Friday, August 28, 2009

On Drowning and Resistible Grace

The acronym summarizing Calvinist theology is TULIP, the "I" standing for Irresistible grace. This means that if God offers his grace to someone, it overwhelms them and they cannot help but accept it. A large part of the reason for this doctrine is that if God's grace is resistible, it would mean that our eternal destinies are ultimately in our hands rather than God's. This would mean that we essentially save ourselves. This isn't meant to imply that we can do it without God, but it does mean that God can't (or at least doesn't) do it without us. Ultimately, whether the individual goes to heaven or hell rests in his decision to accept God's grace or reject it, not on God's decision to save him.

This is allegedly intolerable for several reasons. Here I'll just focus on the fact that traditionally Christianity has emphasized that initial salvation (and grace in general) is entirely from God's side, and there's nothing we contribute to it. We can't ask to be saved or even want to be saved unless God bestows his grace upon us. To deny this is to accept a form of Pelagianism or at least Semipelagianism -- heresies that have been condemned by virtually all branches of Christianity throughout history. In order to avoid this, we have to say that our salvation is out of our hands; it must be wholly in the hands of the Holy

I'm not convinced that the Calvinist rejection of human choice in salvation is accurate. The analogy I tend to use to think of this is that of a drowning man. If you're drowning and someone swims out to rescue you, would you say that you are participating in your own rescue by not fighting off your rescuer? I mean, you could: ultimately it's your decision whether you let the other person rescue you, right? The final choice is yours. But to say that you're participating in your rescue, that ultimately you're rescuing yourself, strikes me as obviously false. By allowing yourself to be rescued you are not doing anything active, it's entirely passive. And I think this holds for the individual who is offered God's grace: accepting means that you stop doing whatever you're doing and let God save you. Only by rejecting him are you doing something active ("fighting him off").

Of course, this parallel only goes so far; there are some obvious dissimilarities. A drowning man doesn't only become aware that he is drowning when a rescuer reaches him. A drowning man doesn't have temptations to make his rescue appear less attractive. A drowning man may fight off his rescuer out of pure panic rather than a rejection of being rescued. Nevertheless, I think it does parallel the situation sufficiently to show that the Calvinist concern about grace being resisitible is unfounded.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Dust to Dust

When I was fairly new to Christianity in my 20s, I attended a weekly Bible study group, and for a few weeks we watched some young-earth creationist videos. I had heard that some Christians thought the Earth and universe were young, but I had never heard that there was actual scientific evidence demonstrating it. I was amazed. I went to a large local library to research one of the claims.

And you know what happened. Within a half hour I discovered that the claim was completely bogus. Fortunately I didn’t think young-earth creationism and Christianity stand or fall together, but I worry about Christians who think they do. Eventually they’re going to discover that the arguments for a young earth are invalid and, in many cases, dishonest. It will be very difficult for them to accept the valid arguments for Christianity when the arguments for a young earth don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Anyway, the argument I investigated was based on the amount of meteoritic dust on the Moon. We can measure the amount of dust influx to the Earth, and then estimate how quickly it will accumulate; the higher the rate of influx, the faster the accumulation. We can then measure how much dust has actually accumulated on the Earth and Moon, and determine how long it would take for this amount to be reached.

In the past, young-earth proponents have maintained that the rate of meteoritic dust falling on the Earth and Moon is very high. Henry Morris, in Scientific Creationism, wrote, “The best measurements have been made by Hans Pettersson, who obtained the figure of 14 million tons per year” (his emphasis). The depth of the dust on the Moon’s surface is only a few inches. Therefore, since a lot of dust is falling on the Moon, but only a small amount has actually accumulated, it hasn’t been accumulating very long; ergo, the Moon must be very young.

However, Morris’s claim regarding the rate of influx is not true. Talk Origins has a good essay on this by Chris Stassen, which goes over the historical development of these measurements, and this argument. In the late 1950s, Pettersson went up to the top of Mauna Loa in Hawaii and, with a tool designed to measure smog levels, collected dust settling to the Earth. He measured the amount of nickel in the dust and used this to determine his calculations, since he knew the approximate level of nickel in meteoritic dust. Assuming that all of the nickel was from settling meteoritic dust, he calculated approximately 14 million tons of dust was settling to the Earth per year. Pettersson thought this value was much too high, and suggested that five million tons was a more reasonable figure.

Unfortunately, Pettersson’s assumption that all of the nickel was from settling meteoritic dust was wrong. Wind erosion and, most relevantly for Pettersson’s location, volcanic activity pushes earth-based nickel into the atmosphere where it resettles to Earth. Since Pettersson made his measurements on the top of an active volcano, most of the nickel he measured was earth-based, not from meteoritic dust. By the early 1970s, the amount of meteoritic dust influx had been directly measured by satellites, which set the influx rate to the Earth at about 23,000 tons per year. Additionally, other methods, such as the rate of micro-cratering on objects left exposed on the surface of the Moon and the chemical signatures of ocean sediments set the amount of influx (on the Earth) at between 20,000 and 40,000 tons per year.

Moreover, we can’t simply measure the depth of the dust on the surface of the Moon and translate this into the amount of meteoritic dust accumulation. Stassen argues:

[T]he lunar soil is not the only meteoritic material on the lunar surface. The “soil” is merely the portion of powdery material which is kept loose by micrometeorite impacts. Below it is the regolith, which is a mixture of rock fragments and packed powdery material. The regolith averages about five meters deep on the lunar maria and ten meters on the lunar highlands.

In addition, lunar rocks are broken down by various processes (such as micrometeorite impacts and radiation). Quite a bit of the powdered material (even the loose portion) is not meteoritic in origin.

When all of this is taken into account, the depth of meteoritic dust on the Moon’s surface translates to an approximate age of 4.5 billion years.

All of this information was available in 1974 when Henry Morris referred to Pettersson’s original measurements, an amount which Pettersson himself thought was much too high, as the “best measurements.” Obviously, this argument was rigged by selecting the most extreme measurements, and misrepresenting them as if they were the most reliable. However, and to their credit, it should be noted that although this continues to be one of their most popular and commonly cited arguments among laymen (at least in my experience), some young-earth proponents have conceded that it’s fraudulent, and many (though not all) young-earth ministries have ceased to propound it.


... is cool. Actual video of Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


-- Some thoughts on using asteroids as "stepping stones" to get to Mars.

-- Prostitution is not a victimless crime.

-- California disease. "Portland, a city attractive to many unemployed and underemployed younger Californians, could well be becoming the "slacker" capital of the world."

-- Jim Caviezel on adoption and fatherhood.

-- A skydiver's parachute doesn't open, and he survives a 10,000 foot fall. Wow.

-- The 5 Most Embarrassing Failures in the History of Terrorism. This is from Cracked, so the language is R-rated at least.

-- Exploring the possibility of powering potential stations on the Moon and Mars with nuclear power.

-- OK, I acknowledge that President Obama has something of a cult of personality surrounding him. But people, it's not this bad.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Proof of the Existence of God

My son's crib is next to my bookshelves. For the last few weeks, when we go into his room in the morning, we find one of my books in the crib with him, so obviously he is able to reach over to the bookshelves from the crib. It wasn't a problem, since the books showed no sign of damage (at least no signs of new damage).

But a couple of days ago, we went in and found a book in his crib and a page ripped out and ripped into several pieces. I wasn't too upset, but it was exasperating. I looked at the ripped up pieces to find out what page it was, and turned to the appropriate place in the book from where it was ripped.

The page was still there.

I looked at the text on the ripped out page. It was identical to the text that was still in the book. This confused me. My son had ripped out a page and then somehow made an identical copy of the page and placed it seamlessly back into its place in the book.

When I flipped to the back of the book (it's Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion by Peter Anthony Bertocci), I saw what happened. My copy of this book had a rather large erratum: halfway through the last chapter, it repeats 30 pages from the middle of the book. After seeing this, it rang a bell; I'm pretty sure I noticed this after I bought it. And my son had ripped out the last page of the repeated material.

This is the only book of a few hundred on my shelves that could have a page ripped out with impunity. Admittedly, my son could only reach a handful of books from one shelf; but I organized my books in that configuration before he was born. I did not arrange it so that certain books would be within reach of some future child I had not yet sired.

Ergo, there must be a God. And he's a bibliophile.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Glory of Science

Just watch.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Thought of the Day

Religion is a crutch. And we're a race of paraplegics.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Size Doesn't Matter, part 3

In this series I am contesting the claim that the unimaginable vastness of the universe, revealed to us in modern astronomy, makes it absurd to ascribe any significance to the earth and its inhabitants. In part 1 I addressed the science side of this claim and in part 2 I addressed the historical side. Ignoring the issues already discussed, this claim assumes that the relative sizes of the earth and the universe demonstrate that the former must be, somehow, insignificant or unimportant. Apparently, on some level, we instinctively equate size with value or significance. The original meaning of the word "great" is "very large", a phenomenon that occurs in many languages. "Bigger" just means "better."

But to take this as an ontological statement about something's actual importance is incredibly naïve. Just because bigger sometimes seems better, it's absurd to think that there is a significant correlation between size and value. What exactly is it about size that would bestow value anyway? Why would a smaller thing automatically be less important than a bigger thing? While it's true that the immense size of the universe can make us feel insignificant, this is a psychological fact about us, not a scientific fact about the universe. For people who accuse others of simple-mindedness, those who argue that the universe's size demonstrates our unimportance are remarkably simple minded themselves.

C. S. Lewis puts this so much better than I ever could that I'll just refer you to the 7th chapter of Miracles:

There is no doubt that we all feel the incongruity of supposing, say, that the planet Earth might be more important than the Great Nebula in Andromeda. On the other hand, we are all equally certain that only a lunatic would think a man six-feet high necessarily more important than a man five-feet high, or a horse necessarily more important than a man, or a man's legs than his brain. In other words this supposed ratio of size to importance feels plausible only when one of the sizes involved is very great. And that betrays the true basis of this type of thought. When a relation is perceived by Reason, it is perceived to hold good universally. If our Reason told us that size was proportional to importance, the small differences in size would be accompanied by small differences in importance just as surely as great differences in size were accompanied by great differences in importance. Your six-foot man would have to be slightly more valuable than the man of five feet, and your leg slightly more important than your brain -- which everyone knows to be nonsense. The conclusion is inevitable: the importance we attach to great differences of size is an affair not of reason but of emotion -- of that peculiar emotion which superiorities in size begin to produce in us only after a certain point of absolute size has been reached.

We are inveterate poets. When a quantity is very great we cease to regard it as a mere quantity. Our imaginations awake. Instead of mere quantity, we now have a quality -- the Sublime. But for this, the merely arithmetical greatness of the Galaxy would be no more impressive than the figures in an account book. To a mind which did not share our emotions and lacked our imaginative energies, the argument against Christianity from the size of the universe would be simply unintelligible. It is therefore from ourselves that the material universe derives its power to overawe us. Men of sensibility look up on the night sky with awe: brutal and stupid men do not. When the silence of the eternal spaces terrified Pascal, it was Pascal's own greatness that enabled them to do so; to be frightened by the bigness of the nebulæ is, almost literally, to be frightened at our own shadow. For light years and geological periods are mere arithmetic until the shadow of man, the poet, the maker of myths, falls upon them. As a Christian I do not say we are wrong to tremble at that shadow, for I believe it to be the shadow of an image of God. But if the vastness of Nature ever threatens to overcrow our spirits, we must remember that it is only Nature spiritualised by human imagination which does so. This suggests a possible answer to the question raised a few pages ago -- why the size of the universe, known for centuries, should first in modern times become an argument against Christianity. Has it perhaps done so because in modern times the imagination has become more sensitive to bigness? From this point of view the argument from size might almost be regarded as a by-product of the Romantic Movement in poetry. In addition to the absolute increase of imaginative vitality on this topic, there has pretty certainly been a decline on others. Any reader of old poetry can see that brightness appealed to ancient and medieval man more than bigness, and more than it does to us. Medieval thinkers believed that the stars must be somehow superior to the Earth because they looked bright and it did not. Moderns think that the Galaxy ought to be more important than the Earth because it is bigger. Both states of mind can produce good poetry. Both can supply mental pictures which rouse very respectable emotions -- emotions of awe, humility, or exhiliration. But taken as serious philosophical argument both are ridiculous.

It reminds me of Jodie Foster's comment at the end of Contact (I don't know if it's present in the novel by Carl Sagan): if we're the only living creatures in the universe, it seems like an awful waste of space. But as Victor Reppert writes, "It is not as if energy or time [or space] is a scarce resource for God and we have to ask him, if he seems to be ‘wasting’ it, why he isn't putting it to better use. ‘Waste’ is an issue only where there is scarcity."

A similar objection that I mentioned in part 1 needs further comment. I pointed out that the universe's mass density -- the amount of matter in the universe -- must be extremely fine-tuned. Otherwise, the universe's expansion would have precluded the possibility of life existing anywhere at any time in the universe's history. In other words, the universe must be the particular size it is in order for us to exist. However, one could point out that while this matter may have been necessary at the universe's inception, it seems gratuitous for it to still be here. To insist that this vast universe is all there for our sake seems absurd. Every piece of matter may have had some relevance to the universe's initial expansion billions of years ago, but there is no obvious connection between distant pieces of matter and the human race's present existence. There are plenty of galaxies billions of light years away, which have plenty of planets orbiting plenty of suns. What does a particular rock on one of these planets have to do with life on earth now? The absence of such a connection makes humanity appear irrelevant to the universe.

Ignoring my previous response, this objection assumes that life or the human race is the only possible reason why the Judeo-Christian God would have created the universe. But just because all this matter has no relevance to humanity's existence today, it does not mean that God does not delight in it for some other reason, and so sustains it in existence. Again, this point is made best by C. S. Lewis:

There is no question of religious people fancying that all exists for man and scientific people discovering that it does not. Whether the ultimate and inexplicable being -- that which simply is -- turns out to be God or "the whole show," of course it does not exist for us. On either view we are faced with something which existed before the human race appeared and will exist after the Earth has become uninhabitable; which is utterly independent of us though we are totally dependent on it; and which, through vast ranges of its being, has no relevance to our own hopes and fears. For no man was, I suppose, ever so mad as to think that man, or all creation, filled the Divine Mind; if we are a small thing to space and time, space and time are a much smaller thing to God. It is a profound mistake to imagine that Christianity ever intended to dissipate the bewilderment and even the terror, the sense of our own nothingness, which come upon us when we think about the nature of things. It comes to intensify them. Without such sensations there is no religion.

A final point: in order to assert that the premoderns thought that the earth's size somehow rendered its inhabitants significant, it would require us to believe (at least) that they thought the earth and its inhabitants significant. In order for the statement, "they believed X because of Y" to be true, it has to be true that "they believed X." The argument that they thought the earth's size bequeathed significance on humanity can't even get off the ground unless they thought humanity had significance.

But this is not the case. We've already mentioned one criterion: brightness. The earth was thought to be less important and valuable than the celestial objects because they were bright while the earth was not. Another criterion that's often misunderstood is the earth's location at the center of the universe. This is usually twisted to imply that the center was the place of prestige, but the exact opposite is the case. They thought Earth was located at the bottom of the universe, which, in their view, was the least prestigious place therein. And the further down you went, the worse it was; this is why hell was thought to be at the center of the earth, and Satan at the center of hell. Arthur Lovejoy, in The Great Chain of Being, wrote that the medieval model is better described as "diabolocentric" than "geocentric." See the essays by Dennis Danielson on this.

However, one might object that Christianity conceives human beings as being so significant that God chose to be incarnated as one to die on their behalf. But this misunderstands exactly what the Christian claim is.

Christianity does not involve the belief that all things were made for man. It does involve the belief that God loves man and for his sake became man and died. I have not yet succeeded in seeing how what we know (and have known since the days of Ptolemy) about the size of the universe affects the credibility of this doctrine one way or the other. ... If it is maintained that anything so small as the Earth must, in any event, be too unimportant to merit the love of the Creator, we reply that no Christian ever supposed we did merit it. Christ did not die for men because they were intrinsically worth dying for, but because He is intrinsically love, and therefore loves infinitely.

In other words, whatever significance or value human beings have is derivative. The moral law tells us that people do have an inherent value; the reason murder is wrong, for example, is because each individual is of infinite worth. But the reason each individual is of infinite worth is because he/she is created in God's image. And the reason God loves us is not because we are lovely or lovable, but because he is loving; indeed, the claim is that God is love itself.

(see also part 1 and part 2)

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Saturday, August 8, 2009


-- Temporal anomalies in popular time-travel movies; an interesting website run by a Christian.

-- From the "Ha! I knew it!" file: Dogs are smarter than cats.

-- It turns out if you draw Charlie Brown realistically, but still with his cartoon proportions, he looks really creepy. Ditto for Homer Simpson.

-- John Hughes passed away recently; here's a very moving tribute to him. And here's a funny scene from the original script of Ferris Bueller's Day Off that never made it to the movie.

-- Scientists have discovered what they think is a 14,000-year-old map. Cool.

-- Knights and Knaves puzzles. Knights only tell the truth and knaves only tell lies, so you have to figure out who is what. Some add spies who can tell the truth or lie. If you want some clues, see here. If they're too easy for you, see if you can solve The Hardest Logical Puzzle Ever.

-- The Postmodern Generator creates a completely meaningless postmodern essay every time you load the page. Heh.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Quote of the Day

What, then, was the fate of the foreign sciences in Islam? No simple answer, applicable to all times and places, is possible. Indeed, the historical situation was so complex that historians who specialize on Islam cannot agree on how to characterize it. Two quite different interpretations are currently in circulation. According to one of them, the foreign sciences never ceased to be viewed by the great majority of Muslims as useless, alien, and perhaps dangerous. They went against the grain of orthodox thought, met no fundamental need, and were excluded from the developing educational system. As a result, the foreign sciences were never deeply integrated into Islamic culture, but survived on the margins. The undeniably great achievements of Islamic scientists and natural philosophers, therefore, must have emanated from isolated enclaves of scholars protected from the pressures of orthodoxy (as at a royal court during a period of unusual tolerance) or willing, for reasons known only to themselves, to swim against the cultural stream. This has been called the 'marginality thesis,' because of its claim that science in Islam was never more than a marginal pursuit.

The alternative theory views the Islamic encounter with Greek learning in a quite different light. While acknowledging that suspicion and hostility existed, this theory maintains that on the whole Greek science and natural philosophy enjoyed a reasonably hospitable reception in Islam. After all, Islam did not reject the fruits of foreign learning but, despite conservative opposition, undertook a remarkable program of recovery and cultivation. Moreover, one can point to many examples of the integration of Greek disciplines into traditional learning and Islamic culture more generally. Thus logic became incorporated into theology and law; astronomy became an indispensable tool for the muwaqqit, who was responsible for determining the times of daily prayer in his locale; and mathematics became essential for a wide variety of commercial, legal, and governmental purposes. That mathematics and astronomy were occasionally taught in the most highly developed of the Muslim schools, the madrasahs or colleges of law, testifies to the high level of acceptance and integration. According to this interpretation, Islam successfully appropriated large portions of foreign learning, despite opposition; let us call this the 'appropriation thesis.' On this view, the foreign sciences did not conquer the traditional disciplines, but made peace with them by agreeing to serve as their handmaidens.

The gap between these two interpretations is substantial; and, given the current state of research on the history of Islamic science, the dispute does not seem likely to be soon resolved. But several things can be said, which may help to mediate between the two positions. First, we must acknowledge that the marginality thesis in its strong form is untenable. The cultivation of Greek natural philosophy and mathematical science was far too widespread and successful to be viewed as a marginal product of Islamic culture. But while granting this to the "appropriationists," we must go on to point out that science was far from central to Islamic culture and that there were forces within Islam tending to marginalize the foreign sciences -- which is to say that the "marginalists" have their eye on some genuine feature of Islamic culture. To be specific, Greek learning never found a secure institutional home in Islam, as it was eventually to do in the universities of medieval Christendom. One reason why this was so, is that Islamic schools lacked the structure and uniformity of those in the West, particularly at the higher levels. This lack of structure offered freedom to the individual scholar to pursue whatever specialty he wished. Freedom insured diversity and created room for the practitioner of Greek philosophy and science; but it also insured that Islamic schools would never develop a curriculum that systematically taught the foreign sciences. In short Islamic education did nothing to prohibit the foreign sciences; but neither did it do much to support them. This fact may help us to understand the decline of Islamic science in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

David C. Lindberg
The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450

Monday, August 3, 2009

Christianity and Science

Tyson has passed along a couple of links: the first deals with Francis Collins, author of The Language of God, who was appointed by President Obama to be the Director of the National Institute of Health. Since Collins is a Christian, it is alleged by some that he can't possibly be a good choice for this position. You see, Christians simply must be anti-science. They're scary.

The second link is to an interesting disparity between how scientists view themselves politically and how the public views them.

And since it's on topic, James Hannam's book God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science has been published. Go get one.

Saturday, August 1, 2009


-- Between Two Worlds has links to some audio recordings of C. S. Lewis reading some of his own works. The first two are at the BBC, and I've heard them before. Here's a 14-minute recording of one of his early radio readings that were collected into the book Beyond Personality, which later became part 3 of Mere Christianity. And here is a brief 2 minute introduction to The Great Divorce. The rest I haven't heard. Here are three very short clips (about a half minute each) from The Four Loves, as well as the same essay from Beyond Personality mentioned above. For purchase, you can get The C. S. Lewis Recordings, three and a half hours, including the entirety of The Great Divorce and "C. S. Lewis Speaks His Mind," which consists of several subjects. Via DI1.

-- Amy Alkon links to a post by Wendy McElroy on an apparently innocent senior citizen who has been locked up for sexually abusing a child. Alkon's post has some interesting comments and links by readers, including this one. Via Dr. Helen.

-- Arlo Guthrie's a Republican. Wow.

-- This is old news, and you've probably heard it before; I'm sure I have. But re-reading this reminded me that there is real evil in this world. In the 1980s, two daughters accused their father (all Christians) of sexually molesting them, and in fact of forcing them to participate in a Satanic cult. When the father denied it, his pastor and the investigators told him that of course he wouldn't remember it because he would have blocked out the memories. They were able to put him into some kind of trance state, and told him that if he could imagine these acts in that state, they were actual memories coming to the surface. His pastor specifically told him that these imaginings were from God and God would not reveal anything to him that didn't actually happen. The father was very gullible and very susceptible to suggestion, so he believed them and confessed. Of course, it was all completely bogus. He spent 15 years in jail (released in 2003) for committing horrific crimes that never even occurred.

-- Here's an awesome picture of the Space Shuttle docked with the International Space Station.

-- The dullest blog in the world is up and running again!