this and end up with a life-permitting universe, but they would be extremely rare. It's like taking a medication that has significant side effects. You then have to take other medications to regulate these side effects, but then these medications also have side effects, so you need to take more medications...

Of course, this analogy only goes so far: taking more medications may actually bring some degree of health to the body. With the universe's physical constants, however, it is almost impossible to alter them and still end up with a life-permitting universe.

6. "Someone wins the lottery, and it would be irrational for that person to think that the extreme improbabilities involved in her winning would demonstrate that someone set it up for her to win. Similarly, life is the result of this universe. This doesn't allow us to think it was set up intentionally to be this way." To illustrate this objection, say you had, for some ungodly reason, billions of ping pong balls and inscribed each one with someone's name until you had one for every person in the world. Also say you had a big enough basket to hold all of them. You then mix them all up and pull one out while blindfolded. Obviously someone's name will be drawn, even though the odds were one in several billion that you would select that particular ball. Similarly, the fact that we have a universe with the specific properties it has may have been improbable, but that does not allow us to draw any conclusions about whether it was "arranged."

But this is a bad analogy. A better one would be if, every time you tweak the universe's properties, you paint a ping pong ball black if it permits the existence of life, and just leave it white if it does not. What you would end up with is an ocean of white ping pong balls with only a handful of black ones scattered throughout. Now of course the odds that you would pull any particular ping pong ball out is equally improbable; but the odds that you would pull out a white ping pong ball is enormously more probable than the odds that you would pull out a black one. Similarly, the odds that the universe would be life-prohibiting is vastly more probable than for it to be life-permitting -- unless someone decided to make it hospitable to life.

This objection seems to be suggesting that life -- the result of this universe -- is arbitrary. Any other universe would have had results too. The problem with this is that all the other possible universes would have had essentially the same result: just matter and energy in motion, and often not even the motion. Ours has something on a whole different level, and the universe must be balanced on a razor's edge in order for it to be that way.

Update (13 Feb): See also part 1, part 3, and part 4.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Quote of the Day

The visible world daily bludgeons us with its things and events. They pinch and pull and hammer away at our bodies. Few people arise in the morning as hungry for God as they are for cornflakes or toast and eggs. But instead of shouting and shoving, the spiritual world whispers at us ever so gently. And it appears both at the edges and in the middle of events and things in the so-called real world of the visible.

God's spiritual invasions into human life seem by their very gentleness almost to invite us to explain them away, even while soberly reminding us that to be obsessed and ruled by the visible is death but that to give one's self over to the spiritual is life and peace (Rom 8:6).

We are hindered in our progress toward becoming spiritually competent people by how easily we can explain away the movements of God toward us. They go meekly, without much protest. Of course his day will come, but for now he cooperates with the desires and inclinations that make up our character, as we are gradually becoming the kind of people we will forever be. That should send a chill down our spine.

God wants to be wanted, to be wanted enough that we are ready, predisposed, to find him present with us. And if, by contrast, we are ready and set to find ways of explaining away his gentle overtures, he will rarely respond with fire from heaven. More likely he will simply leave us alone; and we shall have the satisfaction of thinking ourselves not to be gullible.

The test of character posed by the gentleness of God's approach to us is especially dangerous for those formed by the ideas that dominate our modern world. We live in a culture that has, for centuries now, cultivated the idea that the skeptical person is always smarter than one who believes. You can be almost as stupid as a cabbage, as long as you doubt. The fashion of the age has identified mental sharpness with a pose, not with genuine intellectual method and character. Only a very hardy individualist or social rebel -- or one desperate for another life -- therefore stands any chance of discovering the substantiality of the spiritual life today. Today it is the skeptics who are the social conformists, though because of powerful intellectual propaganda they continue to enjoy thinking of themselves as wildly individualistic and unbearably bright.

Dallas Willard
Hearing God

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Favorite Movie Scenes

Below are a few of my favorite movie scenes. They aren't necessarily scenes from my favorite movies; some of the movies they come from suck. But I love these scenes. I have a lot more, but I'm afraid of using up my bandwidth for the month. Feel free to leave one of your own in the comments, either embedded (I'm not sure you can do that though) or with a link.

Raiders of the Lost Ark:

Fight Club:


Full Metal Jacket:

The Hunt for Red October:

First Strike:




The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension:

Monday, November 17, 2008


-- Here's a great article about Tor, one of the largest SF publishers around. It's primarily about how Libertarianism is very common among SF authors. As I read it, I can't help but think that Christians need to write more SF.

-- Fascinating article on what appears to be a temple from about 10,000 BC. That's before written language, before metal tools, before animals were domesticated, before agriculture.

-- India has landed a spacecraft on the Moon. That puts them in very select company. Congratulations to them, and I'm looking forward to a new space race with them.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Anthropic Principle for Misanthropes, part 1

One of the ways in which contemporary science has appeared to undergird religious belief is the Anthropic Principle. This is the investigation of the necessary conditions for the existence of life. It's an entire field of study, so obviously my treatment here is not even remotely exhaustive. There could easily be a blog entirely devoted to this subject reporting on new discoveries and studies on an almost daily basis.

The Anthropic Principle has its origins in the 1960s with scientists trying to determine the likelihood of other possible life-sites in the universe. It was thought at the time that the universe is so huge, there must be plenty of habitable planets, potentially with life and advanced civilizations already present.

What they have discovered is that the number of conditions that have to be met in order for a planet to be capable of supporting life are so numerous and so unlikely that, even when factoring the size of the universe into the equation, the odds of there being any planet anywhere in the universe that would meet all of the necessary conditions by chance is essentially zero. But this raised an obvious problem: there is a planet that meets all of these conditions. You're sitting on it. Since the Anthropic Principle demonstrates that it's improbable to the point of being impossible for this to have come about by chance, it suggests that these conditions are the way they are because someone intended that Earth should be able to support life.

There is debate as to whether the Anthropic Principle applies to all life or only to complex life. Many scientists argue that simple, unicellular life might be able to survive outside of the severe parameters necessary for advanced life, and could even be widespread. Probably the most popular book arguing this point is Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee. If we grant this for the sake of argument, we're still left with a universe in which advanced life simply shouldn't exist, if left to its own resources. And yet, as you may have noticed, it does.

There are really two levels to the Anthropic Principle. The first is what has already been mentioned: the necessary conditions that must be met within the universe. For example, the planet must be in a particular part of a particular type of galaxy -- in a spiral galaxy and in between spiral arms. It must also have a particular interstellar history, such as nearby white dwarf binary stars that have lost some of their surface material to interstellar space in order to provide flourine. It must orbit a particular type of star with particular types of outer planets. The planet must have a particular axial tilt, a particular magnetic field, have a moon of a particular size and distance, etc., ad infinitum. Again, it's not an issue of individual criteria being met -- the universe is so big that there will be other places that meet even extremely improbable conditions. The point is that it has to meet them all, and when the conditions are combined it shows, even given the unfathomable size of the universe, that the odds are absurdly improbable that there would be a place that would be able to support life.

One of the properties on this level that has impressed me the most involves the Kuiper Belt. This is an asteroid belt outside the orbit of Neptune. A few years ago, scientists decided (ex cathedra) that Pluto isn't actually a planet, but is just a fairly large and fairly close Kuiper Belt Object.

The gravitational effects from the Kuiper Belt stabilize Neptune's orbit. If the Kuiper Belt's mass were any different (either less or greater), it would start a domino effect, throwing off Neptune's orbit, which would in turn throw off Uranus', then Saturn's, and then Jupiter's. Then the orbits of the inner planets, including Earth, would be disrupted to the extent that none of them would have an orbit stable enough to permit life. It just blows me away that life on Earth is dependent on an asteroid belt outside the orbit of Neptune.

Recently, astronomers have found that our dependence on the Kuiper Belt is even greater than was previously thought (see here, here, and here). Using computer modeling of our solar system's development, they discovered that early on, Uranus and Neptune were much closer to the sun (as was the Kuiper Belt) and possessed much more eccentric orbits. The gravitational effects between the Kuiper Belt Objects and Neptune and Uranus had to be very specific in order for all of them to drift further away from the Sun and then establish the stable orbits they have today.

The second level of the Anthropic Principle is the universe as a whole. Scientists have formed mathematical models with the laws of nature slightly tweaked, and used this to investigate what must be necessary for the existence of life. What they've discovered is that if most of the laws were different by very slight amounts -- if gravity was slightly weaker or stronger for example -- it would prevent any kind of life from existing anywhere in the entire history of the universe. This implies, again, that whatever Agency brought the universe into existence did so in such a way that it could support the existence of life.

The best examples of this are the universe's mass density and its space-energy density (or "dark energy"). The former essentially refers to how much matter the universe contains. As the universe expanded outward from the Big Bang, the amount of matter affected the speed, since the more mass there was, the greater gravity would slow it down. If the mass density was any greater by even a tiny amount, it would have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back, causing the universe to collapse back on itself. If it was any weaker, then the expansion would overwhelm gravity enough that galaxies would never form, and without galaxies you don't have enough nearby stars to provide the heavier elements on which life depends. Specifically, the mass density has to be exactly what it is to within one part in 1060 in order for life to exist in the universe.

The second factor mentioned above is dark energy. This refers to the "stretchiness" of the space-time fabric. This concept has its origins in Einstein's cosmological constant (symbolized by the Greek letter lambda), a force that counteracts gravity which he posited in order to escape the Big Bang singularity. He suggested that the further away two objects were, the more they would repel each other. However, no such force could be detected, much less at the strength required for Einstein's scenario. In the past several years however, scientists have managed to detect this force. It's far, far too weak to be used in the way Einstein intended -- to avoid a beginning of the universe -- but it does have a positive value. This force accounts for a very unusual phenomenon: that as the universe expands, it actually seems to be speeding up. The further the universe stretches, the more quickly it stretches. The reason this is called "stretching" is because it's not just a matter of stars and galaxies moving away from each other: the fabric of space-time is actually stretching out further. You yourself are getting slightly bigger each year as the universe expands. And you thought it was the donuts.

If the properties of dark energy were slightly different, it would affect the rate at which the universe expands, and this leads to the same problem as the mass density: either the universe would collapse upon itself (if it wasn't stretchy enough) or it would not form stars and galaxies and the heavier elements upon which life depends would not be available (if it was too stretchy). In fact, dark energy has to be fine-tuned to an even greater degree than the mass density is. It has to be exact to within one part in 10120.

As far as I know, the fact that the universe is balanced on a knife's edge -- that if dozens of its properties were different in the slightest degrees, life (or at least advanced life) could never exist at any time and any place in its history -- is recognized by all scientists in the relevant disciplines. Accounting for this is a different matter. As I've suggested above, many scientists have thought that the fine-tuning of the universe demonstrates that, in Fred Hoyle's terms, "a superintellect monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology." But of course there have been many objections made against this inference. I'll deal with a few of the more common ones in future installments.

Update (13 Feb): See also part 2, part 3, and part 4.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


I really don't know what to think about this. It's just...well...hmmm.

My Exodus

I often tell people that I argued myself into Christianity. This is true, but it leaves enough out that it could be misleading. So here is a rough sketch of how I became a Christian. Please forgive the vanity and the length.

I was baptized Catholic. My mother was a Catholic and my father was a devout agnostic, as far as I could tell. I have no memory of going to church as a child. They divorced when I was about eight years old, and it absolutely devastated me. Not that they were good together -- they fought like cats and dogs. But for kids (I think) parents are their foundation. When you take that away, they don't have any solid ground to stand on.

After the divorce, my mother started taking me to an Episcopalian church (which I sometimes refer to as "Catholic Lite" or "Catholicism for divorcées"). I only attended for a few years and it didn't take. I remember taking umbrage at a song that asked God to mould, fill, and use us, and refusing to sing it. I did learn how to smoke in Sunday school, however.

As an adult I suffered from depression and low self-esteem. Ignoring the fact that I suffered from these as a child too, even before my parents' divorce, I assumed it was due to my few years of church-going; that the sermons I never listened to and the songs I didn't remember must have made me feel guilty -- thinking guilt was what Christianity is all about. I would have described myself at this point as an agnostic: I suspected God existed, but I wouldn't have bet on it, and I certainly didn't think it was the God of Christianity. To combat my psychological problems, I read self-help books. They would work for a short while, but eventually I would fall back into depression and low self-esteem.

After a couple of years of college I enlisted in the Marine Corps. I figured if I did the toughest thing I could think of, my self-esteem would rise, and the depression would go away. If I buried myself in manure for a few years, I'd come out smelling like roses. In fact, it did help to some extent, but not nearly enough. After boot camp they sent me to language school to become an Arabic linguist -- if they had asked me, I would have told them that I suck at languages. The course was a year long, and it was one of the most stressful times of my life, much more so than boot camp. This was largely self-imposed: I kept telling myself that I would fail and imagined the very worst possible outcomes. I very nearly had a nervous breakdown. My refusal to give up these destructive thought patterns ruined what might have been a very good friendship with one of the sailors in my class. But that was how I thought about everything: I was a pessimist and thought about the worst things I could. It was the pattern I had trained myself to think in, and while it wasn't pleasant, it was familiar.

Much to my amazement -- and that of some of my teachers as well -- I passed. After the course in Modern Standard Arabic was over, I had to take a course in Syrian dialect, but that didn't start for several weeks. In the meantime, I was on some kind of duty (I forget what it was called) which was basically sitting around and sometimes mowing a lawn somewhere. I remember I had some new dogtags made about this time, and under religious preference I put "Druid."

About ten days (I think) after I finished the first Arabic course, I was sitting in the chow hall eating. I experienced a flash: it was like I had been squinting my whole life, and for just a moment my eyes were open. Information had been directly downloaded into my mind. The information was: "I exist, and I carried you for the last year." It impressed itself upon me more than the physical world does when I experience pain.

This absolutely blew me away. Now I was no longer an agnostic in the strict sense: I was very confident that God exists. However, I didn't know which, if any, religion was true. I was pretty confident that it wasn't Christianity, but that was all. It was also extremely humbling: as I said above, my overwhelming stress of the previous year had been largely self-imposed. My intense sorrow wasn't caused by the actual experiences I went through, I caused it myself. It was my own fault, my own demand to expect the very worst outcome I could imagine. And yet, here was God telling me that he had carried me through this self-imposed misery. He wasn't just willing to carry me through hard times, but through times that I chose to make hard and forced upon myself. I also found it interesting that I had no sense of his presence during that year, and yet he was powerfully present nonetheless.

The only religious activity I began to participate in at that point was saying a short grace before meals. I had some friends suggest that I go to a church, but I told them I couldn't, because I was waiting for more information from God. Think about that for a minute.

After I finished the Syrian dialect course, I was shipped to an Air Force base to learn the "top secret" portion of my job (which was a joke, by the way). While there, a friend of mine who was permanently stationed there and I talked about getting together every Sunday to have our own private "church" meeting, since we both agreed that God exists but Christianity is false. We talked about it a lot, in fact, but we never actually did it. When I finished my training there, I was sent to Hawaii.

I was still reading self-help books, and in a used bookstore in Honolulu I bought a couple by Norman Vincent Peale. When I read them, however, I was very disappointed that he tied "positive thinking" to Christianity, as several of the other self-help books I'd read did. Beyond my reading those two books, Peale had no influence on me. I'm mentioning it because I remember it, probably because it happened not long before a significant event.

A friend of mine named Troy had invited me to church a few times, but I kept telling him that I couldn't go because I was waiting for a sign from God. Finally, I relented; largely because I was willing to go anywhere there would be a lot of women. In a school gymnasium they gave a sermon, and then started doing communion. As they were handing out the bread and juice, I experienced another flash, another direct download. This time the information was: "I want you to participate in this." It was just as powerful as the first one, it imposed itself on me in the same way, much stronger than the physical world does via my senses.

Instead of participating, I got up and walked out.

Troy followed me out. I told him what happened, and he said I should stay, since God was obviously telling me something. I refused. The gymnasium was a few miles away from where I lived (off-base), but I walked home anyway. The whole way I was apologizing to God. "I'm sorry, I'm not ready." I just could not bring myself to believe Christianity. I thought Christianity was on the same intellectual level as believing that the earth is flat. Literally. I thought I had just received the equivalent of a divine revelation telling me that the earth is flat. I simply couldn't believe it. I couldn't deny the experience; if I did, I'd have to deny the physical world and my daily life as well, since they impose themselves upon me to a much lesser extent. But how could I seriously believe the equivalent of a flat earth? Of course, I could have drawn the conclusion that my assessment of Christianity was faulty, but that simply didn't occur to me.

After that, however, I started calling myself a Christian, even though I really wasn't. I looked for a way that I could do this (call myself a Christian) without believing the insane things I assumed Christianity taught. I didn't really look actively -- that would have taken effort on my part -- but that's what I was hoping I would find. In retrospect, I was looking for liberal theology. Fortunately, I didn't find it.

I got out of the Marines and returned to school to study. For most of the time I spent finishing up my first Bachelors degree, I continued to call myself a Christian, even though I got drunk a lot and cavorted with as many women as would let me (which was awfully close to zero). I felt I should do something with Christianity though, so I looked up non-denominational churches in the phone book, and started attending one. One thing I hated, and still hate, is when a church has the congregants stand up and greet each other. This seems to me to be the pinnacle of phoniness. "Stand up and pretend you give a crap about the people sitting around you." I couldn't have told you what I was hoping to get out of church, but I absolutely did not want to meet people or socialize. So I would wait outside the church until I heard the music starting up, and then go inside and sit in the back pew, away from everyone else. When they had the "greet your neighbor" ritual, I would lie down in the pew so no one could see me. Then when the service was winding up, I'd leave while they were playing the last song.

Several weeks later, while walking away from the church, I heard the sound of someone running after me. The pastor, still in his robes, had followed me out, and caught up to me about a block away. He had seen me in church for weeks, and had wanted to welcome me, but hadn't been able to because of the way I came and left.

I really have no idea, but I suspect that at some point in this period of church-going, someone suggested to me that I start reading C. S. Lewis. I did, and was absolutely amazed by him. It wasn't the specific arguments he gave for Christianity that impressed me, it was just that he made it sound so reasonable. I finally started thinking that maybe Christianity wasn't as ridiculous as I'd assumed. I read and re-read as many of his books as I could get a hold of. This was a little weird on my part, since I very strongly did not want to be a Christian, if that referred to the position Lewis was defending. But I was drawn to his writing.

In many ways, I grew into my acceptance of Christianity. When I was a young Christian, I would tell people that I couldn't give a date that I accepted Christ, or even a year. It was a gradual process. Since then, however, a moment has stood out in my memory, but this might just be me remembering wrong, or trying to fit my experience into a more standard pattern.

First, some background. After I graduated, I went to Japan to be an English teacher. My primary motivation was that I'd been told Japanese women found Western men attractive, and so I wanted to take as much advantage of this as possible. I stayed at first with the brother of a friend from the Marines, an ex-Christian who was very hostile towards it, and who I didn't really know that well. While there, I sent a letter to a Christian friend of mine where I detailed multiple errors, contradictions, etc. in the Bible. He never wrote back. However, this was really an attempt to lash out at Christianity with him as its unfortunate mediator. C. S. Lewis had argued that the Bible had errors in it, and even (in The Problem of Pain) that Jesus probably held false beliefs. So I knew this wasn't a good enough reason to reject Christianity.

One night, while laying in bed, I was thinking about C. S. Lewis's books, and was just overwhelmed with how reasonable Christianity appeared. He hadn't necessarily convinced me that Christianity was true, but I was no longer able to say that it was stupid. However, since my only real reason for rejecting Christianity was that it was stupid, this took away my only justification for rejecting Christianity. The barrier preventing me from becoming a Christian revealed itself to be a smoke screen.

So I prayed to God. Specifically I told him that he could have me, but he'd have to keep the women away from me, because I had no resistance in that area. Again, in retrospect, this was me turning toward God and turning away from the idol I had been worshiping up till then: sex. This is proof, by the way, that a poor person can be just as infatuated with money as a rich person. I had always lived in abject poverty in terms of sex, but my every thought was bent in that direction.

After praying this, what followed was the longest dry spell of my life. I couldn't get a woman to look at me for two years. I was only in Japan for three months, having achieved the distinction of being the first native English speaker in Japan's history to be unable to get a job teaching English. I returned to the States and began attending what would become my home church. I was definitely a Christian at this point, but I still desperately wanted it not to be true. I would tell people openly that becoming a Christian was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. I fanatically (religiously?) read atheist and anti-Christian literature trying to find a way out. Actually, I had been doing this ever since discovering C. S. Lewis. But their arguments just didn't hold a candle to the pro-Christian literature I was reading. I remember finding a book in the church's library (who knows how it got there) arguing that Jesus' disciples had stolen his corpse and made up the resurrection. I was frustrated that I was able to refute this silly conspiracy theory so easily. Everything in me was screaming, "Christianity is insane! It's not true! It can't be true!" but I could not find any wiggle room to deny it. I believed in Christianity in the same way that someone believes their political views, even if they don't like them. It was purely intellectual.

Several months later, maybe a year or more, I'm not sure, I discovered that I was actually getting excited about reading books and articles that defended Christianity. I was starting to like them. Of course, I read plenty of books that I thought defended Christianity poorly, giving bogus arguments that I could refute, like Bible codes or young-earth creationism. This disturbed me (and still does) but didn't dissuade me for two reasons. First, a bad argument for a position doesn't do anything to negate the good arguments for that position. Second, there are plenty of people who will use bad arguments to defend a valid position. This is true for virtually everything.

After a couple of years, I reached another point. I had accepted that the Bible had contradictions and errors in it, but over and over again I found resolutions to these problems. Of course, I didn't find resolutions to all of them, and plenty of the resolutions seemed completely ad hoc to me. But this was not the case for the majority of them. Essentially, I reached a point where I was willing to give the Bible the benefit of doubt. The problems I found in the Bible were more likely a problem with me rather than it.

I tried to get my friends and family to read the good pro-Christian books I was reading, but they weren't interested. I eventually realized that if I wrote a book for them myself, explaining the arguments and evidences that convinced me, they would be more willing to read it. I put it off for a while, because it seemed to me that there was much more that I'd want to study before undertaking such an endeavor. However, I eventually received a very strong impression that I should start it. In retrospect (again) I realize that these impressions -- to write the book and then to start it sooner than I wanted to -- were from God. They weren't, however, like the flashes I had experienced previously; it was just a strong impression.

So I started writing the book. I organized it into three chapters: logic (i.e. philosophy), science, and history. I also included two appendices on Bible prophecy and Bible inerrancy, the latter of which went over many of the alleged contradictions in the Bible. I would write the book by hand and then go to my dad's house to type up what I'd written that day on his computer. I told him what I was doing, but apparently he just assumed I was playing video games or something.

I had also told my boss, a Christian, what I was doing, and he offered to print up all the copies I needed and bind them. So when I finished, I gave him the book on a floppy disc, and he printed up 30 copies, complete with a cover and everything. The book was over 150 pages long, so this was a considerable expense for him. He kept one himself, and the guy who had made all the copies and bound them (and designed the cover), who wasn't a Christian, asked if he could have one too.

I really had less than ten people that I had planned to give the book to: my immediate family and several friends. Their responses were not what I expected. My dad, who was immensely impressed that I had been writing a book on his computer all this time, read the whole thing, but didn't want to talk about it. One person said she couldn't understand it. Another insisted that the cosmological argument was completely moronic. When I told her that Plato and Aristotle had defended versions of it, as did many of the greatest thinkers in human history, she said she was going to rip up the book with her notes proving it false and send them back to me.

One friend e-mailed me and said he was also very impressed with it and suggested I try publishing it. We started going through it in detail, and I was very pleased with this response. Unfortunately, a common friend of ours immediately skipped to the appendix on errors and contradictions in the Bible, and convinced the first friend to focus on this instead of the main body of the book. They found some of those lists online that give dozens of contradictions in the Bible and sent it to me, challenging me to resolve them. I e-mailed them back on a Friday and told them I was writing a refutation of all of them, and would e-mail it to them on Sunday; but I encouraged them to do it themselves as well. It was a pretty silly list, taking verses completely out of context in order to conjure up contradictions between them. So I told them to read the entire chapter of each verse that was given on the list, and see how the verses in question weren't really contradictory at all. I only remember a few of them; the best was, "Jesus is the Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6), but he says 'I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.' (Matt. 10:34-36)" The obvious resolution to this is that the second text clearly refers to the fact that Jesus creates hostility between people who accept him and people who don't -- something not only made clear by the context, but also by what was going on with the three of us at that moment. The first text does not have this context, so it obviously doesn't mean the same thing: Jesus brings peace in one sense, and brings a sword in a completely different sense. Another one was, "After his baptism, the Gospels of Matthew (4:1-2), Mark (1:9-13), and Luke (4:1-2) say Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days, but the Gospel of John (2:1) says he went to the wedding in Cana on the third day after his baptism." Again, anyone who reads the texts will immediately be able to resolve this: John's Gospel never mentions Jesus' baptism. Obviously it's not referring to the third day after an event that it never narrates. Most of the list was on this level, with completely contrived problems.

Before Sunday, they wrote back saying that I was stalling for time, that I was engaging in fallacies by telling them to try to resolve the "contradictions" themselves, that the list they had sent me was obviously valid and I wasn't taking it seriously enough, etc. I had, after all, suggested in the book I wrote that my readers try to find problems in the Bible and send them to me so we could try to resolve them. This was very true; I also wrote that I wasn't claiming that I would be able to resolve them, at least not right away, but that I was confident there would be a resolution.

I now think that by putting this appendix on Bible problems in the book, I made it possible for them to take an issue that wasn't really central and inflate it into the main point. After all, I hadn't accepted inerrancy when I first became a Christian, and C. S. Lewis apparently never did. It's not a good enough reason to not be a Christian. But I had assumed that other people's problems would be the same as mine, and therefore that their journeys would be as well. I assumed that by going over numerous contradictions and finding them not to be contradictions after all, other people would eventually come to the same point I did, where they would be willing to give the Bible the benefit of doubt.

What disturbed me the most, however, was the vitriol of their e-mails. They were accusing me of some really nasty things, things I would never say to a friend. It seemed to me that if I continued going over this issue with them it would destroy our friendships, although I may very well have been mistaken. So on Sunday I e-mailed them the resolutions of their list, but also said that they were very close friends of mine and I didn't want this to ruin it. I was perfectly willing to go over alleged contradictions like this, but not if it got in the way of our friendships. So we stayed friends, but we did not continue the discussion.

I think I'll stop here. You can see how it is very true that I argued myself into Christianity: I didn't want it to be true, I read quite a bit of material trying to prove it false, etc. But saying "I argued myself into it" could suggest to some people that I approached it from a completely neutral standpoint with no bias one way or the other. This is obviously not the case. I had experienced the two flashes or downloads that showed me that God exists and that he wanted me to accept Jesus Christ. Admittedly, I rebelled against them, but regardless I didn't approach the issue in a disinterested manner. I was trying to reconcile my experiences of God with my belief that Christianity could not really be true. Ultimately, I argued myself out of this belief and into the belief that it is true.

I haven't had any more divine downloads since those first two. This has two consequences for me. First, I compared those experiences to my experience of the physical world, and stated that the former imposed themselves on me much more powerfully than the latter does through my senses. However, it has to be taken into account that the flashes were both momentary experiences, while my experience of the physical world is constant. I'm not really sure if the two can ultimately be compared: brief experiences that impose themselves powerfully vs. constant experiences that impose themselves (comparatively) weakly. Fortunately, I don't have to compare them, since I accept the testimony of both.

The second point is that I sometimes worry about the fact that I haven't had further flashes from God. I'm afraid that by rejecting the second one I turned away from his grace in a final way. A friend recently comforted me by saying that I didn't turn away from him, I wrestled with him, and that puts me in very good company. I also remind myself that the year that he was carrying me through my self-imposed hell, I had no sense that he was there at all. So even though I haven't had other experiences, I nevertheless have very good reasons to think that he's there, carrying me still. Plus, he has blessed me with a wife who teaches me who God is every day. I call her my own personal theistic argument.

Despite this, I want a close interactive relationship with God, not just the knowledge that he exists because of some experiences I had in the past. To this end, I have read many times (and will continue to read) Hearing God by Dallas Willard. Willard isn't really addressing the divine flashes I experienced, but of how God is with us in our own minds, closer to us than we are to ourselves. Our inner monologue is actually a dialogue; some of the thoughts we have do not originate with us, but with him, and the point is to develop an awareness of when it's God and when it's our own subconscious. I find it difficult to put into action, but I'm trying.

Incidentally, that song that asks God to mould, fill, and use us -- now that's one of my favorites.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Other Blogrolls

Update (6 Dec 2009): I've expanded this list to include carnivals. See here.

In my post on my blogroll I stated that I limit it to a large extent, which is why it's so short. To compensate for this I have some links to more extensive blogrolls on the sidebar. The Christian blogs link takes you to which upkeeps a very extensive blogroll that I couldn't do without quitting my job (oops, I'm a student, I don't have one). Nevertheless, it is selective insofar as he only includes blogs that he has encountered. For some reason, it is arranged by location.

The More Christian blogs link takes you to a site in which people enter their blogs into a pool and select which criteria they want it associated with. As such, it's much more extensive, but it also means that anyone who writes a blog can sign it up for the list even if they don't write on Christian subjects. That doesn't work too badly though, since it just amounts to a list of bloggers who consider themselves Christian. But when I looked up the website's blogrolls for particular subjects -- blogs listed under science or philosophy or religion in general -- they were all over the place. Many of them didn't seem to have any connection to these subjects; the blogger in question just put (for example) "science" down as a description of their blog. So I had to look elsewhere to find blogrolls for these subjects.

Thus, the Philosophy blogs link takes you to a collection of actual blogs about philosophy or written by philosophers, although sometimes this means philosophers who write about non-philosophical topics. I consider it a good overall list, although it's limited to analytic, as opposed to continental, thought.

Finally, the Science blogs link takes you to a group blog that has a list of about 80 blogs on it. That's not much, but it's the largest science blogroll I could find.

If you know of better blogrolls for these subjects, please leave them in the comments. If you know of a good blogroll for religion blogs (not just Christian) or academic blogs (not just philosophy) I'd be interested in them as well. Remember, I'm not interested here in an individual blog per se, but to a blogroll that is exclusive to these topics.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


Whoever you voted for, this is just glorious. Via Instapundit.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Thought of the Day

"Blind faith" is not redundant.

From the undead to the resurrected Lord

Anne Rice has just published her spiritual memoir, Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession, timed apparently to come out at Halloween. In case you don't know, she made her mark writing books about vampires and the occult, the most famous being Interview with the Vampire. A few years ago, however, she returned to the Christian faith she was raised in (Catholic in particular), and has published two books in a four book project which will comprise an extended biography of Jesus. This article quotes her as saying, "My objective is simple: It's to write books about our Lord living on Earth that make him real to people who don't believe in him; or people who have never really tried to believe in him." Here's a podcast interview with her about her memoir.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The heavens declare

The Cassini spacecraft, in orbit around Saturn, recently took multiple close-up shots of Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons. Take a look. Beautiful.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


Raskolnikov received a very disturbing e-mail regarding the persecution of Christians in India. Assuming the account is correct, please take a moment to pray for their safety.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Tale of a Comet

It is well-known that people who lived before the Enlightenment were hopelessly superstitious. They believed, for example, that "odd" occurrences in the sky were omens signifying that odd occurrences would soon happen down here on Earth. The most blatant example of this took place when Halley's Comet appeared in 1456. While it was still visible, the siege of Belgrade by the Turks began; thus it was feared that this portent in the heavens had some relevance to the battle. Halley's Comet so upset Pope Callistus III that he resorted to drastic measures: he excommunicated it.

For years, this story was repeated as an example of how absurd and superstitious religion is, especially when contrasted with science. Carl Sagan referred to it in his book on comets. But of course, you know where I'm going with this: it didn't really happen. The story appears to have been popularized by Pierre-Simon Laplace at the end of the 18th century; Laplace, in turn, apparently got it from Vitæ Pontificum, a 15th century work, by Bartolomeo Platina. The Catholic Encyclopedia article on Platina dutifully translates the relevant text as follows:

A maned and fiery comet appearing for several days, while scientists were predicting a great plague, dearness of food, or some great disaster, Callistus decreed that supplicatory prayers be held for some days to avert the anger of God, so that, if any calamity threatened mankind, it might be entirely diverted against the Turks, the foes of the Christian name. He likewise ordered that the bells be rung at midday as a signal to all the faithful to move God with assiduous petitions and to assist with their prayers those engaged in constant warfare with the Turks.
Now there are a couple of things to note right away. First, there is no mention here of the Pope excommunicating the comet. Second, while the Pope had indeed issued a papal bull calling upon people to pray, and while Halley's Comet did appear in the sky at about the same time, there was simply no perceived link between the two. The bull doesn't even mention the comet. Platina just tied two events together that had no connection.

Laplace took Platina's account and suggested that Callistus sought to exorcize Halley's Comet -- and I can't help but wonder if he intended this as a metaphor. Regardless, subsequent writers took it literally, and replaced "exorcize" with "excommunicate" since all those religious terms mean the same thing anyway. The final paragraph of the afore-mentioned article summarizes this development well.

Of course, no doubt there were people who thought Halley's Comet had something to do with the siege of Belgrade. That's the kernel of truth in this story. For that matter, it may very well be true that people in the 15th century were in general more superstitious than people today tend to be. But we still have astrology. Most newspapers print the horoscope every day.

What interests me is how people who hold themselves up as skeptics were taken in by such a ridiculous story as this. Carl Sagan was, by any account, a brilliant man. Yet he uncritically repeats an urban legend in order to show how other people are gullible. What this shows, I think, is that there are no true skeptics. People are only skeptical of things that they want to be skeptical about.

For example, in his book My Life Without God, William Murray describes how his mother Madalyn Murray O'Hair would tell groups of atheists that religious people were so stupid that nobody realized sex led to pregnancy until the 19th century. This is difficult to write without chuckling, but her throng of skeptics bought it. O'Hair herself attended seances, and believed she could talk with dead people. Murray wrote that, as far as he knew, his mother never tried to reconcile this with her belief that there is no afterlife. The skepticism with which she and her fans approached religion was obviously not consistently applied.

The point of all this is that we should be skeptical of our skepticism. The reason why an intelligent person like Carl Sagan could be taken in by such a silly story as a Pope excommunicating a comet is because it fit with his views on the nature of science, the nature of religion, and the relationship between the two. Madalyn Murray O'Hair and her followers were completely contemptuous of religion and religious believers, so any claim that justified this attitude, no matter how insane, was plausible to them.

I have different biases: I am skeptical of the claim that science and religion are opposed to each other. This makes me prone to accept stories that seem to affirm this bias without showing them the same level of critical analysis that I would show to a story that contradicts it. I have to examine myself to determine, as far as possible, what my biases are, and how they might be influencing my beliefs.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Monday, October 20, 2008

Required Reading

The American elections are coming up, so in the spirit of the season, here's two political essays from a Christian perspective. They're both written by J. Budziszewski, a political philosopher at the University of Texas at Austin. Don't just read the one you're prone to agree with already, you have to read them both:

1. The Problem With Liberalism
2. The Problem With Conservativism

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Friday, October 17, 2008

Quote of the Day

Regarding the sources of knowing itself, what can one say relevantly here? The desire to know is a source of the scientific quest, but what is the source of the desire to know? As we know, this latter desire can take many forms; for there are many knowings, of which the scientific is but one. When we wonder about the sources of the desire to know, our question is not any straightforward scientific question. In asking the question, we show ourselves already to participate in that which is the "object" of our inquiry, hence we can never stand objectively outside it. In that regard, science is not a question to itself, though it questions everything else, and even though at moments of limit and crisis the question of its own nature and methods does come alive for it. But this perplexity about its own sources is not the element in which it lives, or wants to live. It is carried by the desire to know, which it takes for granted as its enabling power, without astonishment or perplexity about what grants this power at all. Thus too it is not always attuned to the perplexity that this enabling of mind may be deeply equivocal and dangerous, for it releases monstrous possibilities, precedents for which we look in vain among the other creatures of nature. Our will to know scientifically, in potentially opening up to comprehend all that is, is disproportionate to all the objects it makes its concern. It is not perplexed about its own disproportion; not perplexed about the sources of this disproportion and the perils.

If you say the sources of the desire to know are in a continuation of biological adaptation, clearly this is true to a point, but it seems to me disproportionate to the intensiveness of penetration and the extensiveness of range that our scientific knowing projects. There is something useless here, relative to more proximate biological concerns. Uselessness is disproportion: it reveals the trace of infinity in the finite knower; and hence it mediately connects with reverence of the finite religious person for the infinite.

Or you say: the source is to be found in neurophysiological causes; science will lay out these causes. But science itself is also caused by neurophysiology, which here it invokes as explanation of itself. But what status has it itself then? Another formation of neurophysiology? But what gives it a status as the true, or the better, formation of neurophysiology? How to distinguish between the better and worse, the truer and less true, formations of neurophysiological causes? But these are all qualitatively the same relative to neurophysiological causation. There seems no explanation of mind that does not presuppose mind. And indeed, if claims to truth are made, this presupposes that fidelity to reality or being is better or superior to infidelity; but these are irreducibly qualitative distinctions or differences which seem impossible to uphold on the homogeneous terms claimed within the theory. If this theory were true, its truth could not be upheld. If it were true, it would lose its claim to be the truth about mind. Its overt claims are urged in terms of covert presuppositions that truth is better than falsehood. But these covert presuppositions cannot be explained in the particular terms of this theory, since they are presupposed by every theory claiming to be true.

William Desmond
"On the Betrayals of Reverence"
Is There a Sabbath for Thought?: Between Religion and Philosophy

Thursday, October 16, 2008

On Gay Marriage

The Connecticut Supreme Court has just legalized gay marriage (the decision is here). Obviously this subject is very controversial; not only does it address political issues, but ethical and religious issues as well. Before getting into this, though, let me just point out that Christians are not called upon to change the world through social legislation; we are called upon to change the world by reflecting Christ. If you're concerned as a Christian about the state of marriage in society, the best thing you can do is reflect Christ in your marriage. This doesn't mean you should ignore social issues, much less that you should refrain from voting on them; it's just an appeal to get our priorities in order.

Those in favor of gay marriage see it as just allowing homosexuals to have the same rights as heterosexuals. To oppose it, then, is to oppose equal rights for all people, parallel to opposition to mixed marriages between people of different ethnicities.

This argument makes three assumptions that are, to my mind, dubious: first, that homosexuality is the same sort of thing as race or gender (perhaps because it's genetic). Second, that heterosexuals have a right that is being withheld from homosexuals. And third, that the traditional understanding of marriage as between men and women is arbitrary and can thus be changed. I've addressed the first assumption before, arguing that while race and gender are brute physical characteristics, homosexuality involves behavior, and behavior involves freedom. Of course, genes can certainly predispose us towards certain types of behavior, but they cannot predetermine us. If they could, it would lead to self-refutation. So to put homosexuality in the same class as race or gender is simply to make a category mistake.

The second assumption is also problematic. If I ask what right a heterosexual has with regards to marriage that a homosexual doesn't, the response is that the former can marry whoever he/she is in love with. But this is obviously false: there are limits to who someone can marry. You cannot legally marry a close relative or a minor, for example. So if someone were to fall in love with a close relative or a minor (there are many cases of both), then they would not have the right to marry that person in Western society, regardless of the gender(s) involved. The point being that we all have restrictions on who we can marry, and one of the restrictions for everyone is that the person you marry must be of the opposite gender.

This leads directly to the third assumption that defining marriage heterosexually is arbitrary. Of course, it is insufficient to say that the traditional understanding of marriage should be maintained merely because it is the traditional understanding. After all, traditions can be wrong. Traditions can be morally bankrupt. To simply say "that's how we've always done it" is not a good enough reason to keep doing it that way.

But there's a little more depth to it than this: it's not just a matter of our cultural tradition. Marriage is a trans-cultural phenomenon. Virtually all societies in human history have had marriage, and they've always defined it as between one man and one woman. There have been plenty of differences of course: some cultures allowed people to marry close relatives. Many only allowed marriage between members of the same ethnic group. In some, marriage was "arranged" so that people didn't have the right to choose the individual they married. Some have not viewed marriage as exclusive, and have allowed polygamy. (On this subject, I once told a friend of mine that the practice of polygamy proved that marriage hasn't always been defined as between one man and one woman. He corrected me: if a man marries a woman, that's one marriage; if he marries another, that's another marriage. His two spouses are not considered married to each other. So marriage would still be between one man and one woman, but people would be allowed to be in more than one marriage at a time.)

So while there have been differences in how societies and cultures have understood marriage to some extent, they have universally understood that, in principle, it is between one man and one woman. But these societies also had homosexuals in them, and this never led to gay marriage.

This should give us pause, for two reasons. First, if a concept has one universal aspect to it, to remove that aspect is essentially to empty the concept of meaning. If the one universal aspect of marriage throughout human history has been that it is between one man and one woman, then to remove that aspect is to simply void the concept of marriage altogether.

This is a big deal. If this analysis is correct, then allowing gay marriage would effectively nullify marriage. Bearing in mind that marriage has been one of the central pillars of society throughout human history, this could be disastrous. Moreover, if I may slip into libertarian mode, it would not merely be a case of the government changing social institutions at its whim, but of abolishing social institutions at its whim. I don't want government to have that kind of power.

The second reason this should give us pause is simple humility. If we can't understand why the entire history of humanity would define marriage heterosexually, we should stop to consider the possibility that we may not be seeing something that they did. Of course it's possible that they were all wrong and we're right, but that would be a pretty radical, frivolous, and self-righteous statement to make. I've never heard anyone make such a comment without doing it dismissively (which demonstrates that they're simply unwilling to think about the subject, and so aren't justified in having an opinion on it). At the very least, one who makes such a statement has to shoulder the burden of proof. Insofar as gay marriage contradicts the universal concept of marriage, it goes against the collective wisdom of the human race.

Now I think it's significant to point this out, but we must go on to ask why marriage should be defined as between one man and one woman. Sure, perhaps our social and cultural setting has blinded us to something that all other cultures saw; or perhaps it has given us a better perspective. The former is a much stronger possibility, since all cultures have thought that they had the perspective from which they could judge all others. We can't all be right. But it doesn't follow from this that we're all wrong either. So is there any logic as to why marriage has been universally defined as between one man and one woman?

Well, I think so. Marriage has always been about the perpetuation of the human race by means of the family. In principle, marriage is to take place between those elements which allow for the reproduction and nurturing of new people. In other words, marriage is about 1) creating new people 2) in a small close-knit community (the family). The purpose of part 1 is to bring new people into existence. The purpose of part 2 is to give them continued existence via a community of mutual love. This is partially so that they can start their own families and go through parts 1 and 2 themselves.

These two parts go together. Parents identify strongly with the children they produce, and so are usually going to be the ones most concerned for their welfare. (Note that this is not a statement of how things should be, but a statement of how things are.) Thus to separate these two aspects -- the reproduction of new people and their nurturing -- is simply unwise. This is how the human race has propagated itself for as long as its been around, and the only alternative I've ever heard of is Brave New World.

The problem this poses for gay marriage is that the first part -- the reproduction -- can only be done with one man and one woman. But gay marriage excludes the reproductive aspect of marriage in principle. Thus it separates the two aspects of marriage into different compartments.

The first objection to this that comes to my mind is that there are plenty of married couples who do not reproduce, either by choice or because one or both of them is sterile. But this objection is misguided: men and women (and only men and women) are capable of producing offspring. Marriage, in principle, involves the two elements by which the human race reproduces itself, namely, men and women. But it does not require that particular couples reproduce. For each married couple to be required to reproduce would essentially require people to prove themselves capable of producing offspring before allowing them to marry. This is absurdly unrealistic. Many couples have difficulty getting pregnant at first, but are able to after a while. So they would fail such a test, even though they would be capable of producing offspring. And as for people who choose not to have children, well, they may change their mind later. Again, the perpetuation of the human race requires men and women to reproduce, and the family is the best setting for this reproduction to take place in, but it does not depend upon particular couples reproducing.

An analogy to this is voting. Democracy does not require that a particular citizen vote, but that citizens in general vote. If I don't vote, either because I choose not to or because something prevents me from doing so (a butterfly ballot say), it doesn't invalidate the entire electoral process. Nor -- and this is an important point -- does it make me a second-class citizen because of it. But a democracy in which there is no possibility of voting, where voting is ruled out in principle, is simply not a democracy. It's a contradiction in terms.

The second objection that comes to my mind is that I'm focusing on the reproduction of the human race to the exclusion of the nurturing of the human race. But of course I'm not excluding nurturing at all: marriage involves both reproduction and the nurturing of those produced. By contrast, gay marriage does exclude one aspect of marriage, and it excludes it in principle.

There are plenty of organizations and ministries in favor of gay marriage which argue that the bonds which draw people into a loving community are hugely significant, that a family without love is a family in name only. I do not dispute this. But I don't think the concept of the family should be divorced from the concept of reproduction. No one loves a child more than a parent, and so no one is more disposed to pursue the child's best interests. (Again, this is not a statement of how things should be, but of how things are.) Not to mention the more basic fact that in order for people to be drawn into a loving community, they have to first exist; and in order for them to exist, you need a man and a woman to produce them.

Think of the analogy of a democracy again. Just as marriage is about 1) reproduction and 2) nurturing, a democracy is about 1) voting and 2) good citizenship. There will always be exceptions: some people won't vote, some won't be good citizens. But to redefine democracy so that voting has nothing to do with it and good citizenship is the only necessary aspect, isn't to change democracy; it is to abolish democracy.

But aren't there exceptions to this? Some parents abuse or abandon their children. Others give their children up for adoption, while still others adopt children they didn't produce themselves and include them in their family. Of course. If circumstances prevent a child from being nurtured, then he or she should be accepted into a family they were not born into. But we don't prefer that children be raised by people that had nothing to do with their production unless extreme circumstances demand it. It's only under such circumstances that nurturing is delegated to others. Again, parents identify strongly with their biological offspring, and so are strongly predisposed to look out for their offspring's best interests. At the very least we can say that they are more likely to be so disposed than anyone else. And so, biological parents will generally be those most likely to succeed in caring for and nurturing the children they produce. This is a general description of how things are, and the presence of occasional exceptions does not invalidate it.

Moreover, once the reproductive aspect and the nurturing aspect of marriage are separated, there is no reason why people should have any particular right to raise their own children. Gay marriage, by excluding one of these aspects in principle, puts them into separate categories that don't have anything to do with the other. It erects a barrier between them. Why should the man and woman who sired and birthed a child be the ones to nurture it as well? If there is no link between reproduction and nurturing, what right would they have to raise their child? What right would the child have to be raised by those most disposed towards its own welfare?

I realize that for many people these arguments will sound alarmist. They view gay marriage as simply an issue of allowing homosexuals to have the same rights as heterosexuals. Claiming that it strikes at the very heart of civilization, that it undercuts the only plausible way for the human race to propagate itself, and that it would remove any grounds for parental rights seems implausible, to put it mildly. To respond, I would simply return to a point raised above: our social and cultural setting can easily blind us to issues of great import. This is true for all of us, on both sides of this issue. We need to step back, take a deep breath, and look at it again with fresh eyes.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Electric Dreams

I'm sorry, I'm still on videos. A movie I saw many times as a teenager (although in retrospect it must have been pretty cheesy) was Electric Dreams. It's about a guy who gets a home computer, spills some champagne on it, and it becomes sentient -- remember, this was the 80s when computers were magic. At any rate, I've just seen a couple of scenes from this movie on YouTube, and it makes me fondly recall my miserable high school days. The first is when the upstairs neighbor starts practicing her cello (Minuet in G from Anna Mag) and the computer downstairs hears, and they play a duet. I really like the arrangement.

The second is when the guy who owns the computer goes out on a date with the upstairs cellist, and has the computer write a song for her in his absence.

The computer ends up jealous, falls in love with the girl himself, and sabotages the guy. Alleged hilarity ensues.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Gifford Lectures

Many prestigious thinkers have given the Gifford Lectures over the years, and as they are intended to be about natural theology broadly conceived, they often have to do with science and religion, philosophy, theology, etc. At their website they list all of the lecture series that have been given, going back to the late 19th century, and many of the older ones are available to read online. Since the lectures have usually been picked up for publication, they are (I assume) in their original form before having been rewritten, which can be either good or bad depending on your perspective. Many of the more recent lectures cannot be read online for (again, I assume) copyright issues, but you can still read an impressive number of important works there, such as The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James; The World and the Individual (vol. 1 and vol. 2) by Josiah Royce; Space, Time and Deity (vol. 1 and vol. 2) by Samuel Alexander; The Nature of the Physical World by Arthur Eddington; and The Mystery of Being (vol. 1 and vol. 2) by Gabriel Marcel. More recent lecture series include The Evolution of the Soul by Richard Swinburne; In Search of Deity by John Macquarrie; and Warrant: The Current Debate by Alvin Plantinga. Again, these are just those that are available to read online at their website. Their list of important authors whose lectures are not online is obviously more extensive.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)


OK, to make up for the post below, here's a video of my favorite piece of music: the Meditation from Massenet's Thaïs. The story is that a monk tries to convert a famous courtesan (Thaïs) to Christianity. She mocks him, saying she prefers to serve the goddess of love. But later when she's alone, she thinks about how all the love she experiences is fleeting, and longs for the true love that only God can offer. Thus the Meditation is her turning to God. Sarah Chang is the violinist.

After this, the monk, whose concept of Christianity (and Massenet's apparently) is basically "contempt for the flesh and love of pain," realizes that his motivation all along is that he loves Thaïs. He goes to her, but she is on her deathbed. As he tries to tell her that everything he taught her is false and that the only thing that matters is the love between people, she has her eyes fixed upon heaven, and enters into glory.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Aha, aha ha ha

I'm sorry, but this is hilarious.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Islam, Christianity, and Euthyphro

Euthyphro is one of Plato's dialogues which presents us with a meta-ethical dilemma that has been addressed throughout philosophical and theological history (meta-ethics being the study of the ground or foundation of ethics). In this debate, Socrates asks Euthyphro why God assigned the particular moral laws he did, such as to not commit murder or adultery. The problem this creates is that if God assigned these laws because they are good in and of themselves, then there is a "higher" reality than God, and God commands them because he must align himself with this reality just as much as we do. God, in other words, is not absolute; neither the ground of morality nor of reality. But if we say that these laws are not good in and of themselves, then these laws are simply arbitrary, and God could have made them differently. The "good" would have been to commit murder and adultery if God said so. In this case, God is not intrinsically good because the appellation of "good" is entirely arbitrary (this is the position that Euthyphro takes in the debate).

Traditionally, Christianity has split the horns of this dilemma. Moral laws are intrinsically good, not arbitrary. But their goodness is not derived from something outside of God; rather, they are derived from God's own intrinsically good nature. The ground of morality, in other words, is identical to the ground of reality. The error of the Euthyphro dilemma is that it tries to put the two concepts -- the goodness of certain acts and God's command of them -- into a cause-and-effect relationship with each other. If the goodness of these acts is what causes God to command them, then they are higher than he. But if his command of them is what makes them good, they are arbitrary. Neither, however, is the case: these two concepts are both effects from a common cause, namely, God's own nature.

Now, as far as I can tell, this option would be available to any general theistic position. But in my (admittedly limited) knowledge of Islam, Muslim theologians have not availed themselves of this resolution. A core doctrine of Islam is that God is completely transcendent; that is, he transcends even our moral and rational categories. God may give moral commandments, but ultimately, they are not expressions of his nature -- if they were, then he would not transcend them. Since they have their origin in his command of them, but not in his nature, they could have been different, and are therefore arbitrary, as Euthyphro thought.

Thus, in the Qur'an, God is represented as capricious. For example in the battle of Badr, God had told Muhammad (indirectly -- since God is completely transcendent there is no direct communication between him and humanity in Islam) that he would outnumber his enemies. When Muhammad's army got there, they found to the contrary that the enemy outnumbered them; but there was no way to avoid the battle at that point, and the Muslims ended up winning anyway. Later, when Muhammad asked why God told him that they would outnumber the enemy at Badr when they didn't, the response in the Sura of the Spoils of War is essentially, "If God had told you the truth, you wouldn't have gone". Thus, God lied to Muhammad in order to accomplish his goals (which makes me wonder what else he lied to Muhammad about).

Or take the Qur'an's explanation of Jesus' crucifixion, which Muslims deny: God made it seem that Jesus was crucified, but he really wasn't. Islamic tradition explains this by claiming that God put the image of Jesus on someone else (sometimes thought to be Judas Iscariot), and this person was crucified instead of Jesus. In any case, God made things appear differently than they really are in order to accomplish his objectives. He tricked people so he could get what he wanted.

In contrast to this, the God of the Bible cannot lie; not that he merely does not or will not, but he cannot. Unlike Islam, in Christianity morality and rationality are two things that put us in touch with God, because of their origin in his nature. God does not transcend morality and rationality, he is their very ground. That's part of what it means to say that we are created in his image -- there is a connection between humanity and God, even after the fall. We are created in his image because we have the capacity for morality and rationality. There's more to it than that of course, but that's at least some of it.

So it seems that Islam has pitched its tent with Euthyphro, by accepting that the moral laws are good because God commands them, and that they are thus arbitrary. Now -- to get even more speculative -- when I think about this, I wonder whether it has any connection to the bloody nature of Islamic history, and with Islamic terrorism today. Of course, other religions have had their share of violence as well, but Islam seems to stand out in this regard, despite what the popular media says. Committing an evil act in the name of Christianity can only be done by essentially contradicting the central commandment of Christianity to love God and to love other people. But if morality is not directly linked to the ground of reality, it can be reasonably ignored as long as one is doing so in the name of the ground of reality. If murder is not intrinsically bad, then if you can serve God by committing murder, there's really no reason why you shouldn't.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)