Sunday, August 31, 2008

Quote of the Day

Copernicus knew that his ideas could be seen by his contemporaries as removing the sun from the heavens and depositing it in the lowest, least exalted place: in the dead center of the universe. According to prevailing Aristotelian natural philosophy, the cosmic center was where heavy -- and by extension ignoble -- things collected. As one influential philosopher had expressed it in the previous century, the center represented 'the excrementary and filthy parts of the lower world.'

Anticipating the charge that he was dishonoring the sun, Copernicus deftly reconstrued the center as a place of honor and of effective, efficient government. Using a poetic play on words, he imagined it as a throne (solium) fit for the sun (sol). With the sun in the center, the pathways of the planets at last made sense; they displayed marvelous symmetry and harmonious connection; they exemplified the sort of beauty that something called a cosmos ought to embody: The sun's and the planets' astronomical truth reflected poetic truth and, in a profound sense, also poetic justice and decorum.

In the First Account Rheticus used the same governmental analogy to support the Copernican claim that the sun is at rest, that it does not move about like a planet. 'My teacher ... is aware that in human affairs the emperor need not himself hurry from city to city in order to perform the duty imposed on him by God.' The centrality and immobility of the sun in Copernicus's system were therefore perfectly consistent with -- and were indeed essential to -- the sun's dignity and its proper governance of the planets. As Rheticus declared, 'While we were unable from our common theories even to infer this rule by the sun in the realm of nature, we ignored most of the ancient encomia of the sun as if they were merely poetry.'

But the encomia -- the songs of praise -- were nothing less than poetry, and in fact turned out to be not distractions from reality but signposts pointing toward it. The similes and metaphors of the sun as ruler were themselves clues to the real physical structure of the sun and the universe. Copernicus's system did imply that the sun occupies literally the lowest possible cosmic location -- that, in Rheticus's words, it 'has descended to the center of the universe.' Nevertheless, the fitness, beauty, and the glory of the sun in this reconfigured cosmos more than compensated for that lowering. In the First Account Rheticus expressed that glory in explicitly poetic form.

Thus God stationed in the very midst of this theater his governor of nature, king of the entire universe, conspicuous by its divine splendor, the sun
To whose rhythm the gods move, and the world
Receives its laws and keeps the pacts ordained.
"Having exchanged places with the sun, the earth was now risen in the world, promoted to the status of a 'star,' and 'move[d] among the planets as one of them.' As Galileo would later declare, earth was no longer 'excluded from the dance of the stars.' Rheticus and Copernicus together achieved the monumental feat of raising the status of both earth and sun within the same bold cosmology.

Dennis Danielson
The First Copernican: Georg Joachim Rheticus and the Rise of the Copernican Revolution

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Early Modern Philosophy

Here's a collection of early Modern philosophy texts. Actually, it's mostly early Modern (I note that John Stuart Mill is represented) and it's mostly philosophy (Jonathan Edwards is usually classified as a theologian). The website is run by Jonathan Bennett, who I referenced in one of my Masters theses. Via KBJ. I've added it to my Web Resources on the sidebar.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Good or bad news

It turns out that the atmosphere is two to five times cleaner now than it was 100 years ago. That's good news if you're a true environmentalist. It's bad news if you're only using environmentalism as a means to accomplish what you really want.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Debating God

In 1948 the BBC broadcast a debate on the existence of God between agnostic philosopher Bertrand Russell, one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, and Christian philosopher Frederick Copleston, author of the massive 9-volume History of Philosophy and other light reading. You can read a transcript of their debate here. Russell is often thought to be an atheist, but he explicitly states at the beginning of the debate that his position is agnostic. However, Russell was also known for completely changing his mind every few years, so take it with a grain of salt.

On the debate's 50th anniversary, a similar one took place between then-atheist philosopher Antony Flew and Christian philosopher William Lane Craig. Their debate is available in book form, and I just discovered you can watch it online here. The latter debate is also noteworthy because Flew has since reluctantly conceded that atheism is untenable in light of contemporary science.

(reposted from and cross-posted on OregonLive)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Interesting stuff

The latest Carnival of Space is up. Worth checking out.

Friday, August 22, 2008

A (Possible) Way to Help the Homeless

I had forgotten how ubiquitous homeless people are in the States. I know a lot of people don't give them money because they don't trust them -- they don't believe they're victims of circumstance and think they'll spend the money on drugs or alcohol. Just throwing money at people and hoping they don't spend it on the wrong thing isn't really a satisfactory option. I am sensitive to this, but as a Christian I note that Jesus did not leave such a loophole in his command to help others in need. By turning away from those who ask for money, we are dangerously close to turning away from him.

"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'

"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'"
Now I know some people will insist that most homeless people could get out of their situation if people didn't keep enabling them by giving them food, money, etc. instead of making them earn it. Again, I think there's a kernel of truth in this. But I'm a little suspicious that this only seems to come into play when we're asked to part with our money. Jesus didn't leave room for us to say that we're helping by not helping -- probably because we'd use such an escape route as an excuse to ignore those in need.

Some churches have sought to provide an alternative by giving chits for free meals. I think this is a good idea, but it raises the question of how we expect the homeless people we see all over town to get to the church in question.

For years, I've been threatening to put an idea of mine into action about this, but never have. Here it is: rather than get something from a church, go to Taco Bell or McDonald's and get a bunch of five dollar gift certificates. When a homeless person asks for spare change, offer them five or ten dollars worth. If they don't want them, they probably weren't going to use whatever cash you might have given them for licit purposes anyway.

The strength of this is that Taco Bell and McDonald's are all over the place, so it would be fairly easy for someone to use their gift certificates. The weakness is that it's not necessarily a healthy meal. But it seems to me to be a lesser evil than turning a blind eye to those who need help because of a generic distrust of homeless people.

Website Seeing

These links on the sidebar are those nonblog sites that I particular appreciate. I may add more as time goes by, and if so, I'll update this post accordingly.

I've listed some sites which deal with Christianity and culture that are definitely worth your time. Christianity Today is also a magazine, and both it and their website is good, although my main reason for listing them is because of their more academic efforts, Books and Culture and Christian History and Biography. Another excellent source (also a magazine) is First Things, which is more academic than CT. They get their title, I think, from an essay by C. S. Lewis of the same name about getting our priorities straight. Third is a purely online resource called Leadership U. They have plenty of articles on religion and culture, philosophy, science, etc.

I've also listed several sites that deal chiefly with religion and science. The Counterbalance Meta-Library has a bunch of lectures and articles by leading scientists and philosophers of science, arguing most points of view. It really is an excellent resource. Another site is Reasons to Believe, a Christian ministry. I've belonged to a local chapter of it, and they also do an excellent job. However, as I noted here, I'm very open to accepting biological evolution, while RTB does not. Nevertheless, that is pretty much the only point where they conflict with contemporary science; most of the site demonstrates how modern physics, astronomy, and cosmology not only fit within the Christian worldview, but support it, often to the exclusion of other worldviews. Two more sites, founded by RTB's own people, are God and Science and Sword and Spirit. There are a lot of good things in both places, although they also reject evolution.

Two philosophers' websites are also included. Dallas Willard is a professor at USC, and is an expert on the philosophy of Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology. His site includes most of his philosophical essays. But Willard has made a name for himself in the Christian community by writing some incredibly insightful books on spirituality and Christian living (I wrote about one here), and his site also includes a large collection of his essays on these subjects as well. If you're a Christian, I can't recommend strongly enough that you get to know his writings. The other philosopher is William Lane Craig, and his site Reasonable Faith. Craig is, in my opinion, one of the top living philosophers, and his contribution to academia is primarily defending Christianity. He has participated in plenty of debates, and has written numerous articles on philosophical proofs for and against Christianity, as well as issues regarding the historical Jesus. I wrote about Craig here. Reasonable Faith is his new site, and you have to have a username and password to access much of it. If you don't want to do that, his old site (run by Leadership U) is still up, and has most of the stuff available from the new site.

Two sites that promote space exploration and getting permanent human colonies on other solar system bodies besides the earth are the Mars Society and the Moon Society. You can probably guess which bodies they have in mind. They are actually in slight conflict, since the Mars Society advocates their Mars Direct program to go directly to Mars without first setting up stations on the Moon.

This leaves us with two sites. The first is Homestar Runner. If you don't already understand why I'm linking to them, any argument would be futile. It's the source of my [former] nom de plume, Tragic Clown Dog. Actually, it was a toss-up between that and Mushy Chamberpot, but my wife nixed the latter. [Update (12 Sep.): I've since changed to simply Jim S.]

And finally, Things of Interest. I discovered this right before I started writing this blog. This guy writes all kinds of stuff, but the most interesting is his short stories. He is reminiscent, to my mind, of Fredric Brown, who I consider one of the better SF writers around in terms of short stories. I write short fiction too, and frankly I was starting to get a little impressed with myself before I read this guy's stuff.

Update (10 Mar 2008): This is late, but a few months ago I added Bede's Library, the apologetics site of James Hannam, a philosopher and historian of science. James invited me, and a few others, to join him on his blog Quodlibeta (formerly Bede's Journal), and I thought I should draw attention to his excellent website which, among other things, explodes many of the myths surrounding the alleged conflict between science and Christianity. It's divided (with some overlap) into articles on Christianity, Science, Philosophy, History, and Book Reviews. Very worthwhile.

Update (21 Mar 2010): I've added the Planetary Society and a site that provides links to nearly all of William Lane Craig's debates.

Update (5 June 2010): I've added the National Space Society.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Matrix Reevaluated

I’m one of those people who thinks the first Matrix movie was really good, but the sequels pretty much sucked (although I have to admit that the burly brawl and the car and motorcycle chases in Matrix Reloaded were pretty cool). But these movies contain some interesting religious allusions, and a lot of people think they are specifically Christian themes (such as naming the ships the Nebuchadnezzar and the Logos).

For example, "Neo" is supposed to represent the "new covenant" mentioned by Jeremiah in the Old Testament, and which is fulfilled (according to Christians) by Jesus and the New Testament. However there is another element to this: in the movie, the "old" system is the Matrix and its agents, which are clearly evil. This obviously does not parallel the Bible, which asserts that the old covenant came from God and is good. Rather, the Matrix's idea here seems to parallel that of some Gnostic sects (like Marcionism), which argued that the God of the Old Testament was an inferior and lower god than the God of the New Testament.

Another allegedly Christian allegory in the Matrix is the whole idea that the world is largely illusory, and that the real world is very different from it. Again, this might fit in well with some religious views, but I do not think it does so with Judaism and Christianity. The idea that the world is deceptive and unreal sounds very much like some of the great Oriental religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. In these religions, the world is the veil that hides reality. The spiritual quest, then, is to divorce oneself from the physical world, because in doing so one is opened up to the real world.

This kind of concept is not particular to religions. It has played a part in some philosophical systems as well. Kant made a distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal. The phenomenal is the world as it appears to us, and the noumenal is the world as it actually is. We can never uncover the noumenal, because by definition we can only uncover the phenomenal. We can never get outside ourselves to see what things are independently of how they appear to us.

Now Kant’s philosophy doesn’t necessarily lead to the same conclusions as Hinduism or Buddhism; just because we can't know what the noumena is, it doesn't follow that it is completely discontinuous from the phenomena. But some certainly took it this way. Schopenhauer wrote extensively about Kant's philosophy, and tied it together with "the veil of Maya". He thought that the world was just a manifestation of the will to live, and that one should try to escape, at least temporarily, from its enslavement.

Compare these ideas with the Matrix: "The matrix is everywhere, it is all around is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth”.

But I don’t think this idea fits well with the great Occidental religions, namely Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In these religions the world isn’t an illusion: it’s just not all that there is. The world is as real as it seems to be, but there is a higher level of reality, a spiritual level. In fact, the physical world reflects the spiritual world. Perhaps one could say that in comparison to the spiritual world, the physical world is just its shadow. But this shouldn’t be understood as a denial of the reality of the physical world.

In fact, this imagery is behind the movie Shadowlands about C. S. Lewis. Lewis once wrote "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." Incidentally, I’m also one of those people who thinks the original BBC version of Shadowlands was really good, but the Hollywood version pretty much sucked.

(reposted from OregonLive)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Patriotism and Dissent

Some people on the right end of the political spectrum have suggested that if you disagree with the Iraq War, you shouldn't say anything. I think there's a kernel of truth in this, in that if such talk was widespread and widely reported, it would have the effect of discouraging our troops and encouraging our enemies. But ultimately, to suggest that people should keep their opinions to themselves goes against the whole spirit of freedom of speech and expression.

On the other hand, some people on the left end of the political spectrum have reacted to this by saying that dissent is the highest form of patriotism. This is just silly. Dissent is not the highest form of patriotism. Children dissent when they scream "NOOOO!" It doesn't take any allegiance to one's country, community, or family to simply disagree. Rather defending the right of those you disagree with to dissent is one of the highest forms of patriotism, because it puts the group that you and the dissenter belong to on a higher level than just yourself. By defending the right of others to disagree with you, you are standing up for their right to be free rather than insisting on your own way.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Quote of the Day

The issue of salvation sparked the Protestant Reformation and split the church. It seemed to both sides at the time that Protestants and Catholics taught two radically different gospels, two religions, two answers to the most basic of all questions: What must I do to be saved? Catholics said you must both believe and practice good works to be saved. Luther, Calvin, Wycliffe and Knox insisted that faith alone saves you. Unfortunately, both sides have been talking past each other for 450 years. But there is strong evidence that it was essentially a misunderstanding and that it is beginning to be cleared up.

Both sides used key terms, faith and salvation, but in different senses.

1. Catholics used the term salvation to refer to the whole process, from its beginning in faith, through the whole Christian life of the works of love on earth, to its completion in heaven. When Luther spoke of salvation he meant the initial step -- like getting into Noah's ark of salvation -- not the whole journey.

2. By faith Catholics meant only one of the three needed 'theological virtues' (faith, hope and love), faith being intellectual belief. To Luther, faith meant accepting Christ with your whole heart and soul.

Thus, since Catholics were using salvation in a bigger sense and faith in a smaller sense, and Luther was using salvation in a smaller sense and faith in a bigger sense, Catholics rightly denied and Luther rightly affirmed that we were saved by faith alone.

Catholics taught that salvation included more than faith, just as a plant includes more than its roots. It needs its stem (hope) and its fruits (love) as well as its root (faith). Luther taught that good works can't buy salvation, that all you need to do and all you can do to be saved is to accept it, accept the Savior, by faith.

Both sides spoke the truth. Since truth cannot contradict truth, the two sides really did not contradict each other on this most important of all questions. That assessment may sound unduly optimistic, but it is essentially what Catholic and Lutheran theologians said publicly in their "Joint Statement on Justification" a few years ago. Pope John Paul II said the same thing publicly to the German Lutheran bishops. It both astonished and delighted them.

Such real agreement in substance beneath apparent disagreement in words should not be surprising, for both Catholics and Protestants accept the same data, the New Testament. The New Testament teaches both points: both the 'Protestant' point that salvation is a free gift, not earned by works of obedience to the law; and the 'Catholic' point that faith is only the beginning of the Christian life of good works, that 'justification' (being made right with God) must, if it is real, lead to 'sanctification' (being made holy, saintly, good), that 'faith without works is dead.'

Regarding that last point, the Scottish Presbyterian preacher George MacDonald wrote, 'The notion that the salvation of Jesus is a salvation from punishment for our sins is a mean, selfish, low notion. He was called Savior because he would save us from our sins.'

The official teaching of Catholicism (as distinct from the popular misconception) is that salvation is a totally free gift that we can do nothing to 'buy' or produce. The Council of Trent's 'Decree on Justification' is as insistent on the gratuitous nature of grace as Luther or Calvin. So is Aquinas in the Treatise on Grace in the Summa Theologiae, the bottom line of which is that we can do nothing without God's grace -- not be saved, not deserve grace, not even ask for grace.

It would be as absurd for Catholics and Protestants to disagree about this fundamental point of how to be saved as for two astronomers to disagree about whether stars exist. The answer is not in doubt because it is not in our theories but in our data, the Scripture.

Scripture clearly says both that salvation is a free gift to be accepted by faith (Romans and Galatians) and that 'faith without works is dead' (James). 'Works' means 'love,' and 'love' means 'the works of love,' for Christian love (agapē) is not a feeling, like worldly love (eros, storgē, philia); if it were, it could not be commanded.

Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli
Handbook of Christian Apologetics