Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Two Points on Biblical Prophecy

1. One of the messages of the Bible is that we live in a world characterized by spiritual warfare. Like most other religions, Christianity maintains that there is a fairly well-populated spiritual realm, and that some of its inhabitants do not have our best interests at heart. I think this is important to keep in mind when we look at Bible prophecies. I don't think the Bible lays out any kind of future history so that we can determine beforehand how events will unfold. If it did, then the malevolent spiritual world would know exactly how things will happen as much as we would, and would be able to use that information against us, the same way that a military would be able to use the captured plans of its enemy against them. In Christian spiritual warfare, however, it's not possible to give any information to the good guys without also giving it to the bad guys -- even if you encode the information, the knowledge of how to decode it can only be given the same way as the code, which means that both sides would be able to decode it.

Jesus' atoning death is an excellent example (it often functions as a paradigm in this way). We know that the malevolent spiritual world had a hand in Jesus' execution. If such evil spirits, or whatever you want to call them, knew that Jesus' death would atone for the sins of the world, do you think they would have instigated it? Of course not. Thus, the prophecies are obscure enough that the ancient rabbis were not able to put together a "future history" of the Messiah suffering, dying, rising from the dead, and thereby atoning for the sins of the world. Now afterwards we can see how they say these things. But if they laid it all out, then the malevolent spiritual world would have moved heaven and earth (ha!) to keep Jesus from dying. Thus, I think Mel Gibson's portrayal of Satan not wanting Jesus to die in The Passion of the Christ is incorrect. Satan was no doubt behind it all, grinning like a maniac, and then when Jesus gave up his spirit, Satan's ultimate victory turned into the most crippling defeat he could have experienced.

So I think the end times prophecies should be seen in light of this. We can do our best to try to understand them in a systematic way, but if we were able to put all the pieces of the puzzle together, so could the malevolent spiritual world. To ensure that they cannot, God wrote the prophecies so that we could not either ... until they actually happen. In other words, Bible prophecies are primarily meant to be understood by (and thus to encourage) those who are living through the events they describe.

2. Now some non-Christians may think that in all of this I am merely making excuses. The Bible, they might say, does not give clear and direct predictions of future events by which they could test it to see if it is really true. All I'm doing is making excuses for this lamentable situation. In response I make two points: first, my contention is that Bible prophecies are not written in order to provide "testable" predictions in the same way that contemporary science does. Thus, this objection is essentially that Bible prophecies fail to meet an objective they were never intended to meet; and this is neither rational nor convincing. In saying this, I do not at all intend to demean the scientific method or the great value of science. What I'm saying is that it is invalid to take a method used in one field and apply it indiscriminately to another field that has different goals and purposes.

Second, it simply isn't true that such predictions have to be clearly understood before their alleged fulfillment in order to have any value as actual predictions of future events. The predictions in the book of Daniel are an excellent case in point. Daniel predicts the rise and fall of several empires, including Greece and Rome, in very metaphorical terminology. The fact that it describes this with metaphors does not mean that it doesn't clearly predict these events; indeed, most Bible commentators who reject biblical inspiration argue that Daniel must have been written after Alexander the Great and the rise of the Roman Empire because the descriptions are simply too accurate. But I very much doubt anyone could have laid out precisely how these predictions would be fulfilled before they actually were, based solely on the prophecies.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


This is absolutely inexcusable: Air Force One buzzes Manhattan for a photo-op, terrifying thousands of people. Many buildings were evacuated. I don't care if the President claims he didn't know about it beforehand (he hasn't yet but of course he will -- and I will strongly doubt it), there's just no excuse for it. I would be as offended by this no matter who the President is.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Quote of the Day

Ebrard (Gospel History, pp. 59-60) gives, from personal observation, a case showing how the knowledge of a hitherto unknown circumstance will often reduce several discordant incidents to harmonious consecution. A messenger N. by name, was sent from Zürich to Pfäffikon on the occasion of an outbreak in the latter place. Accordingly Ebrard was informed by one trustworthy person that N. was sent, late in the evening, with a letter to P.; another told him that N. was sent in the evening to P., but after going a short distance, returned with the report that the alarm-bell had already been rung in P.; a third related that two messengers had been sent on horseback to P.; and a fourth that N. had sent two men on horseback to P. These seeming discrepancies vanished, when Ebrard afterward learned from N. himself that he had indeed been sent, but met on the way two messengers from P., who reported the outbreak of the riot; that he turned back with them to Zürich, where he immediately procured horses for them, and sent them back to quiet the people in P. We thus see, that once in possession of the thread of the narrative, it is an easy matter to arrange upon it seemingly refractory and incompatible circumstances.

John W. Haley
Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible

Friday, April 24, 2009

Friday, April 17, 2009


PG&E is actually planning to put solar panels in orbit, which will then convert the energy into radio frequency energy, beam it to Earth, and then convert it into electricity. I'll expect my check any day.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Size Doesn't Matter, part 2

Update (Oct. 17, 2014): I temporarily removed the content of this post because it has some similarities with an article I wrote that was published in an academic journal about a year ago. Even though a blogpost probably doesn't count as having previously published the material, I took the content of this post offline in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety, with the intention of restoring it after a year had passed. Since it's been a year, the original post is below.

It is often pointed out that the size of the universe as conceived by the ancients and medievals was much, much smaller than we have discovered it to be. This is certainly true. They believed that the universe consisted of the solar system: the Sun, Moon, planets (out to Saturn, the furthest planet they knew of), and a sphere of stars. Even if they had our knowledge of the solar system and the distance from Earth to Neptune, their conception of the universe was orders of magnitude smaller than we know it to be. Doesn't this demonstrate that we have removed any spectre of significance that they might have applied to the Earth?

Well, no, actually. It is true that modern science has demonstrated that the universe is incomparably larger than the premoderns believed. But this is not the same thing as showing that they believed the Earth to be the largest thing in the universe, much less that the universe itself is small.

An excellent book on this is Measuring the Universe: Cosmic Dimensions from Aristarchus to Halley by Albert Van Helden. He goes into some detail with the specific calculations given by ancient and medieval cosmologists, so if you want more detail it's an excellent resource. Unfortunately only the first 40 pages or so are given to ancient and medieval views. Another author who comments on this, specifically as it touches on Christianity, is C.S. Lewis in The Discarded Image, as well as chapter 7 of Miracles. Interestingly (or ironically, depending on your point of view), Van Helden takes issue with Lewis regarding Roger Bacon's Opus Maius. I think it's based on a misunderstanding, but I won't go into it here. (Update: I address their disagreement in an addendum.)

As a simple matter of fact, the ancients and medievals believed that the universe was larger that we can imagine, and that the Earth should be considered a mathematical point, infinitely small, within it. In the fourth century BC Aristotle, Eudoxus, and Calippus argued for a spherical Earth, and this was the consensus model thereafter. The significance of this is, as Van Helden argues, "One of the postulates of spherical astronomy is that the Earth can be considered a mere point in relation to the spheres of the heavenly bodies." This belief allowed them to assume "that the Sun's rays striking the Earth are parallel, even at locations far removed from each other" on the Earth's surface. Aristotle, for example, wrote in De Caelo 2:14 that "our observations of the stars make it evident, not only that the earth is circular, but also that it is a circle of no great size," pointing out that even a small change of location on Earth (from Greece to Cyprus to Egypt) results in different stars being seen. Others followed this belief, such as Eratosthenes (third century BC), Hipparchus (second century BC), and finally Ptolemy (second century AD) whose system became the accepted cosmological model in the Middle Ages. Ptolemy specifically wrote in Almagest 1:5 that, "The Earth, in relation to the distance of the fixed stars, has no appreciable size and must be treated as a mathematical point."

In Planetary Hypotheses, Ptolemy used the mathematical models and parallaxes he had calculated in Almagest to determine the sizes and distances of the planets and the stars. In determining the distances of the planets, Ptolemy employed the Aristotelian doctrine that there are no empty spaces between spheres, known as the "nesting spheres" framework. As such, Van Helden states, "The greatest geocentric distance of one planet therefore had to equal the least distance of the next higher planet." Thus the furthest distance of the last planet (Saturn) equalled the distance to the sphere of fixed stars. Using this, Ptolemy calculated the distance to the sphere of stars as 19,865 earth radii, which translates to approximately 80 million miles or 130 million kilometers (using Eratosthenes' measurement for the Earth's radius). In fact, Ptolemy states that this may only be the minimum distance: "if all the distances have been given correctly, the volumes are also in accord with what we have said. If the distances are greater than those we described, then these sizes are the minimum values possible."

Ptolemy's system completely dominated astronomy until the Modern Age. According to Van Helden:

From the second to the sixteenth century, astronomy was a commentary on Ptolemy. No man ever wielded posthumously such a pervasive and long-lived authority in astronomy, and it is to be doubted that anyone ever will again. Ptolemy's work superseded the efforts of all his predecessors -- surely one of the main reasons why so few of their works have survived -- and it defined the astronomical problems for his successors, at least until the time of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler.

In the sixth century AD, Boethius had the character Philosophia in The Consolation of Philosophy (one of the most widely-read books throughout the Middle Ages) tell him that the Earth is so small and the universe so large that the former should be treated as a mathematical point. Almagest was translated into Arabic three times in the ninth century AD, and Planetary Hypotheses was as well (only once though). Among the many Muslim commentators were al-Farghānī, Thābit ibn Qurra, and al-Battānī. The Christian West was heavily influenced by the Muslim astronomers, and their works (as well as Ptolemy's) were translated into Latin, beginning in the twelfth century. Van Helden writes, "it is fair to say that virtually all educated persons after about 1250 were familiar with the principle of nesting spheres and the cosmic dimensions derived from it." As with the Muslims, the Christians accepted Ptolemy's cosmic distances, only fine-tuning them here and there. Campanus, for example, gave the distance to the sphere of the stars as 22,612 earth radii, which translates to over 73 million miles using a more accurate measurement of the Earth's radius as 3,245 miles. One of the most prominent scientists to comment on Ptolemy was Roger Bacon. He gave the distances of the astronomical objects in miles, putting the distance to the sphere of fixed stars at 65,357,500 miles. Since this is essentially the radius of a sphere, Bacon doubled it to reach a diameter of 130,715,000 miles, and multiplied this by pi to reach the universe's circumference at 410,818,517 miles (and three-sevenths).

Ptolemy's astronomy was firmly embedded in medieval society. According to Van Helden, "the Ptolemaic cosmic dimensions can be found throughout the spectrum of the literature of the High Middle Ages, from the technical to the popular." As such, it obviously exerted influence in other genres of writing. He cites the thirteenth century French poem Image du Monde, The South English Legendary from the same century (also cited by Lewis), and Dante's Convivio. Lewis writes in Miracles

More than seventeen hundred years ago Ptolemy taught that in relation to the distance of the fixed stars the whole Earth must be regarded as a point with no magnitude. His astronomical system was universally accepted in the Dark and Middle Ages. The insignificance of Earth was as much a commonplace to Boethius, King Alfred, Dante, and Chaucer as it is to Mr. H. G. Wells or Professor Haldane. Statements to the contrary in modern books are due to ignorance.

The real question is quite different from what we commonly suppose. The real question is why the spatial insignificance of Earth, after being asserted by Christian philosophers, sung by Christian poets, and commented on by Christian moralists for some fifteen centuries, without the slightest suspicion that it conflicted with their theology, should suddenly in quite modern times have been set up as a stock argument against Christianity and enjoyed, in that capacity, a brilliant career.

So why are we so willing to believe the premoderns thought the Earth was the largest thing in a small universe? Part of it, no doubt, is because we compare their conception of the universe's size with our own and recognize that we know the universe to be unimaginably larger than they thought it to be. What this fails to recognize, however, is that they were starting with an unimaginable size. The universe was, to the premoderns, larger than we can fathom. Multiplying an unfathomable size by a thousand, a million, or even by another unfathomable size, yields ... an unfathomable size. The specific differences can be mathematically expressed of course, and they have a great deal of value for our understanding of the universe. But as far as the human imagination is concerned, the modern "discovery" that the universe is larger than we can imagine was something everyone already knew. As Lewis writes in Discarded Image, "the fact that the height of the stars in the medieval astronomy is very small compared with their distance in the modern, will turn out not to have the kind of importance you anticipated. For thought and imagination, ten million miles and a thousand million are much the same. Both can be conceived (that is, we can do sums with both) and neither can be imagined; and the more imagination we have the better we shall know this."

However, Lewis argues, there is a possible counter-argument to all of this. Many times in premodern literature, characters are taken outside of Earth to the sphere of the Moon, or even of the fixed stars. From this vantage point, they then look down upon Earth, and see all kinds of details which would be impossible to see from a great distance. Doesn't this suggest that they did not really perceive the distances to be very great? Lewis's answer:

The impossibility, under the supposed conditions, of such visual experiences is obvious to us because we have grown up from childhood under the influence of pictures that aimed at the maximum of illusion and strictly observed the laws of perspective. We are mistaken if we suppose that mere commonsense, without any such training, will enable men to see an imaginary scene, or even to see the world they are living in, as we all see it today. Medieval art was deficient in perspective, and poetry followed suit. Nature, for Chaucer, is all foreground; we never get a landscape. And neither poets nor artists were much interested in the strict illusionism of later periods. The relative size of objects in the visible arts is determined more by the emphasis the artist wishes to lay upon them than by their sizes in the real world or by their distance. Whatever details we are meant to see will be shown whether they would really be visible or not. I believe Dante would have been quite capable of knowing that he could not have seen Asia and Cadiz from the stellatum and nevertheless putting them in. Centuries later Milton makes Raphael look down from the gate of Heaven, that is, from a point outside the whole sidereal universe -- 'distance inexpressible By Numbers that have name' (VIII, 113) -- and see not only Earth, not only continents on Earth, not only Eden, but cedar trees (V, 257-61).

Thus, these examples do not demonstrate that the ancients and medievals thought the universe was small, or even that its size was imaginable. On the contrary, they recognized that the universe was larger than we can fathom, and that the Earth was, for all practical purposes, an infinitely small point within it.

Another possible counter-argument might be that, even if the premoderns clearly believed the universe to be unimaginably large, they still believed the Earth to be the largest -- and therefore most important -- thing in it. But this is simply false. Aristotle argued in De Caelo that "compared with the stars it [the Earth] is not of great size." Lewis points out that Cicero, in Somnium Scipionis, recognized "that the stars were globes which easily outstripped the Earth in size. ... This passage was constantly in the minds of succeeding writers. The insignificance (by cosmic standards) of the Earth became as much a commonplace to the medieval, as to the modern, thinker; it was part of the moralists' stock-in-trade, used, as Cicero uses it (xix), to mortify human ambition." Besides Cicero, Lewis also lists Chalcidius and Macrobius as believing, "like everyone else," that the Earth was smaller than the smallest star, and argues that this belief was held throughout the Middle Ages. According to the Ptolemaic system, only Venus, Mercury, and the Moon were smaller than the Earth (which, in fact, they are); everything else was larger. With Ptolemy's system achieving near universal assent in the Middle Ages, these sizes almost never varied.

In fact, even if we ignore this -- even if we assume for the sake of argument that the premoderns thought the Earth was larger than the stars, the planets, and the Sun -- we still cannot ascribe any significance to it based on this. On this view, the Earth would still not be the largest object: "The furthest sphere, Dante's maggior corpo is, quite simply and finally, the largest object in existence." In their cosmology, there was no such thing as empty space; all of the vast distances between the stars and planets were completely filled, and as such, each sphere constituted an object of overwhelming size. In comparison to the most distant sphere, that of the fixed stars, the Earth was, as far as our imaginations are concerned, infinitely small.

Thus, the claim that the premoderns believed the Earth and its inhabitants significant because it was the largest thing in a small universe doesn't even get off the ground. They thought the Earth was one of the smallest things in an unfathomably large universe. While modern science has certainly corrected their cosmology on many points, it has not altered this part of the picture. If they did think an object's significance was related to its size, then they would have concluded that the Earth is one of the least important, significant, or valuable places in the universe.

Update (11 Aug): (see also part 1 and part 3)

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Some links

Naturalized epistemology from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Evolutionary epistemology from same.
A bibliography on evolutionary epistemology.
A bibliography on cognition and evolution.


Saturday, April 11, 2009

Was Jesus' Resurrection an Urban Legend?

Last Easter I argued that Jesus' resurrection cannot be explained in terms of mythology. But I also pointed out that people who think Jesus is a myth equivocate between whether they mean "mythology" or "urban legend." While mythology takes a long time to develop, urban legends are just stories that have been passed along throughout society. Since they do not result from a long process of mythologization -- where at some point the story is misinterpreted or corrupted -- either the person(s) who first told the story experienced something they misunderstood for something else, or they didn't. If they didn't, they must have known that they didn't (i.e. they made it up), although I suppose insanity could be a possible explanation as well. If they did experience something which they subsequently misunderstood, it was either something outside the person or it was something inside the person's mind (i.e. a hallucination). Thus an urban legend must have at least one of the following causes: the person who originally told the the story 1. simply made it up (for example, Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster); 2. was insane; 3. hallucinated; or 4. experienced something which he mistook for something else (such as Elvis and UFO sightings).

Now the problem with saying that Jesus' resurrection was an urban legend is that it cannot fit into any of these categories.

1. There are two reasons mitigating against the idea that the early Christians made up the resurrection: first, the resurrection of Jesus was significantly different from the Jewish concept of resurrection, not to mention pagan concepts of the afterlife. The Jewish concept was that everyone who has ever lived would be resurrected at the end of the world. Jesus' resurrection is that of an individual man in the midst of history. No one has ever explained how the idea of Jesus' resurrection would even occur to anyone if it hadn't actually happened.

Second, the people who claimed to have seen Jesus alive from the dead were willing to experience horrific deaths rather than deny that it happened. If they just made it up, what possible motivation could they have had for this?

2. The writings of the early Christians show no signs of mental instability. On the contrary, they make up some of the most inspirational writings ever written. Paul is widely considered one of the greatest minds of the ancient world.

3. The first reason why Jesus' resurrection appearances cannot be ascribed to hallucination is the same as the first reason why the early Christians couldn't have just made it up: Jesus' resurrection contradicted the fundamental Jewish concept of resurrection. Hallucinations are projections of the mind; one cannot hallucinate something that isn't already present in the mind. So it's a straightforward syllogism:

a) Hallucinations can only be of what is already conceived.
b) The early Christians could not have conceived of Jesus' resurrection (because it contradicted the Jewish concept of resurrection).
c) Therefore, the early Christians could not have hallucinated Jesus' resurrection.

As William Lane Craig has written, if the disciples were to hallucinate Jesus after his death, they would have hallucinated something that fit into the religious paradigm they accepted, such as Jesus having been assumed into heaven. They wouldn't have had hallucinations of Jesus risen from the dead.

The second reason the hallucination theory doesn't work is more obvious: Jesus appeared to groups of people. Hallucinations are individual experiences, there is no such thing as a collective hallucination. Again, a hallucination is a projection of the mind. For more than one person to hallucinate the exact same thing at the exact same time is implausible in the extreme.

4. There are two reasons countering the idea that people experienced something which they mistakenly took to be Jesus alive from the dead. First is that these weren't brief glimpses experienced by people who didn't personally know Jesus. They were groups of people who knew him intimately, and they spoke with and physically touched "whatever it was." It is a category mistake to compare Jesus' resurrection appearances with catching a brief glimpse of someone with long sideburns in a crowd and thinking it's Elvis, or seeing nondescript lights in the sky and thinking that they're alien spacecraft.

For example, virtually all New Testament scholars agree that in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul is quoting a creed which dates to within a few years of Jesus' crucifixion. This creed claims, among other things, that after Jesus rose from the dead he appeared to the apostles, to Jesus' brother James, and to a group of 500 people at once. The appearance to the apostles has multiple independent attestation, being further described in the Gospels of Luke and John. James opposed his brother during his ministry, but something convinced him that his brother rose from the dead, since he preferred to be put to death rather than deny it. And Elvis never appeared to 500 people at once after his death.

Second, if the early followers merely mistook something else for Jesus alive from the dead, what exactly was it? The difficulty of anything other than Jesus himself giving the early Christians the impression of Jesus raised from the dead has led to absurdities. One philosopher (not a New Testament scholar) has suggested that Jesus must have had an evil twin. If that's the alternative to believing in the resurrection, then there's just no contest.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Terrorism and the Iraq War

The Iraq War is often condemned as a bad idea from the get-go. I disagree. Ignoring for the moment the fact that the Bush administration always gave a cumulative case argument to justify the Iraq War, I think it could be justified simply as the second stage in the war on terrorism. In this I don't mean that it was ultimately the right decision or that good arguments can't be made against it. I merely mean that it wasn't unreasonable. It made (and makes) sense.

After the Taliban had been removed from power in Afghanistan, it was a reasonable step to remove from power the government with the most ties to terrorism. This was believed at the time to be Saddam Hussein, and this has since been proven by captured Iraqi documents.

One might argue that if we went to war with Iraq, then it's hypocritical to not go to war with other countries that have extensive ties to terrorism as well (such as Iran, Syria, and North Korea). But 1) these other countries didn't have the extent of ties to terrorism as Saddam Hussein had; and 2) there is nothing hypocritical in finding you have several enemies and going after them one at a time rather than all at once.

Obviously there is more to this issue than just ties to terrorism. There was the fear of WMDs, the hope that removing Saddam from power would encourage other governments to sever their ties to terrorism without military action, humanitarian concerns, the strategy with which the Iraq War was fought, etc. But simply looking at the issue as the next stage in the war on terrorism, it seems to me that removing the greatest terrorist supporting regime in the world was a reasonable course of action.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Homophobia and Racism

Gay rights advocates often claim that gay rights are simply one more type of civil right; or conversely, homophobia is the same kind of thing as racism. To think homosexuality is immoral is as illogical as saying that being a certain race or ethnicity is immoral.

But what exactly do some say is immoral? Homosexuality? Homosexuals? Or homosexual acts? Traditionally, the Judeo-Christian claim is that only the last of these is immoral. Homosexuality is the ongoing temptation to engage in homosexual acts, but temptation is not immoral even if what you're being tempted to do may be. Moreover, the Christian is commanded not to condemn the person (the homosexual) but only the act. This is the meaning of the proverb "Love the sinner, hate the sin." (Admittedly this proverb is not in the Bible, but it summarizes the biblical position well.) Both of these are in some sense dependent on the third category, homosexual acts or behavior. To say someone is homosexual but is not tempted to perform homosexual acts is a contradiction in terms. Similarly to refer to homosexuality without any concept of same-sex attraction simply doesn't make any sense. The temptation to perform homosexual acts is what "homosexuality" means.

Now the problem with claiming homophobia is the same sort of thing as racism is that these categories do not transfer to race or ethnicity. This is most obvious with the third category. We all know what homosexual acts are: they are sexual acts between members of the same gender. They are not merely acts performed by homosexuals; when a homosexual washes his car, he is not engaged in a homosexual act. A homosexual act is one which defines the act as homosexual inherently, that is, by its very nature.

If homophobia were the same sort of thing as racism, there should be corresponding acts or behavior that are particular to different races. Just as there are homosexual acts, so there should be Chinese acts, or Hispanic acts, or white or black acts. This is obviously absurd. Therefore, homosexuality is not the same sort of thing as race or ethnicity. As I argued in this post, homosexual behavior involves an element that is simply not present in race: namely, behavior.

The first and second categories are problematic as well, since they are dependent on the third. A homosexual is someone who is tempted to perform homosexual acts. But a white person is not someone who is tempted to perform "white" acts, since there are no such acts. To say someone is homosexual but is not tempted to engage in homosexual acts is to redefine the word "homosexual." A homosexual is a person who is tempted to perform homosexual acts by definition. Similarly for the first category: the equivalent of homosexuality would be "whiteness" or "blackness" or whatever. But "whiteness" is not the temptation to perform "white" acts because (again) there are no such acts. Thus to treat homosexuality as the same sort of thing as race or ethnicity -- and homophobia as the same sort of thing as racism -- is simply invalid.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

One more Christian

I know the biographer A. N. Wilson primarily because I read parts of his biography of C. S. Lewis for one of my theses; he has also written biographies on John Milton, Leo Tolstoy, Hilaire Belloc, and Jesus. Additionally he wrote the book God's Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization. Wilson was raised Christian, but abandoned it as an adult and became a high-profile atheist.

In his Lewis biography, Wilson interpreted everything through the lens of Freudianism by finding psychological causes (rather than rational reasons) for Lewis's Christian beliefs and his attempts to defend them rationally. Right off the bat, I find such speculations about Lewis's motivations extraordinarily tone-deaf. In the first place, it commits the Bulverism fallacy (aka the circumstantial ad hominem fallacy), which gets its name from Lewis's famous essay of the same name. In the second place, another of Lewis's most famous essays is "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism" (alternatively titled "Fern-seed and Elephants") in which he makes the point that reviewers of his own writings and those of his friends have often tried to reconstruct their motives. According to Lewis, such attempts were universally incorrect; he could not recall a single accurate statement. For biographers of Lewis to make such attempts themselves in light of Lewis's explicit claim that "the results are either always, or else nearly always, wrong," either demonstrates that they were unfamiliar with this essay or that they chose to ignore it.

The issue I was researching was the Argument from Reason (AFR) and Lewis's debate with Elizabeth Anscombe, who challenged the AFR on Wittgensteinian grounds. Lewis was unfamiliar with the "new" philosophy of Wittgenstein, and so his immediate response was somewhat weak. Wilson suggests that Lewis was so humiliated by his debate with Anscombe that he abandoned writing apologetics. Others have claimed this as well, such as Humphrey Carpenter in The Inklings. The problem with this claim is that it's demonstrably false; Lewis did write apologetics in the decade after the Anscombe debate, including rewriting his main presentation of the AFR in the third chapter of Miracles. Anscombe subsequently praised it and him, although she still disagreed.

Wilson, however, went a step further, suggesting absurdly that Lewis retreated into writing children's literature (the Chronicles of Narnia), because children, at least, wouldn't be able to dispute him intellectually. Wilson even suggested that the Emerald Witch in The Silver Chair is based on Anscombe. This despite the fact that Anscombe was herself a Christian. He found Puddleglum's response to the Emerald Witch's enchantment as constituting Lewis's statement to continue believing even after having one of his main arguments refuted.

"One word. All you've been saying is quite right, I shouldn't wonder. I'm a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won't deny any of what you said. But there's one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things -- trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for the Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that's a small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say."

My point in bringing this up is that Wilson has re-converted to Christianity. I'm very happy for him, and am glad to count him as a Christian brother. The New Statesman has his account of his path back to God, although the full story is only available in the print edition. They also have an interview with him, which includes the following question and answer:

What's the worst thing about being faithless?

The worst thing about being faithless? When I thought I was an atheist I would listen to the music of Bach and realize that his perception of life was deeper, wiser, more rounded than my own. Ditto when I read the lives of great men and women who were religious.

Reading Northrop Frye and Blake made me realize that their world-view (above all their ability to see the world in mythological terms) is so much more INTERESTING than some of the alternative ways of looking at life.

I found this interesting, because it sounds an awful lot like Puddleglum's response to the Emerald Witch.

Update (14 Apr): Here's another article by Wilson condemning secularism as the "religion of hatred." He briefly, but positively mentions C. S. Lewis, and towards the end states, "Materialist atheism says we are just a collection of chemicals. It has no answer whatsoever to the question of how we should be capable of love or heroism or poetry if we are simply animated pieces of meat." This sounds similar to the AFR, insofar as it claims that some common aspect of human experience is inexplicable in an atheistic worldview. It brings to mind (at least my mind) something Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed regarding his wife's death:

If H. ‘is not,’ then she never was. I mistook a cloud of atoms for a person. There aren’t, and never were, any people. Death only reveals the vacuity that was always there. What we call the living are simply those who have not yet been unmasked. All equally bankrupt, but some not yet declared.

But this must be nonsense; vacuity revealed to whom? Bankruptcy declared to whom? To other boxes of fireworks or clouds of atoms. I will never believe -- more strictly I can’t believe -- that one set of physical events could be, or make, a mistake about other sets.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Apologetics reading list

A few years ago I taught an apologetics class at a friend's church, and I compiled the following list of books for the students. Most of them are popular level, but not all. It's obviously incomplete; these are books that I own or encountered at the book store where I worked. Also, as you can tell, under the science section, I put books that argue against biological evolution. Since then, I have become much more open to evolution, and would include books by Christians who argue for it, like Denis Alexander. If the title has a hyperlink, it will send you to a website containing part or all of the book.

General Apologetics
Gregory Boyd, Edward Boyd, Letters from a Skeptic
William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith
Norman Geisler, Christian Apologetics
_____, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics
_____, Paul Hoffman, Why I Am a Christian: Leading Thinkers Explain Why They Believe
Peter Kreeft, Socrates Meets Jesus
_____, Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics
Paul Little, Know Why You Believe
Josh McDowell, A Ready Defense
J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City
Ralph Muncaster, “Examine the Evidence” series

Gregory Boyd, Jesus Under Siege
Paul Copan, Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? A Debate between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan
_____, Ronald Tacelli, Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment? A Debate between William Lane Craig and Gerd Lüdemann
William Lane Craig, The Son Rises
R. Douglas Geivett, Gary Habermas, In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History
Gary Habermas, Antony Flew, Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate
Harold Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ
Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus
Peter Kreeft, Between Heaven and Hell
Josh McDowell, More Than a Carpenter
_____, Bill Wilson, He Walked Among Us
J. P. Moreland, Michael Wilkins, Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus
Ronald Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks: Did the New Testament Borrow From Pagan Thought?
Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ
N. T. Wright, Who Was Jesus?
_____, The Original Jesus: The Life and Vision of a Revolutionary

The Bible
Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
_____, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel: Issues and Commentary
F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?
Walter Kaiser, The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant?
Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict (2 vols.; republished as a single volume: The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict)
_____, Daniel in the Critics’ Den
Randall Price, The Stones Cry Out: What Archaeology Reveals About the Truth of the Bible

Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box
William Dembski, Mere Creation: Science, Faith, and Intelligent Design
_____, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology
Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis
Fred Heeren, Show Me God
Phillip Johnson, Darwin on Trial
Fazale Rana, Hugh Ross, Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off
Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos
_____, The Genesis Question: Scientific Advances and the Accuracy of Genesis
_____, The Fingerprint of God
Robert Shapiro, Origins: A Skeptic’s Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth
Lee Strobel, The Case for a Creator
Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, Roger Olsen, The Mystery of Life’s Origin

Dealing with Problems and Objections
Gleason Archer, New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties
F. F. Bruce, Walter Kaiser, Peter Davids, Manfred Brauch, Hard Sayings of the Bible (originally published separately as Hard Sayings of the Old Testament; of Jesus; of Paul; etc.)
Paul Copan, “True for You, But Not for Me”: Deflating the Slogans That Leave Christians Speechless
_____, “How Do You Know You’re Not Wrong?” Responding to Objections That Leave Christians Speechless
_____, “That’s Just Your Interpretation”: Responding to Skeptics Who Challenge Your Faith
William Lane Craig, Hard Questions, Real Answers
James Dobson, When God Doesn’t Make Sense
Norman Geisler, Thomas Howe, When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties
John Haley, Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible
J. Carl Laney, Answers to Tough Questions
Josh McDowell, Don Stewart, Answers to Tough Questions Skeptics Ask About the Christian Faith
Kenneth Richard Samples, Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions
Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith
Ravi Zacharias, Norman Geisler, Who Made God? and Answers to Over 100 Other Tough Questions

Specific Issues and World Views
William Campbell, The Qur’an and the Bible in the Light of History and Science
Norman Geisler, William Watkins, Worlds Apart: A Handbook on World Views
Gary Habermas, J. P. Moreland, Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality
André Kole, Jerry MacGregor, Mind Games (a Christian perspective on psychic and paranormal phenomena)
Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults
Hugh Ross, Kenneth Richard Samples, Mark Clark, Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men: A Rational Christian Look at UFOs and Extra-terrestrials
James Sire, The Universe Next Door
Tom Snyder, Myth Conceptions: Joseph Campbell and the New Age
Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God?
_____, A Shattered Visage: The Real Face of Atheism
_____, Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message
_____, The Lotus and the Cross: Jesus Talks With Buddha

Authors not yet mentioned whom you should read
C. S. Lewis
Francis Schaeffer
Dallas Willard