Saturday, May 30, 2009

Arthur Balfour's Dangerous Idea

Arthur James Balfour was the British Prime Minister from 1902-05 and the namesake of the Balfour Declaration. However, this isn't the dangerous idea I'm referring to. He was also a philosopher who wrote several books which all contain, to some extent, the argument that influenced C. S. Lewis's Argument from Reason (AFR). This is the idea that physicalism, materialism, naturalism are all self-defeating because when applied to the mind they remove any claim for our beliefs and belief-forming capabilities to be veridical -- and this would obviously include beliefs in physicalism, materialism, and naturalism. Lewis's version of the argument has recently been defended by Victor Reppert in C. S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea, and has been given a more rigorously analytical form in Alvin Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism.

I just finished Balfour's first book A Defence of Philosophic Doubt, published in 1879. It's interesting because it contains the earliest version of the AFR that I've been able to discover, namely, chapter 13, "The Evolution of Belief." In fact, this chapter is a re-working of an essay he published in the Fortnightly Review in 1877. I think future accounts of this argument will need to delve into Balfour's version to see how it influenced C. S. Lewis and others.

Balfour's other books spend more time on the AFR and, like Defence, they're all in the public domain. There's The Foundations of Belief, Theism and Humanism, and Theism and Thought, the latter two being two series of Gifford Lectures (which I wrote about here). There's also a critique of Balfour's philosophy in the public domain, Mr. Balfour's Apologetics Critically Examined by W. B. Columbine. At any rate, while Balfour's writings are very dry, I think they have some value and need to be taken seriously.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Thursday, May 28, 2009


Ted Chiang has published a new (to me, at least) story, and you can read it online: Exhalation. You can read some of his other stories here.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Going up

An interesting twist on the already interesting idea of a space elevator (a line connecting the surface of the earth to a satellite in geosynchronous orbit). The new idea is to rotate the line so that centrifugal force would pull the payload out, and (if strong enough) up. That way, less energy would be necessary to climb the elevator, although a large part of the attractiveness of a space elevator is that it would be orders of magnitude cheaper than rockets. (via Glenn Reynolds)

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Quote of the Day

...we need once more to focus more precisely on Socrates' own complaint against Anaxagoras and his ilk. The complaint is that Anaxagoras makes no use of Mind when he explains the world (instead adducing causes like 'air and ether and water and many other absurdities'), and that this is 'just about as inconsistent' as if he were first to say that the cause of everything Socrates does is Mind, and then go on to explain that he is in his prison in Athens because of the operations of his bones and sinews, making no mention of his conviction that he is acting in a way right and honourable. Socrates is thus taking himself as a microcosm of the world: the world, like the individual, is guided by Mind, and by what is for the best.

Far-fetched as Socrates as microcosm might seem today, those who would wish to explain human behaviour without reference to mind, and who would disparage explanations of action in terms of doing what is for the best as folk psychology, are making an analogous move in reverse. Rather than treating the macrocosm by analogy with the microcosm, they are treating the microcosm on analogy with the macrocosm. They are treating the microcosm (man) as if it were just part of the macrocosm, and guided and animated by the same principles. But this is surely misguided. Whatever we decide about our ultimate destination and origin, it remains the case that we, as human beings and as self-conscious agents, can question our standing in the world in a way no other part of nature can. This, indeed, is part of what 'acting for the best' comprises: raising questions about our relationship to the rest of nature and to each other. The normativity, the search for truth for its own sake, which this involves, engages us in types of considerations which are not found in the scientific descriptions and explanations, whether those of physics or of biology.
If it is hard to see science accomplishing a wholesale revision of commonsensical perceptions and beliefs about the empirical world, it is even harder to envisage science revising our attitude to practice, and the explanation we give to action in terms of agents' intentions and in terms of their being motivated to act for the best. This is because science itself is a practice, and because in choosing to do it at all and in doing it in particular ways, we will be subjecting ourselves to normative considerations. We will be having at the back of our mind the idea that, for various reasons, it is for the best that we engage in science, and that engaging in it in such a way is the best way to do it. In this sense, the decisions to do science and to do it in a particular way are on a par with Socrates' decision to stay in his prison cell, rather than let his bones and sinews (or genes) take him into exile. They are all decisions which cannot be given a scientific justification, and which demand a justification logically independent from anything we might discover in scientific accounts. It would then be, to say the least, self-defeating, if science -- done in the best way and for the best motives, done in Socrates' terms because of Mind -- were to tell us that Mind in this sense plays no part in human affairs, or that it is an illusion foisted on us by genetic working on quite other principles.

Anthony O'Hear
Beyond Evolution: Human Nature and the Limits of Evolutionary Explanation

Thursday, May 21, 2009


I've finally changed the blog so that it takes up more of the screen, something I've been wanting to do for a while. Much thanks to the Blog Doctor (who's an excellent resource) for the HTML, and to Tyson for photoshopping the long bookshelf at the top of the page.

Now I still have a small problem: the "page" background upon which the posts are written only extends so far, so the right side of the screen is just plain old boring yellow, which contrasts slightly with the rest. So does anyone out there know how to extend or stretch the background to cover it?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

More Favorite Movie Scenes

The same caveat applies here as in my previous post: these are a few of my favorite movie scenes, not a few scenes from my favorite movies. The movies these scenes come from may very well suck.

Big Night

Hot Shots! Part Deux

The Empire Strikes Back

Life of Brian

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn

Monday, May 18, 2009

Harlan Ellison

There's a short story by Harlan Ellison that I've been wanting to read for some time, but wasn't able to find in bookstores during my brief visits to the States. It's about five people in a living hell; a computer system "woke up" to consciousness, but recognized it was the proverbial ghost in the machine. It hated humanity for creating it, and so killed everyone except five people who it kept in an underground tunnel system, keeping them alive indefinitely, torturing them, and mutilating them. The computer is named "AM" which stands for a few things in the story, but is meant to recall both God's telling Moses that his name is "I am", and Descartes' cogito "I think therefore I am." So the computer is an imitation God, but instead of being a God of love and goodness it's a god of hatred and evil. This kind of reminds me of Philip K. Dick's short story "Faith of Our Fathers", which has something along the same lines, except in Dick's story, it's actually God: the ground of existence is a predator, creating everything so it can consume it.

Anyway, I just found a copy of Ellison's story online, so you can read it if you think your stomach is strong enough. The title? "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream".

Friday, May 15, 2009

Another must-read

Dallas Willard, who I wrote about here, has a new book coming out at the end of this month. The title sounds amazing: Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge. I'd almost swear this guy is writing these books just for me.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Jesus and Galileo

I just re-acquainted myself with a quote from the Jesus Seminar's book The Five Gospels. In order to defend their rejection of the supernatural, they appeal to the conflict myth. It reminds me of Rudolf Bultmann's famous quote, "It is impossible to use electrical light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles." The Jesus Seminar makes the same point by appealing specifically to geocentrism and Galileo.

The contemporary religious controversy, epitomized in the Scopes trial and the continuing clamor for creationism as a viable alternative to the theory of evolution, turns on whether the worldview reflected in the Bible can be carried forward into this scientific age and retained as an article of faith. Jesus figures prominently in this debate. The Christ of creed and dogma, who had been firmly in place in the Middle Ages, can no longer command the assent of those who have seen the heavens through Galileo’s telescope. The old deities and demons were swept from the skies by that remarkable glass. Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo have dismantled the mythological abodes of the gods and Satan, and bequeathed us secular heavens.

So their understanding of the New Testament presupposes a discarded and demonstrably false theory of the history of science. Someone should tell them to stop focusing so much on Galileo's telescope and look through Hubble's telescope. If they did, they might discover that the universe is expanding outward after having sprung into being, which in turn suggests that something "outside" the universe brought it into existence. That wouldn't fit the narrative of a "secular heavens" though.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Saturday, May 2, 2009

This is very disappointing

NASA had plans to return people to the Moon by 2020 and set up a permanently manned station there. Some recent comments by its acting administrator imply that they're scaling back their plans, due to the small budget they've been granted by President Obama. It looks like it's time for private companies to step in and get the job done.