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)

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Thought of the Day

"Politician" isn't a vocation so much as it is a personality disorder.