Saturday, March 28, 2009

24 and Evil

I haven't had a TV for years, but I've managed to see a couple of episodes of the show 24 with Kiefer Sutherland, and liked them very much. So I just checked out its sixth season from the city library.

Spoiler alert. After seeing the first four episodes, I have to say that I'm strongly put off by it, because of its attempt to realistically portray evil situations. One storyline really got to me: a family (husband, wife, son) have a Middle-Eastern neighbor, who is a friend of the son. Terrorist attacks start taking place, and some other neighbors decide to beat up the neighbor. The husband goes over and puts himself between the neighbor and his attackers, saying that if they want to get the neighbor, they'll have to go through him first. The attackers leave, and the husband insists that the neighbor stay with them for safety. Well, it turns out the neighbor actually is a terrorist, and takes the family hostage, forcing the husband -- who had gone out of his way and put himself at risk to do the right thing -- to drive all over town delivering "packages." The first ends up being money for an electronics component, but the guy insists he wants more before he'll hand it over. The husband calls the terrorist who says he'll kill his family if he doesn't get the component. So the man is forced to murder the man holding it in order to get it. The terrorist then demands that he deliver it to another location. When he gets there, he discovers it's the last part for a nuclear bomb. As cops descend upon the location, the terrorists set it off. So the husband's last two actions before his death are being forced to commit murder, and then (unwittingly) helping to assemble a nuclear bomb that kills tens of thousands of people. Again, this is a man who went out of his way to do the right thing. The terrorists used this man's love for his family to steal his soul. This is just horrifically evil.

Of course, it's just a TV show. It's fiction. It didn't really happen. But I can't help thinking of Philippians 4:8: "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable -- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy -- think about such things." This isn't an appeal to ignore evil, or to do your best to forget the fact that we live in an evil world. Rather, it's a plea to remember that Good is the foundation of reality and that it will win. So do I want to continue watching this show that so far has had one of the most evil concepts I've ever heard of? I think I'm willing to give DVD 2 a chance, but if anything like this starts to unfold again, I'm just returning it to the library and never watching 24 again.

Christianity in China

Here's an interesting article: "Recent surveys calculate the number of Christians worshipping independently of the State churches in China to be as high as 100 million. That means that almost one in every ten Chinese may now be a Christian, making Christianity bigger than the 74 million-member Communist Party." I live in a pretty international town and attend a pretty international church with a lot of Chinese folks. I've asked them about this in the past, and they told me that Christianity is fashionable in China right now, meaning that it's popular but some of it is superficial. But I've also heard estimates that east Asia, and China in particular, will be the global center of Christianity within the next 30 years.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Monday, March 23, 2009

Size Doesn't Matter (thank God), part 1

Contemporary western culture is dominated by the "conflict thesis", the claim that science and religion are at war, and that religion (or at least Christianity) is losing. The latter claims that human beings are the pinnacle of creation, but science has revealed that we are merely animals evolved from simpler forms of life, which in turn were just the product of matter and energy acting upon each other, all of which occupies an insignificant dot in an insignificant location in an infinite universe. Nietzsche illustrates this perspective well with the parable with which he opens his brilliant essay "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense":

Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of "world history," but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.

To think we have any significance or value in light of this is essentially to stick your fingers in your ears, shake your head, and say, "La la la la, I can't hear you!"

One of the elements in this metanarrative is the incomprehensible vastness of the universe, only discovered in the modern scientific era, and the infinitesimal size of the earth in comparison. This renders absurd any suggestion that human beings, occupying only a speck of dust in a cosmic sandstorm, are special, showing (once again) that contemporary science has refuted Christianity. Or so the story goes.

This view is expressed well by Douglas Adams' Total Perspective Vortex and Monty Python's Galaxy Song. I was going to embed the latter, but since there are some, shall we say, improprieties therein, I decided to go with a different song that expresses this sentiment in a more family-friendly fashion.

Unfortunately (at least for some), there are multiple problems with the conflict thesis in general, and with the claim regarding the spatial insignificance of the earth in particular. Regarding the latter, everyone, of course, feels a sense of insignificance when faced with the vastness of the cosmos. This is universal, although some ages and cultures feel it more intensely than others. But before it can made into an argument against Christianity, several further questions must be answered. For example, why would something's value or importance be connected to its size? Does Christianity actually teach that humanity is the most important thing in the universe? If so, does it tie this to a belief that the universe is small and the earth the largest thing in it? Is it really only with modern science that we've discovered the universe's immensity, and thus the disparity between it and ourselves? In the remainder of this post I'll be addressing this last question from the side of science.

-- The impression that the universe dwarfs us is based on a sort of common sense view of measurement. But a couple of years ago James made a very important point about this issue. He compared human beings to the smallest and largest things in the universe; that is, he used the exponential scale which is precisely the standard of measurement which physicists employ. When this is done, it reveals that human beings are actually closer to the larger end of the scale than the smaller end. The smallest is the Planck length at 10-35 meters, and the largest is the universe itself, at about 1025 meters. "So comparing our absolute size to the smallest and biggest possible things in the universe, we are about three fifths of the way up the scale. In other words, we are of medium to large size using the exponential scale, the only scale that makes any sense in physics."

Of course, one could simply reject this standard of measurement as having any relevance to the issue. If one does, however, then one would have to reject the argument under discussion as well: for it depends on the claim that modern science has demonstrated our spatial insignificance. You cannot make this claim while rejecting the very method of measurement actually used by the sciences in question.

-- Another scientific point involves the Anthropic Principle. One of the characteristics I mentioned in this post is that the universe's mass density must be precisely what it is in order for life to be possible anywhere at any time in the universe's history. The mass density is the amount of matter in the universe. The velocity with which the matter and energy created in the Big Bang burst outward was precisely governed by the universe’s mass density, since the more mass there is, the more gravity would slow down the expansion, matter being what gravity acts upon. If the universe's mass density were different by one part in 1060, life could never exist at any place and at any time in the universe's history. In other words, if the universe was just a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth smaller or larger than it is -- an amount equal to "about a tenth part of a dime" according to the link above -- the universe’s velocity would either have overpowered gravity, or it would have been overpowered by gravity. The first case would have prevented the matter from being collected into stars and galaxies. The second case would have resulted in the universe collapsing back in on itself. Either way, life would have been impossible anywhere at any time in the universe. So in order for life to be possible on our dust speck of a planet, the universe must be precisely the size that it is.

Of course, some people will insist that this is not enough. Just because every piece of matter had some relevance to the universe's initial expansion, it does not have any connection to our existence now -- and this calls into question any view that sets up the earth and humanity as significant. In other words, unless every rock, planet, star, and galaxy in the universe is always and only there for our benefit, Christianity (somehow) cannot be true.

But what exactly is being asked here? Given the necessary fine-tuning of the universe's mass density, the matter making up these rocks, planets, stars, and galaxies had to be there. To ask why they're still there is to ask why God didn't destroy them once they served their initial purpose. In other words, it is to expect God to destroy the evidence of what he has done. This is problematic on several levels, not least of which is that if God did do this, the same people who raise this objection would obviously be pointing to the lack of evidence for God. So it seems that no matter what he does -- whether he keeps the matter there as a testimony to his actions or whether he destroys it once it has served this purpose -- they will use it as an argument against his existence. I may come back to this in future installments.

-- Alexandre Koyré argues in From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe that there is an element to modern cosmology that is lacking in its ancient and medieval counterparts. Regardless of how big they thought the universe to be, they clearly believed it to be finite. But modern science has, according to Koyré, demonstrated that the universe is infinite. The reason this is significant is because moving from one finite size to another is not the same as moving from a finite size to an infinite one. Regardless of how large the ancients and medievals conceived the universe to be, there is a difference in kind involved here, and this is the significant aspect of modern cosmology that refutes the ancient and medieval cosmology. "Let us not forget, moreover, that, by comparison with the infinite, the world of Copernicus is by no means greater than that of mediaeval astronomy; they are both as nothing, because inter finitum et infinitum non est proportio. We do not approach the infinite universe by increasing the dimension of our world. We may make it as large as we want: that does not bring us any nearer to it."

I will not contest here Koyré's claim that an infinite universe is a different type of thing than a finite one, and as such, would represent a complete change of our view of the cosmos as well as ourselves. On this score, C. S. Lewis agrees: in The Discarded Image (a text to which I'll be returning) he argues that there is a radical difference between believing in a distant horizon and believing in no horizon at all.

Hence to look out on the night sky with modern eyes is like looking out over a sea that fades away into mist, or looking about one in a trackless forest -- trees forever and no horizon. To look up at the towering medieval universe is much more like looking at a great building. The 'space' of modern astronomy may arouse terror, or bewilderment or vague reverie; the spheres of the old present us with an object in which the mind can rest, overwhelming in its greatness but satisfying in its harmony. That is the sense in which our universe is romantic, and theirs was classical.

This explains why all sense of the pathless, the baffling, and the utterly alien -- all agoraphobia -- is so markedly absent from medieval poetry when it leads us, as so often, into the sky. Dante, whose theme might have been expected to invite it, never strikes that note. The meanest modern writer of science-fiction can, in that department, do more for you than he. Pascal's terror at le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis never entered his mind. He is like a man being conducted through an immense cathedral, not like one lost in a shoreless sea.

Perhaps, then, one could argue that since an infinite universe presents us with an object in which the mind cannot rest, this sense of "agoraphobia" that it produces entails a greater sense of insignificance than any finite universe could convey; and hence a greater assault on humanity's dignity. However, Lewis argues to the contrary: an infinite universe would have no absolute standard of measurement, only relative standards. But a finite universe would have both absolute and relative standards of measurement.

The really important difference is that the medieval universe, while unimaginably large, was also unambiguously finite. And one unexpected result of this is to make the smallness of Earth more vividly felt. In our [infinite] universe she is small, no doubt; but so are the galaxies, so is everything -- and so what? But in theirs there was an absolute standard of comparison. ... The word 'small' as applied to Earth thus takes on a far more absolute significance.

Koyré argues that modern science requires a complete overhaul of our view of the cosmos and our place in it because we have discovered that the universe is infinite. The irony is that, even before Koyré wrote this, Einstein's relativity equations and Edwin Hubble's observations of the expansion of the universe indicated something different. Today Big Bang cosmology has established that the universe is spatially and temporally finite. It began to exist a particular time ago, and has a finite size. In this sense at least, the ancient/medieval cosmology has been exonerated. Whether Lewis is right to describe it as "unimaginably large" will be the subject of the next installment.

Update (11 Aug): (see also part 2 and part 3)

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Monday, March 16, 2009

Thought of the Day

The fact that some people go off the deep end is not an argument against the existence of water.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Plantinga vs. Dennett

Alvin Plantinga and Daniel Dennett engaged in a pseudo-debate recently -- "pseudo" because it was not a traditional debate format, but took the form of a presentation, response, and counter-response -- on the compatibility of science and religion. You can read an account of it here, or download the audio here. Here are my thoughts on it, based solely on the account:

1. I'm very disturbed that the philosopher who wrote the account linked above felt it necessary to remain anonymous. Is this really the state of academia today that religious devotion can ruin one's career? That just scares me.

2. Plantinga's presentation should have been broader. He could easily have shown the Christian origins of modern science, and how many aspects of contemporary science seem to confirm religious claims (the Big Bang, the Anthropic Principle, etc.).

3. Plantinga should not have mentioned Michael Behe's critique of orthodox Darwinism. The relationship between religion and science is controversial enough without bringing in the most controversial aspects of it, especially since there are plenty of Christians who disagree with Behe.

4. I don't understand Dennett's (and radical atheism's) insistence that atheism is just obvious, and anyone who doesn't see it is a moron. I don't see why the atheist's knee-jerk reaction is a surer guide to truth than the lifelong reflections of the majority of the most intelligent people who have ever lived. Perhaps the latter were wrong, but I have a hard time believing that they were stupid.

5. As a corollary, I further don't see why Dennett (and radical atheism) feels it necessary to be so contemptuous of anyone who disagrees. Dennett essentially accuses Plantinga of being stupid. You need to re-examine your worldview if it requires you to believe that one of the greatest and most profound thinkers in the world today is stupid. Again, I can certainly see how he could be wrong, but to accuse him of stupidity is not even worthy of consideration.

6. At the very least, Dennett (and radical atheism) could employ arguments to defend a) atheism and b) that belief in God is silly (as opposed to just false). If atheism were not only true but obviously true, it seems to me that they should be able to give reasons for it at the drop of a hat. Instead they usually offer slogans, insults, and propaganda. Dennett suggests, for example, that belief in God is equivalent to Holocaust denial. Nevermind the fact that the experience of God is one of the most common human experiences throughout history, and one of the main subjects of philosophy for the last few millennia has been proofs for the existence of God. As such, to put belief in God in the same category as conspiracy theories is pretty weird.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Regarding the Stimulus Bill

This is funny.
This is scary.
This is really scary.
This is kind of freaking me out.

Update (12 Mar): And we're back to funny.

Gorbachev the Christian

1. During his presidency, Ronald Reagan speculated to some of his advisors (including Colin Powell) that Mikhail Gorbachev might secretly be a Christian. Several years ago, Peter Robinson asked Gorbachev why he didn't just squash the 1989 revolution, like previous Soviet leaders had squashed other revolutions. Gorbachev's answer: "Because of something I shared with Ronald Reagan. Christian morality."

2. About a year ago, Gorbachev came out and acknowledged that he is a Christian believer. He entered the Russian Orthodox church after studying St. Francis of Assisi.

3. Now comes news that Reagan actually tried to convince Gorbachev on a personal level that God exists. Very interesting.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Refreshing Drink Fail

Why I Love the Internet, part 2

The standard theology/philosophy textbook in the Middle Ages was the Sentences of Peter Lombard. The only book that received more attention was the Bible. Just about all of the major medieval and Renaissance thinkers wrote commentaries on it. I've actually found it difficult to get a copy of just the Sentences without someone's commentary.

Well, here's a link to a page that has much of the Sentences in parallel Latin and English, including book I, book II, and the beginning of book IV. And just in case that's not enough, they also have links to many of the commentaries as well.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Escape from Hell

There are several books that I've read well over a dozen times. One of them is Inferno -- not Dante's version, but a modern version written by two science-fiction authors, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Pournelle, a fan of C. S. Lewis, says that he got a lot of the "theological stuffing" for Inferno from Lewis's The Great Divorce. Niven and Pournelle have written several novels together, including The Mote In God's Eye, one of the best SF novels ever written (it's a first-contact story, and one of the other books that I've read over a dozen times).

The story of Inferno, for those who don't know, is about a guy who descends to Hell and discovers its levels and punishments. In Niven and Pournelle's version, the main character is a SF author. What's interesting about this is that as their character (named Carpenter, although he calls himself Carpentier) travels around Hell, he realizes that he has committed many of the crimes that he sees other people being punished for. This induces in him some self-examination; and consequently the authors, in writing this story, also go through a level of self-examination that is rare in our day.

One of the best parts in Inferno is when Carpenter encounters the pit for those who invented their own religions. The demon-in-charge accuses him of having committed this crime, and thus implies that Carpenter belongs in this pit. The way he invented his own religions is that, in writing his SF stories, he invented alien civilizations, cultures, and societies; and this involved inventing alien religions as well:

"You never created your own Church, Carpenter?"

Oh, dammit! "Listen, those weren't in competition with God or anybody! All I did was make up some religions for aliens. If that was enough you'd have every science-fiction writer who ever lived! ...

"Take the Silpies. They were humanoid but telepaths. They believed they had one collective soul, and they could prove it! And the Sloots were slugs with tool-using tentacles developed from their tongues. To them, God was a Sloot with no tongue. He didn't need a tongue; He didn't eat, and He could create at will, by the power of His mind." I saw him nodding and was encouraged. "None of this was more than playing with ideas."

The demon was still nodding. "Games played with the concept of religion. Enough such games and all religions might look equally silly."

Again, I'm very struck by the fact that two SF authors had enough self-awareness to recognize the possible negative consequences of their craft. In our society we tend to think that we'll go to Heaven, and don't think of the bad things we've done for fear of having a low self esteem. In other times, people have tended to think that they would go to Hell; or at least they have focused on their bad things so that they could learn and turn away from them. For example, Christians have often focused on their failings in order to recognize the depth of God's love in being willing to forgive them for it. I think the appropriate attitude is to recognize both the good we've done and the bad rather than to focus on one to the exclusion of the other.

At any rate, Niven and Pournelle have just published a sequel to Inferno entitled Escape from Hell. Glenn Reynolds has a brief review of it here. I'm looking forward to it, and seeing whether it also gets its theological stuffing from C. S. Lewis.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Justifying Terrorism

I've met people who, despite being very good, godly, loving people, nevertheless think that the United States deserved 9/11 and refuse to blame the terrorists. It wasn't their fault, they were driven to it by US foreign policy or something similar. My response to this is threefold:

1. This first one is commonly stated, so please forgive the repetition: but how is this any different than blaming a rape victim? Any example you can give me as to how the terrorists were driven to do what they did, I can say something similar to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the woman who is raped. She was wearing a short skirt, she invited the guy up to her room, she was flirting, she was leading him on, etc., and by so doing, she inflamed the rapist's sex drive beyond his ability to control it. If you can't condemn terrorists, I don't see how you can condemn the rapist. But obviously this is insane: the terrorists, not their victims, are responsible for their actions, just as the rapist is responsible for the rape.

2. If the terrorists were driven to their actions by the US, and are therefore not responsible for them, why wouldn't this apply to the US as well? Why couldn't we just say, "The US was driven to their actions by the actions of other countries," or something? If the terrorists can't be blamed for their actions, I don't see how you can blame the people who allegedly drove them to their actions either; since these people were also driven to their actions by a third party, who was driven to his actions by a fourth, etc, ad infinitum. The only way to avoid this absurdity in which everything everyone does is always and only a reaction to something else is to stop it before it starts. And this entails that the terrorists, not US policy, are responsible for their acts of terrorism.

3. I don't care what the terrorists' excuse is for their atrocities. There is never an excuse for terrorism. Period. Once you've committed an act of terrorism in order to promote a particular cause, for that very reason I will no longer pay any attention to your cause. The only thing I will pay attention to is forcibly stopping you from committing any more such atrocities. I refuse to reward bad behavior in general, and especially so when it comes to horrific acts of depravity.

This is not just an ethical position -- a refusal to accommodate evil -- but a practical one as well. If we allow the terrorist to have any positive response to his atrocities, this will simply encourage more atrocities. "We want more money for our country's infrastructure." BOOM. "We want a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage." BOOM. "We want you to imprison anyone who says things we don't like." BOOM. Again, the only way to avoid this is to never allow it in the first place. Even if your cause is worthy, as soon as you use terrorism to promote it, it immediately moves off my list of concerns.