Friday, December 31, 2010


I have just spent the last week as sick as I've ever been. I had a high fever, severe dizziness, severe aches all over my body, cough, and was alternating between violent shivering and profuse sweating. Now I'm doing better: my fever's down, the aches are mostly gone, the shivering and sweating is mostly gone. The dizziness is still there, but not nearly as bad.

All this to explain why I haven't posted with my usual frequency of late. I'll try to get going again, but I had planned to use this week (and next) to finish the rough draft of my dissertation, so I'm behind and may not have as much time to post. Also, if you wrote a comment recently and were wondering why I hadn't responded to it, I just went through and answered several of the more recent ones.

Merry (cough) Christmas and Happy (bleaurgh) New Year.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Quote of the Day

For a while he went on cautiously, but he was haunted by a picture in his mind of a place where the path would break off short when it was too dark for him to see, and he would step on air. This fear made him halt more and more frequently to examine his ground: and when he went on it was each time more slowly: till at last he came to a standstill. There seemed to be nothing for it but to rest where he was. The night was warm, but he was both hungry and thirsty. And he sat down. It was quite dark now.

Then I dreamed that once more a Man came to him in the darkness and said, 'You must pass the night where you are, but I have brought you a loaf and if you crawl along the ledge ten paces more you will find that a little fall of water comes down the cliff.'

'Sir,' said John. 'I do not know your name and I cannot see your face, but I thank you. Will you not sit down and eat, yourself?'

'I am full and not hungry,' said the Man. 'And I will pass on. But one word before I go. You cannot have it both ways.'

'What do you mean, sir?'

'Your life has been saved all this day by crying out to something which you call by many names, and you have said to yourself that you used metaphors.'

'Was I wrong, sir?'

'Perhaps not. But you must play fair. If its help is not a metaphor, neither are its commands. If it can answer when you call, then it can speak without your asking. If you can go to it, it can come to you.'

'I think I see, sir. You mean that I am not my own man: in some sense I have a Landlord after all?'

"Even so. But what is it that dismays you? You heard from Wisdom how the rules were yours and not yours. Did you not mean to keep them? And if so, can it scare you to know that there is one who will make you able to keep them?'

'Well,' said John, 'I suppose you have found me out. Perhaps I did not fully mean to keep them -- not all -- or not all the time. And yet, in a way, I think I did. It is like a thorn in your finger, sir. You know when you set about taking it out yourself -- you mean to get it out -- you know it will hurt -- and it does hurt -- but somehow it is not very serious business -- well, I suppose, because you feel that you always could stop if it was very bad. Not that you intend to stop. But it is a very different thing to hold your hand out to a surgeon to be hurt as much as he thinks fit. And at his speed.'

The Man laughed. 'I see you understand me very well,' He said, 'but the great thing is to get the thorn out.' And then He went away.

C. S. Lewis
The Pilgrim's Regress

Friday, December 17, 2010


Glenn Reynolds -- law professor, Instapundit -- is generally characterized as a linking blog as opposed to a commentary blog, since the vast majority of his posts are, well, links with little commentary. But every now and then something raises his ire. The most recent victim is communism, in light of research into the horrific state-sponsored torture, cruelty, and murder undertaken by the Maoist government in China in the mid-20th century. The number of people who were tortured or killed is just beyond comprehension. Reynolds concludes, "Communists are as bad as Nazis, and their defenders and apologists are as bad as Nazis’ defenders, but far more common. When you meet them, show them no respect. They’re evil, stupid, and dishonest." A commenter takes issue with him, Reynolds is unpersuaded, and several other commenters weigh in as well. It's worth the read.

Update (18 Dec): More commentary from Classical Values. And you might want to read this quote that I posted several months ago.

Monday, December 13, 2010

And Yet Still More Favorite Movie Scenes

Annie Hall


The Boondock Saints

Buckaroo Banzai

Billy Madison

Galaxy Quest

X-Men 2


Big Night

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Quote of the Day

Chiefly, however, determinism is self-stultifying. If my mental processes are totally determined, I am totally determined either to accept or to reject determinism. But if the sole reason for my believing or not believing X is that I am causally determined to believe it I have no ground for holding that my judgment is true or false. J. R. Lucas has put the point cogently with reference to Marxist and Freudian forms of determinism thus. 'The Marxist who says that all ideologies have no independent validity and merely reflect the class interests of those who hold them can be told that in that case his Marxist views merely express the economic interests of his class, and have no more claim to be judged true or valid than any toher view. So too the Freudian, if he makes out that everybody else's philosophy is merely the consequence of childhood experiences, is, by parity of reasoning, revealing merely his delayed response to what happened to him when he was a child.' Lucas then makes the same point with regard to a person who maintains, more generally, that our behaviour is totally determined by heredity and environment. 'If what he says is true, he says it merely as the result of his heredity and environment, and of nothing else. He does not hold his determinist views because they are true, but because he has such-and-such a genetic make-up, and has received such-and-such stimuli; that is, not because the structure of the universe is such-and-such but only because the configuration of only one part of the universe, together with the structure of the determinist's brain, is such as to produce that result.'

The exact force of this criticism is sometimes missed. Certainly on deterministic premisses determinism may be true. But we should not have any grounds for affirming that it is true or therefore for knowing that it is so. In order to obtain these grounds we must be free from all determining factors in order to assess the evidence according to its own worth. This principle applies to the assessment of all truth-claims (including those of Christianity). Freedom from determining factors is therefore required in the cognitive as much as in the moral sphere.

Huw Parri Owen
Christian Theism: A Study in Its Basic Principles
(quoting J. R. Lucas, The Freedom of the Will)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

C. S. Lewis's Fiction for Adults

[This is a repost from a few years ago when the second Chronicles of Narnia movie came out. Since the third movie, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, opens up this week, I thought it would be appropriate to post it again. A few points are dated -- I mention Madeleine L’Engle’s death "last year" -- and I would add several more science-fiction authors who write on Christian themes to my list that I have since discovered (most notably Michael Flynn), but that’s about it.]

Since The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe film came out a few years ago, a lot of attention has been focused on C. S. Lewis and his children’s fiction, namely, the seven Chronicles of Narnia. With the second Narnia movie, Prince Caspian, opening up in the States this week (it won’t get to Belgium until July), I thought it would be a good idea to draw attention to his fictional works written for adults, which I appreciate much more. So below is a short summary of his adult fiction. Not included is his short story collection The Dark Tower and Other Stories, partially because there is a pretty silly looking controversy over whether it was really written by C. S. Lewis, but mostly because I’ve never read it.

The Pilgrim’s Regress
This was the first book about Christianity that C. S. Lewis wrote, not long after his he became a Christian. It takes its title and premise from Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegorical story about the Christian life. The Pilgrim’s Regress deals largely with C. S. Lewis’s experiences as a non-Christian, traveling through various worldviews. It represents his journey from Christianity to atheism, from atheism to idealism, from idealism to pantheism, from pantheism to theism, and from theism back to Christianity (hence, a regress). It’s much harder to decipher than Bunyan’s, but every edition I’ve ever seen alleviates this by having a short blurb at the top of each page translating the imagery. The story is extremely rich, so I’ll just describe a few of the many characters and situations in it.

Lewis was raised a Christian, but abandoned it as a very young man. Similarly, the main character of The Pilgrim’s Regress, named John, is brought up in the land of Puritania, where he is brought to a Steward (a priest) and told about the Landlord (God). Here, Lewis brilliantly represents a child’s impression of Christianity, by having everyone put on a mask whenever they talk about the Landlord, and has John given a list of rules to obey -- "but half the rules seemed to forbid things he had never heard of, and the other half forbade things he was doing every day and could not imagine not doing". The Steward tells him that if he breaks any of the rules, the Landlord will put him in a black hole (hell). When John asks if there is any way to avoid the black hole if he’d already broken a rule, the Steward "sat down and talked for a long time, but John could not understand a single syllable. However, it all ended with pointing out that the Landlord was quite extraordinarily kind and good to his tenants, and would certainly torture most of them to death the moment he had the slightest pretext." I love this.

John has a vision of an island in the West, and so leaves home to pursue it. The island represents longing or sehnsucht, what Lewis later refers to as "joy" in his autobiography. The first person he encounters on his journey is Mr. Enlightenment, who greatly comforts John by telling him that there is no such person as the Landlord. When John asks him how he knows this for sure, Mr. Enlightenment exclaims, "Christopher Columbus, Galileo, the earth is round, invention of printing, gunpowder!!" I'm a big fan of science, so I really appreciate the way Lewis represents the alleged conflict between science and religion as pure bluster. In his nonfiction book, The Discarded Image, he goes into detail about some of the particular points of "conflict". Nevertheless, John believes (although does not follow) Mr. Enlightenment.

At one point, John is captured by the Spirit of the Age (Freudianism), and is thrown into a prison in the side of a hill. A nearby mountain turns out to be a giant who looks into the prison. The giant’s eyes have a property that whatever they look upon becomes transparent -- so when John looks at his fellow prisoners, he sees their brains and lungs and intestines, and basically, as just bundles of complexes. This is how Freudianism explains everything. When he looks down at himself, he sees his own organs. When John tries to argue, the jailer asks the other prisoners what argument is. One responds, it "is the attempted rationalization of the arguer’s desires". The jailer asks him how to respond to any argument proving the existence of the Landlord. The prisoner responds, "You say that because you are a Steward". Finally, the jailer asks him how to respond to any argument that two plus two equals four. The prisoner responds, "You say that because you are a mathematician".

John is rescued from the prison by a woman in armor, named Reason. She asks the giant three riddles, and when the giant can’t answer, she kills it. John leaves with her, but the other prisoners huddle together in a corner of the prison cell, wailing, "It is one more wish-fulfillment dream: it is one more wish-fulfillment dream". John quickly leaves Reason, though, when she points out to him that for many people disbelief in the Landlord is a wish-fulfillment dream.

John acquires a traveling companion named Vertue, but their journey is quickly halted by an unbridgeable canyon. The journey then becomes an attempt to try to find some way of crossing the canyon. They travel north, where they meet nihilism, and south, where they meet philosophy. Mother Kirk (Christianity) tells them that she can carry them across, but John doesn’t want anything to do with her.

Again, this is just a small selection of the imagery of this book. Towards the end of it, John travels through the land of Luxuria which represents sexual promiscuity. A beautiful witch offers him wine from a cup, and when he refuses, tries to convince him to drink. I do not know whether this will be true of women as well, but every man who has ever struggled with sexual temptation (as opposed to those who simply give in to it) will recognize their struggle in this passage.

The Space Trilogy
I love science-fiction, but many stories in this genre that mention Christianity at all are explicitly hostile to it; at any rate, there is considerably less written from a Christian perspective than from non-Christian (and even anti-Christian) perspectives. I suspect this is nothing intrinsic to the genre itself, but is merely a reflection of the perception mentioned above that science and Christianity conflict with each other, and so we allegedly have to choose one or the other. It never ceases to amaze me that some people can have such amazing imaginations as SF authors demonstrate, but when it comes to Christianity they substitute bogus slogans, clichés, and knee-jerk reactions for rationality.

Nevertheless, there are some Christian SF authors. Madeleine L’Engle (who died last year) wrote A Wrinkle in Time, the first of her Time Quintet series, although they’re really juvenile SF. Another is Jerry Pournelle, a C. S. Lewis fan, who wrote (with Larry Niven) an update of Inferno, Dante’s classic work of a journey through hell, with the added twist of the main character being a SF author -- in fact, he "lifted a good part of the philosophical stuffing" in this book from Lewis. Pournelle’s SF isn’t religious in nature, although you can sometimes see traces. He even mentions Lewis a couple of times in Footfall. Orson Scott Card is something of a theologically-liberal Mormon (I think), and he treats religion very respectfully in his books. In Xenocide, the third book of the original Ender series, Card has a Catholic missionary who essentially converts an entire alien race to Christianity. One of the main characters in the second Ender series is a Catholic nun who holds her own against skeptics. Christian authors I haven’t read (yet) include Gene Wolfe, Connie Willis, Elizabeth Moon, John C. Wright, Susan Palwick, and several others. If you want to read more about Christianity in SF, I strongly recommend skipping over to Claw of the Conciliator, and reading his important posts listed on his sidebar, starting with this one. I also began to read two books called The Sparrow and Children of God, by Mary Doria Russell (who converted from Catholicism to Judaism) which together make up a SF story about some Jesuits who encounter an alien race. I’ve decided not to go through them yet, because they deal with God leading people into abject failure and horror, and how such a person can ever trust God afterwards. My wife and I took a step of faith a few years ago, and until it’s resolved, I don’t think it would be good for my psychological health to read a fictional account of God leading people into abject failure and horror.

This is a rather long introduction into Lewis’s three SF books, which I think are his weakest writings (not so weak that they’re not worth reading though). They strike me as being "old-fashioned" SF, more in the vein of H. G. Wells than of Card or Pournelle. The main character is named Ransom, and I read somewhere that he’s modeled after one of C. S. Lewis’s best friends, J. R. R. Tolkien (I’ve also read somewhere that Treebeard in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is modeled after Lewis). All three books address an issue that Lewis explores more fully in his non-fiction book The Abolition of Man: namely, that the reduction of humanity to mere matter, and the desire to conquer nature both lead to the destruction of humanity itself.

The first book is Out of the Silent Planet. Ransom is kidnapped by some men who have built a spaceship, and is taken to Mars, or Malacandra. They kidnap him because they think some of the natives want a human sacrifice. Once on Malacandra, Ransom escapes and lives for several months among some different natives. He discovers that the intelligent races on Malacandra are not fallen and sinful like human beings. Earth is the silent planet because the endil (roughly, angel) in charge of it has rebelled against God, and so none of the other endil know anything about the earth. Ransom is eventually discovered by the first set of natives, who didn’t want him for a sacrifice after all. One of the kidnappers, named Weston, is later hauled before a kind of "court" where he extols the glory of humanity and how it will conquer the universe. The setting makes this speech sound very silly.

The second is Perelandra. A friendly endil transports Ransom to Venus, which is covered in water with many floating islands of vegetation. Ransom encounters a "woman" who is, essentially, the Eve of that planet. She and the Adam have been separated and are trying to find each other. However, they aren’t too stressed about it, since they are unfallen and trust God to take care of them. But then Weston takes his spaceship to Perelandra, where he reveals himself to be possessed. Weston -- now a rebellious spiritual entity -- tries to convince Eve why it would be best for her to break the laws that God has set for her, while Ransom tries to convince her otherwise. The tension here is overwhelming; when I read through this part of the book, I want to just step into the story and physically stop Weston from trying to tempt the woman. I’m also struck by the amazing contrast between the intelligence behind Weston’s attempts to convince the woman to rebel against God, and the sheer vacuity of his tauntings of Ransom when the woman’s not around. He just says, "Ransom, Ransom, Ransom, Ransom..." etc. until Ransom says, "What?" to which Weston replies "Nothing", then after a pause starts up again: "Ransom, Ransom, Ransom..."

The third book is That Hideous Strength. This is generally considered the best of the three, but I like it the least. Ransom is not the main character in it, but still plays a significant role. The two main characters are a young married couple who aren’t as enamored of each other as they used to be. The man is a low-level professor who is offered a job at an institute, but he’s not sure exactly what they expect of him. This part of the book is long and -- to me -- tedious, and deals with the man’s desire to be a part of the right crowd. Unfortunately, the crowd in this instance intends to overthrow society and replace it with machines. To this end, they have made a horrific attempt at immortality, and intend to dig up Merlin the magician of English folklore to help them. Meanwhile, the man’s wife has begun having visions, and is eventually taken in by Ransom and his people (including, interestingly, an atheist), who are planning to do battle with the institute. Merlin shows up and things get funky. Towards the end, one of the antagonists illustrates the main theme behind the whole Trilogy:

Frost had left the dining room a few minutes after Wither. He did not know where he was going or what he was about to do. For many years he had theoretically believed that all which appears in the mind as motive or intention is merely a by-product of what the body is doing. But for the last year or so -- since he had been initiated -- he had begun to taste as fact what he had long held as theory. Increasingly, his actions had been without motive. He did this and that, he said thus and thus, and did not know why. His mind was a mere spectator. He could not understand why that spectator should exist at all. He resented its existence, even while assuring himself that resentment also was merely a chemical phenomenon. The nearest thing to a human passion which still existed in him was a sort of cold fury against all who believed in the mind. There was no tolerating such an illusion. There were not, and must not be, such things as men.

(I transcribed a larger part of this quote in this post, near the bottom).

The Screwtape Letters
This book is difficult to classify: it’s fiction, but not really a story. It purports to be a series of letters written by a senior demon in hell, named Screwtape, to his nephew demon, Wormwood, who is in charge of corrupting an individual human being. The letters consist of advice on how to best go about this.

Since it’s not really a story, it can’t really be summarized. Suffice it to say that it’s incredibly clever, hilarious, and painful. I, at least, recognize myself on every page. There’s an audio version of John Cleese reading excerpts from them which is, as my fellow Python fans can imagine, spectacular. I was going to avoid quoting from them, because I was afraid if I started, I wouldn’t be able to find a stopping point. But here’s one of my favorite passages from the first letter, before Wormwood’s "patient" becomes a Christian:

The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground. He can argue too; whereas in really practical propaganda of the kind I am suggesting He has been shown for centuries to be greatly the inferior of Our Father Below. By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result? Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favour, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences. Your business is to fix his attention on the stream. Teach him to call it "real life" and don’t let him ask what he means by "real".

Here’s a passage from the second letter, which describes Wormwood’s "patient" going to a church. After this, I’ll close my book and put it back on the shelf:

When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like "the body of Christ" and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father Below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous. ... Never let it come to the surface; never let him ask what he expected them to look like. Keep everything hazy in his mind now, and you will have all eternity wherein to amuse yourself by producing in him the peculiar kind of clarity which Hell affords.

Lewis later appended the Letters with an essay entitled "Screwtape Proposes a Toast", in which Screwtape addresses a group of young tempters upon their graduation from training college. Most recent editions of the Letters will include it at the end, and it can also be found in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays and Screwtape Proposes a Toast and Other Pieces.

The Great Divorce.
The title is a response to Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The theme is that some people in hell take a bus trip to heaven. The twist is that they don’t like it. It’s too real. When they disembark, they find that they are translucent -- "ghosts" -- and they don’t even have enough substantiality to bend the grass that they walk on, since it’s more solid than they are. Lewis uses this theme to explore deep theological questions about heaven and hell. How could God allow people to go to hell? How can anyone be happy in heaven if there is a hell?

The story is told in the first person. Each of the travelers is met by someone they know who tries to convince them to go deeper into heaven. C. S. Lewis is met by George MacDonald, the 19th century author whose writings played a large role in Lewis’s life. One man is met by a former employee who committed murder. This shocks him, and he refuses to take part in any heaven that would accept a murderer, while keeping a "decent chap" like himself outside. Another man is met by a former student. The man was apparently a theologian who denied the central tenets of Christianity, and insists that "God" would never "punish" him for his "honest opinions". He refuses to go further into heaven, because he has a paper to read next week at a theological society that they’ve organized in hell.

A woman refuses to go into heaven because her husband is in there, and she doesn’t want anything to do with him. But as she talks about it, she says she’d be willing to come if she was allowed to have full control over him. Another woman only wants to see her son who died in his youth. She’s told she will be able to see him (not allowed to, but able to) as soon as she learns to want God more than her son. She responds by saying she will have no part in a God who keeps a mother and son apart. Her son is hers, not God’s. "I hate your religion and I hate and despise your God. I believe in a God of Love". She says this when she’s within walking distance of Love himself.

One man has a lizard on his shoulder who whispers things to him (representing lust). He is met by someone who offers to kill the lizard.

"Get back! You’re burning me. How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did."
"It is not so."
"Why, you’re hurting me now."
"I never said it wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you."

The meeting that just devastates me though, is two ghosts who are met by one of the most glorious beings in heaven. The glorious being was a nobody on earth, just a poor woman. The two ghosts are the remains of a single person who used to be her husband. They are a thin man, and a hunched dwarf on a chain. Upon closer examination, however, we discover that the dwarf ghost is actually holding the chain, and the thin one is shackled. The thin ghost is a seedy actor, a tragedian, who answers whenever the woman speaks to the dwarf. Basically, the man is a phony; he responds to every situation by acting, by striking a pose. He has been doing it so long that he has separated into two entities, which are dependent on each other. The reason this devastates me is that it hits a little too close to home.

The dwarf ghost spent his entire life making himself suffer in order to manipulate people into doing what he wanted out of pity. The glorious being who was his wife tells him that he can let go of the chain. He doesn’t have to continue manipulating people anymore, for the simple reason that it’s impossible to do so in heaven. No matter what he does, he won’t make anyone feel bad. He can be free of his self-imposed misery, because his reason for so imposing himself no longer exists: he can’t affect (or perhaps infect) others with his misery. But the ghost has been doing this for so long, he doesn’t know what it would mean to let go of the chain. "I do not know that I ever saw anything more terrible than the struggle of that Dwarf Ghost against joy".

Again, I think this book is brilliant. I highly recommend it.

Till We Have Faces
This is C. S. Lewis’s masterpiece. He thought it was the best thing he ever wrote. It’s basically the myth of Cupid and Psyche, told from the perspective of one of Psyche’s sisters. If you don’t know that story, there are spoilers ahead, so consider yourself warned. As The Pilgrim’s Regress, this book is extremely rich, so there will be, by necessity, much of significance that I’ll have to leave out in this summary. Orual, or Maia, is the sister in question; she is the oldest daughter of the king of Glome. She says she is writing the book as an accusation against the gods.

Orual discovers early in life that she is extremely ugly. Her father, a tyrant, buys a Greek slave (named the Fox, who represents rationality) to teach her and her sister. Eventually, the king remarries, and fathers another daughter, Psyche. Orual loves Psyche and her life becomes meaningful because of it. Psyche grows up and the people of the kingdom think she is a goddess because she is so beautiful. But then the kingdom falls on very hard times, and the people say she must be sacrificed for daring to present herself as a goddess. The priest of the kingdom’s pagan temple confronts the king with this, and he -- once he realizes that the people don’t want to sacrifice him -- agrees. They will take Psyche up to the mountain where the god, or Shadowbrute, lives and chain her to a pole. The god (they believe) will then consume her, but this is simultaneously thought of as a kind of marriage as well. Psyche is not depressed by her state, and considers it an honorable thing to die for a god; and who knows? Maybe she will be married to him. Orual, however, is devastated. There is very little love in her life, either to give or receive, and the large portion of it is to and from Psyche. She tries to stop it, but collapses, and is delirious for several days.

After Orual has recovered, she begins to train at sword fighting with Bardia, the captain of the guard. But just in case you think there might have been some sexual tension here, remember, Orual is ugly. After their first lesson, "one of the other soldiers (I suppose he had had a sight of what we were doing) came into the passage and said something to Bardia. Bardia replied, I couldn’t hear what. Then he spoke louder: ‘Why, yes, it’s a pity about her face. But she’s a brave girl and honest. If a man was blind and she weren’t the King’s daughter, she’d make him a good wife.’ And that is the nearest thing to a love-speech that was ever made me."

Eventually, she and Bardia decide to go up to the mountain to retrieve Psyche’s bones and give them a proper burial. But there is nothing at the pole where the priest had chained her, and it’s forbidden to go beyond it. She decides to go beyond it anyway, and immediately finds herself in a kind of hidden valley with a little stream, and on the other side of the stream is Psyche staring back at her with a surprised look on her face. They embrace and weep. Psyche tells Orual that she is indeed married to the god of the mountain, and that she lives in a beautiful palace with invisible servants who give her everything she wants. But when Orual asks to see the palace, Psyche looks at her in shock: they are already in it. Orual can’t see it. The wine is just water, the bountiful food is just berries, the marble pillars are just trees. When Orual asks about her husband, Psyche explains that he only comes to her at night, in the dark, and so she has never seen him; in fact, she’s forbidden from seeing him. Orual takes all of this to mean that Psyche has lost her mind.

When she talks to the Fox about all of this, he also believes that Psyche has lost her mind, and thinks that her "husband" is a mountain man, a vagabond, an outlaw, who "rescued" her and is now taking advantage of her insanity. This so infuriates Orual that she decides, without the Fox’s counsel, to go back to the mountain and prove to Psyche that her husband is not who she thinks he is.

Her plan is to use Psyche’s love for her, by telling her that she’ll kill herself unless she agrees to look at her husband once he’s asleep. She stabs herself through the arm to prove to Psyche that she’s serious about it, and then gives Psyche a lamp and an urn to cover the light. Psyche very reluctantly agrees to do this. Orual goes back across the stream and waits to see what happens. Late at night, she sees the light from the lamp appear and move a little, then stay in one place for a long time. Then suddenly there is a great roar -- "It was no ugly sound; even in its implacable sternness it was golden. My terror was the salute that mortal flesh gives to immortal things." -- and the sound of weeping. A huge storm immediately broke out, and a bolt of lightning flashed right in front of Orual. But it didn’t go away: the lightning bolt stayed in front of her: and "in the center of the light was something like a man". The god of the mountain was real, and he was beautiful, and she had just compelled Psyche to betray him.

Though this light stood motionless, my glimpse of the face was as swift as a true flash of lightning. I could not bear it for longer. Not my eyes only, but my heart and blood and very brain were too weak for that. A monster -- the Shadowbrute that I and all Glome had imagined -- would have subdued me less than the beauty this face wore. And I think anger (what men call anger) would have been more supportable than the passionless and measureless rejection with which it looked upon me. Though my body crouched where I could almost have touched his feet, his eyes seemed to send me from him to an endless distance. He rejected, denied, answered, and (worst of all) he knew, all I had thought, done or been. A Greek verse says that even the gods cannot change the past. But is this true? He made it to be as if, from the beginning, I had known that Psyche’s lover was a god, and as if all my doubtings, fears, guessings, debatings, questionings of Bardia, questionings of the Fox, all the rummage and business of it, had been trumped-up foolery, dust blown in my own eyes by myself. You, who read my book, judge. Was it so? Or, at least, had it been so in the very past, before this god changed the past? And if they can indeed change the past, why do they never do so in mercy?

The thunder had ceased, I think, the moment the still light came. There was great silence when the god spoke to me. And as there was no anger (what men call anger) in his face, so there was none in his voice. It was unmoved and sweet; like a bird singing on the branch above a hanged man.

"Now Psyche goes out in exile. Now she must hunger and thirst and tread hard roads. Those against whom I cannot fight must do their will upon her. You, woman, shall know yourself and your work. You also shall be Psyche."

The voice and the light both ended together as if one knife had cut them short. Then, in the silence, I heard again the noise of the weeping.

I never heard weeping like that before or after, not from a child, nor a man wounded in the palm, nor a tortured man, nor a girl dragged off to slavery from a taken city. If you heard the woman you most hate in the world weep so, you would go to comfort her. You would fight your way through fire and spears to reach her. And I knew who wept, and what had been done to her, and who had done it.

This breaks my heart every time I read it.

This isn’t the end of the story at all, but this is all of it that I’ll relate here. Again, this book is rich. The title refers to a common theme in Lewis’s writings, that the earth and our lives are just shadows of reality (this is the imagery behind the title of the movie Shadowlands, about Lewis). In this book, the idea is that we demand to see God face to face; but how can we till we have faces? I’ve read through it a few times, and I’m not at all confident that I’m understanding the imagery; but despite this, I still recognize that I’ve come into contact with something deeply profound. Orual and Psyche clearly represent two different parts of the human being, but I’m not sure exactly what: perhaps Orual is the physical side and Psyche is the spiritual; perhaps Orual is the mortal side and Psyche the immortal; perhaps Orual is the person we are and Psyche is the person we want to be. The point being that the Orual side betrays the Psyche side, but will eventually be redeemed, glorified, and transformed into the Psyche side. More than that, I don’t know. Read it for yourself.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Very Cool

In a recent post I pointed out how Dave Mustaine of Megadeth became a Christian several years ago. A commenter on the post, Ignorance, pointed to a Wikipedia article detailing the surprising influence of Christianity in non-Christian heavy metal. Some of them I'd heard before, like Alice Cooper's conversion, and Ozzy Osbourne's claim to be an Anglican. But most were surprising. For example, Dan Spitz, the guitarist for Anthrax, is a Messianic Jew (a Jewish Christian). One of the more interesting ones was Dave Ellefson, the bass player for Megadeth.

One of the things that helped him to come back to Christ was that he was having children with his wife, and he started to remember how he was brought up, and the appreciation he had for it. He wanted his kids to be brought up in the church, and after several incidents in the studio that he thought was very strange, he felt God was calling him to come back to the church. After calling his wife and telling [her] that, she said, “well, I’m glad this is all happening, because the worship leader was asking if you could come sit in this Sunday because their normal bass player isn’t going to be able to make it this week”. That’s when he decided, “Okay God, I get it”.

So half of the members of Megadeth are committed Christians. That just blows me away.

Another one that amazed me is Nicko McBrain, the drummer for Iron Maiden.

McBrain converted to Christianity in 1999 after an experience in the Spanish River Church, near his Boca Raton, Florida home. His wife Rebecca had been asking him to attend with her, and upon entering the church, McBrain soon found himself crying as he experienced a "calling". Recounting the tale, he said "I just sat there thinking, 'I didn't drink last night…why can't I stand?' I had this love affair with Jesus going on in my heart."
He was also asked if he shared his religious views with his band mates, and if so, how they felt about it. McBrain responded, “We’ve had some incredibly deep conversations amongst each of us. I can’t say to you that I’m trying to convert all these guys in my band to be Christians. I’m leading them on my route, and if they choose to follow what God’s plan is in the Bible, that’s up to them. I say to them all, you know, look, in my belief, at the moment, if you turn to your saviour Jesus Christ, I’ll have eternal life in Heaven with you! … We don’t talk about it every time we get together, but we’ve had some interesting conversations over the years.”

So, thanks to Ignorance for making my day.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Quote of the Day

The Aristotelian notion of essence was the forerunner, no doubt, of the modern notion of intension or meaning. For Aristotle it was essential in men to be rational, accidental to be two-legged. But there is an important difference between this attitude and the doctrine of meaning. From the latter point of view it may indeed be conceded (if only for the sake of argument) that rationality is involved in the meaning of the word 'man' while two-leggedness is not; but two-leggedness may at the same time be viewed as involved in the meaning of 'biped' while rationality is not. Thus from the point of view of the doctrine of meaning it makes no sense to say of the actual individual, who is at once a man and a biped, that his rationality is essential and his two-leggedness accidental or vice versa. Things had essences, for Aristotle, but only linguistic forms have meanings. Meaning is what essence becomes when it is divorced from the object of reference and wedded to the word.

Willard Van Orman Quine
"Two Dogmas of Empiricism"
From a Logical Point of View

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Minding God

Many cosmological arguments, though not all, argue that the universe began to exist; and since everything that began to exist was caused by something else, the universe was caused by something else. With Big Bang cosmology this point has received empirical confirmation: according to the Big Bang, the universe -- that is, matter, energy, space, and time -- began to exist. Thus, something that exists independently of matter, energy, space, and time brought them into existence.

One objection to such arguments is that, even if the Big Bang has a cause, there's no reason to think this cause is God, much less the God of the Bible. I have to admit, I've never felt the force of this objection. I mean, is there any other issue where if you don't prove everything about it with a single argument, you prove nothing about it? The Big Bang only proves that there is an immaterial, spaceless (hence omnipresent and transcendent), timeless, and unimaginably powerful cause of the universe, and the response is, "Yeah, so?" Really? Of course the Big Bang doesn't prove that the cause of the universe is the ground of morality, of course it doesn't prove that Jesus rose from the dead, etc. But has anyone ever claimed it does? Why can't it function as part of a cumulative case argument?

What this objection is really focusing on, I think, is whether the cause of the universe is a mind -- or at least, as C. S. Lewis puts it, "more like a mind than it is like anything else we know". A cause that was not a mind would be mechanistic, since a mechanistic cause is one which produces its effect automatically. That is, if the cause is present, the necessary and sufficient conditions for the effect to take place are met; and since the necessary and sufficient conditions for the effect to take place are met, the effect takes place.

But since the scientific evidence proves that we are dealing with the beginning of time itself, the cause of the universe must be timeless. So is it possible to have a timeless mechanistic cause that produces a temporal effect (in this case, the universe)? It is difficult to see how this would be possible. A timeless mechanistic cause would produce its effect timelessly, since the necessary and sufficient conditions for its effect's occurrence are timelessly present. But in the case under discussion, the effect (the universe) is not timelessly present, and yet must have a timeless cause, since time is part of the effect. Therefore, the cause of the universe cannot be mechanistic or automatic; it must be non-mechanistic. It must be an entity with the capacity of choosing to create the universe as a finite, temporal effect. And the ability to choose is an inherently mental act. Therefore, the entity responsible for creating the universe must be a mind, a personal agent with free will. As William Lane Craig puts it in The Kalām Cosmological Argument, "For while a mechanically operating set of necessary and sufficient conditions would either produce the effect from eternity or not at all, a personal being may freely choose to create at any time wholly apart from any distinguishing conditions of one moment from another. For it is the very function of will to distinguish like from like."

So it seems that cosmological arguments based on Big Bang cosmology prove, among other things, that the cause of the universe is an incredibly powerful Mind. This obviously matches up with the Judeo-Christian concept of God. One could still object that the Judeo-Christian God has other traits that these cosmological arguments don't prove, but I'm afraid I'm too overawed by what they do prove to think this objection amounts to much.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Psychoanalysis and Religion

I just encountered an interesting discussion on religion and psychoanalysis that moved across several blogs. It starts with Shrink Rap, shifts over to Retriever, and concludes at ShrinkWrapped (unrelated to the first blog). And for any interested parties, you can also read my critique of Freud's theory of religion: A Case of Projection.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Quote of the Day

When the world came to an end, when the apocalypse finally arrived, it was with all the fury and thunder foretold by the biblical scriptures Sareech had read long ago.

First the ground shook, an earthquake that rippled the mountainside as if Satan himself had suddenly flexed his arms somewhere in the caverns of Hell. He could hear trees snapping as if they were little more than dry twigs, the vast forest crashing down upon itself in waves of percussion that steadily moved toward him, and through it all was the odor of sulfur, heavy and poisonous, as the morning sun disappeared behind a thick, black pillar of smoke that ascended upward into the heavens, blocking out the dawn, eradicating all warmth, all light, all hope.

The chireep were in full panic. For many days, they had felt the tremors, smelled noxious odors rising from the flanks of Corah, the mountain upon which they had built their city. Some had fled -- the unfaithful, those who were more afraid of Corah than Sareech's holy wrath -- but most remained behind, believing that their god-from-the-sky would save them. Now they swarmed through the tunnels of the cliff dwellings even as the walls began to cave in, burying alive the young and elderly; they huddled together on parapets, crying out to him in words that he barely understood:

Save us, Sareech! Rescue us! The destroyer has awakened! Use your powers to send Corah away! We call upon you, please stop this!

This was the moment for which Sareech knew he'd been destined. Many years ago, far beyond the stars, he'd been Zoltan Shirow. He had been born a human, had lived his early life in that mortal shell, understanding nothing of the cosmos until the Holy Transformation had occurred. Not recognizing his own divinity, believing himself to be a mere prophet, he'd traveled to this world with his followers, only to discover that, as humans, they were inherently sinful, damned beyond hope of redemption.

One by one, his congregation had perished in the mountains. Only one among them he managed to save, after they consumed the bodies of the others in order to stay alive. Greer stood beside him; her body had become frail to the point that she was unable to walk without the aid of a stick, and her blue-green eyes had grown dark and haunted, her hair grey and matted. It had been a long time since he'd last heard her speak, yet she was still his consort even though she was no longer able to share communion with him.

Nonetheless, she was a holdover from his past. The chireep were his true people. They'd found him, worshiped him as a god, and in their doing so, Zoltan had discovered his destiny. He was not a prophet, but far more. He was Sareech, capable of taming the Destroyer.

So now, as the ground quaked and ancient forests tumbled and the air itself became foul, Sareech stood his ground. Standing on top of a wooden platform high above the cliff dwellings, he raised his arms, let his batlike wings unfold to their farthest extremity.

"I am Sareech!" he shouted. "I am God!"

As he spoke, a hideous black curtain rumbled down the mountainside, a wall of superheated ash that ignited the undergrowth, setting bushes and fallen trees ablaze. Even the bravest of the chireep were running away; chirping madly, they scrambled downhill in one last, desperate effort to escape. Two of his followers clutched at his legs, their oversize eyes insane with terror, their claws digging into his calves and knees, no longer even praying for salvation, merely hoping that death would be swift.

Only his consort remained unmoved. Beneath the cowl of her ragged white robe, she stared at him, ignoring the ash descending upon them. Her eyes challenged him, daring him to justify his claim to divinity.

At last it was the time. It was within his power to perform a miracle; it was the moment when he would conquer the elements. Opening his hands, Sareech reached forth, calling upon the black mass hurtling toward him to part on either side, just as Moses had once willed the Red Sea to open wide and allow the escape of the Children of Israel.

"I am Sareech! I am --"

"Go to hell," she said.

Then a wall of ash struck them with the force of a hurricane. He had one last glimpse of his consort -- her head lowered, her eyes shut, her tattered robe catching fire -- before she was swept away like an angel in flames.

In the next instant he was pitched off the parapet, hurled toward the ground far below. As hot ash filled his lungs, roasting him from the inside out, and his skin was flayed and his wings were ripped from his back, he had one last thought, as if a solemn and merciless voice had finally spoken to him.

You are not God.

Allen Steele
Coyote Rising

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

One more reason to stay indoors

I've always been fascinated by cold weather conditions for some reason. I was just reading some posts at the Weather Doctor about the coldest temperature recorded in North America: -81.4 degrees Fahrenheit (-63 Celsius) in a town called Snag in the Yukon in February 1947. At that temperature, the water in one's breath froze as soon as one exhaled, producing a hissing sound, and then a tinkling sound when the newly-produced ice particles hit the ground. Plus, a small plume remained at head level for several minutes afterwards. It reminds me of the excellent Jack London story "To Build a Fire" where the main character spits and hears it crackle and freeze before it hits the ground.

As he turned to go on, he spat speculatively. There was a sharp, explosive crackle that startled him. He spat again. And again, in the air, before it could fall to the snow, the spittle crackled. He knew that at fifty below spittle crackled on the snow, but this spittle had crackled in the air. Undoubtedly it was colder than fifty below--how much colder he did not know.

For me, though, the most bizarre aspect of the temperature was how it affected the nature of sound. The cold, combined with the still air, made sound carry much farther and hug the ground.

One of the most notable traits of the day, remembered by both Toole and Blezard, was the enhanced audibility and crystal clarity of sounds due to the denser air and absence of wind. In addition, the strong surface temperature inversion bent the sound waves back toward the surface, thus causing sounds to hug the ground.

"At 80 below, the talking of the Indians and the barking of dogs in the village could be plainly heard at the airport four miles away," recalled Blezard. "An aircraft that flew over Snag that day at 10,000 feet [3050 m] was first heard when it was over 20 miles [32 km] away. Later, when overhead, still at 10,000 feet, the engine roar was deafening. It woke everyone who was sleeping at the time, because they thought the airplane was landing at the airport."

Isn't that wild?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Quote of the Day

This reminds us, of course, of Quine's injunction to naturalize epistemology. Quine suggested that we give ourselves full access to the deliverances of science when it comes to understanding how we have knowledge of the world around us. Contemporary externalists have simply given us more detailed metaepistemological views which allow us to rationalize following the injunction to naturalize epistemology. If the mere reliability of a process, for example, is sufficient to give us justified belief, then if that process is reliable we can use it to get justified belief wherever and whenever we like.

All of this will, of course, drive the skeptic crazy. You cannot use perception to justify the reliability of perception! You cannot use memory to justify the reliability of memory! You cannot use induction to justify the reliability of induction! Such attempts to respond to the skeptic's concerns involve blatant, indeed pathetic, circularity. Frankly, this does seem right to me and I hope it seems right to you, but if it does, then I suggest that you have a powerful reason to conclude that externalism is false. I suggest that, ironically, the very ease with which externalists can deal with the skeptical challenge at the next level betrays the ultimate implausibility of externalism as an attempt to explicate concepts that are of philosophical interest. If a philosopher starts wondering about the reliability of astrological inference, the philosopher will not allow the astrologer to read in the stars the reliability of astrology. Even if astrological inferences happen to be reliable, the astrologer is missing the point of a philosophical inquiry into the justifiability of astrological inference if the inquiry is answered using the techniques of astrology. The problem is perhaps most acute if one thinks about first-person philosophical reflection about justification. If I really am interested in knowing whether astrological inference is legitimate, if I have the kind of philosophical curiosity that leads me to raise this question in the first place, I will not for a moment suppose that further use of astrology might help me find the answer to my question. Similarly, if as a philosopher I start wondering whether perceptual beliefs are accurate reflections of the way the world really is, I would not dream of using perception to resolve my doubt. Even if there is some sense in which the reliable process of perception might yield justified beliefs about the reliability of perception, the use of perception could never satisfy a philosophical curiosity about the legitimacy of perceptual beliefs. When the philosopher wants an answer to the question of whether memory gives us justified beliefs about the past, that answer cannot possibly be provided by memory.

Richard Fumerton
Metaepistemology and Skepticism

More quotes a-comin'

I try to space out the Quotes of the Day and Thoughts of the Day, but because I've been reading a lot more lately in order to finish my dissertation, I keep finding interesting quotes I want to post. So I'm going to start doing it more frequently, maybe once a week. And just to be clear, I'm posting them because I find them interesting, not necessarily because I agree with them.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bertrand Russell on Islamic Philosophy

One of my professors once said that he had never gotten around to reading Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy, and probably never would. It was a famous book, but it was also infamous: Russell supposedly impugns those he disagrees with, often resorting to ad hominem attacks, Leibniz being a particular target (allegedly -- I haven't read it either). Anyway, an interesting blog that I've been frequenting of late is I Want a New Left, and he just posted a quote from Russell's History on Islamic Philosophy. It seems fair, insofar as Russell recognizes that the Muslims made genuine contributions in mathematics, but for the most part, their role was limited to 1) writing commentaries on other (Greek or Roman) works, and 2) passing on the ancient texts to western Europe. I would suggest though that genuine contributions can be made via commentary -- I'm thinking in particular of Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and his unusual suggestion in his Long Commentary on De Anima that there must be a nonphysical analogue to matter.

Nevertheless, our desire to recognize the good things about Islam has led to the exaggeration of Muslim accomplishments, crediting them with insights and discoveries made by others. This is unfortunate: when you exaggerate a case, eventually people will find out, and then they'll be less willing to believe similar claims, even if they are genuine.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Quote of the Day

But why not take a full blown eliminationist line? Why not eliminate the normative from our conceptual vocabulary? Could it be a superstition that there is such a thing as reason?

If one abandons the notions of justification, rational acceptability, warranted assertibility, right assertibility, and the like, completely, then 'true' goes as well, except as a mere device for 'semantic ascent', that is, a mere mechanism for switching from one level of language to another. The mere introduction of a Tarskian truth predicate cannot define for a language any notion of rightness that was not already defined. To reject the notions of justification and right assertibility while keeping a metaphysical realist notion of truth would, on the other hand, not only be peculiar (what ground could there be for regarding truth, in the 'correspondence' sense, as clearer than right assertibility?), but incoherent; for the notions the naturalistic metaphysician uses to explain truth and reference, for example the notion of causality (explanation), and the notion of the appropriate type of causal chain depend on notions which presuppose the notion of reasonableness.

But if all notions of rightness, both epistemic and (metaphysically) realist are eliminated, then what are our statements but noise-makings? What are our thoughts but mere subvocalizations? The elimination of the normative is attempted mental suicide.

The notions, 'verdict I accept' and 'method that leads to verdicts I accept' are of little help. If the only kind of rightness any statement has that I can understand is 'being arrived at by a method which yields verdicts I accept', then I am committed to a solipsism of the present moment. To solipsism, because this is a methodologically solipsist substitute for assertibility ('verdicts I accept'), and we saw before that the methodological solipsist is only consistent if he is a real solipsist. And to solipsism of the present moment because this is a tensed notion (a substitute for warranted assertibility at a time, not for assertibility in the best conditions); and if the only kind of rightness my present 'subvocalizations' have is present assertibility (however defined); if there is no notion of a limit verdict, however fuzzy; then there is no sense in which my 'subvocalizations' are about anything that goes beyond the present moment. (Even the thought 'there is a future' is 'right' only in the sense of being assertible at the present moment, in such a view.)

One could try to overcome this last defect by introducing the notion of 'a verdict I would accept in the long run', but this would at once involve one with the use of counterfactuals, and with such notions of 'similarity of possible worlds'. But it is pointless to make further efforts in this direction. Why should we expend our mental energy in convincing ourselves that we aren't thinkers, that our thoughts aren't really about anything, noumenal or phenomenal, that there is no sense in which any thought is right or wrong (including the thought that no thought is right or wrong) beyond being the verdict of the moment, and so on? This is a self-refuting enterprise if there ever was one! Let us recognize that one of our fundamental self-conceptualizations, one of our fundamental 'self-descriptions', in Rorty's phrase, is that we are thinkers, and that as thinkers we are committed to there being some kind of truth, some kind of correctness which is substantial and not merely 'disquotational'. That means that there is no eliminating the normative.

Hilary Putnam
"Why Reason Can't Be Naturalized"
Realism and Reason: Philosophical Papers, vol. 3


I don't know how complete it is, but this website has a great deal of H. P. Lovecraft's writings online.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


This is old news, but I've been out of the loop for a while. Dave Mustaine, the lead guitarist and lead singer of Megadeth, became a Christian several years ago.

"There was a moment of reckoning when my arm was destroyed, and I was up on this hill, and there was a cross at the top of it," Mustaine said. "It was just one of those thoughts -- I was baptized a Lutheran, brought up as a Jehovah's Witness, got into witchcraft and Satanism and practicing black magic. My wife was in another thing, and I was thinking that was a cult, so I'd gone back to being a Jehovah's Witness, but I wasn't happy.

"Looking up at that cross, I said six simple words -- 'What have I got to lose?' And my whole life has changed. It's been hard, but I wouldn't change it for anything. I'd rather ... go my whole life believing that there is a God and find out there isn't than live my whole life thinking there isn't a God and then find out, when I die, that there is."

I'm glad we have at least one heavy metal guitarist who's read Pascal. My favorite song of his -- Mustaine's, not Pascal's -- is Symphony of Destruction.

Friday, November 5, 2010

A Spherical Argument

One way that is still used to denigrate and mock Christianity, as well as the ancients and medievals, is the suggestion that, prior to Columbus, everyone thought the Earth was flat. This belief was rooted in religious dogma and was therefore unchallengeable until it was demonstrated empirically to be false; and even then many people continued to affirm it. It is held up as a primary example of the folly of religion in contrast to the wisdom of science.

I fortunately grew up knowing that this story line was bogus. People did not think that the Earth was flat before Columbus. Every educated person from about the third century BC onward knew the Earth was round. Columbus was trying to discover an alternate passage to the East Indies by sailing west. He had to convince people that such a route would be superior to the common one of going south, around Africa, and then east; but he didn't have to convince anyone that the Earth is round. Besides, how exactly did Columbus's voyage prove the sphericity of the Earth? He didn't circumnavigate the globe; he didn't reach some place traveling west that had already been reached by traveling east. Isn't it obvious that this narrative is false?

I thought that these things were fairly well-known. I suspected that anyone who seriously thought otherwise essentially got their knowledge on the subject from Bugs Bunny cartoons.

(Update, 30 March 2012: Here's another proof via Bugs Bunny that the earth is round.)

It just amazes me that people take this urban legend seriously. I think, for example, of the globus cruciger, that ball with a cross on top of it that kings would hold. The ball was supposed to represent the earth, with the cross on top representing Christ's dominion over it, and the sovereign would hold it to show that "he's got the whole world in his hands." The earliest of these dates to the fifth century, before the fall of Rome, and they were used throughout the Middle Ages. In fact, orbs without the cross were common for centuries beforehand. Thus, any claim that the ancients or medievals thought the earth was flat can't even get started. You can see plenty of pictures of them online, and you can watch a short documentary on the globus cruciger here.

Unfortunately, there are still people, including historians (so I can't lay the blame on the side of popular culture), who believe that Columbus was trying to prove the Earth is round. The go-to book to refute such claims is Jeffrey Burton Russell's Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians. There are also some excellent resources online: see here, here, here, here, and here, for example. James has pointed to a recent book promulgating this claim which may indicate a new trend: using the "flat earth myth" to impugn Christianity and make Islam look better by comparison.

Regarding the Bible, there are passages which refer to "the ends of the earth" and "the four corners of the earth." However, they do not amount to an assertion that the earth is flat anymore than our use of terms such as "sunset" and "sunrise" amount to assertions that the sun revolves around the earth. "The ends of the earth" merely refers to the most distant places, and "the four corners of the earth" refers to the most distant places in the four directions in which one can go (north, south, east, and west).

Regarding Christian history, there are a few historical figures who went against the flow, but this does not negate the consensus view. The extent to which a flat earth was accepted in ancient and medieval Christianity is sometimes exaggerated based on criticisms of the theory of "antipodes." But this seems to be a misunderstanding: "antipodes" referred to people who were alleged to live on the other side of the earth. The Christian authors who rejected this (not all did) pointed to the almost universally-held belief that it was impossible to travel from one side to the other, "either because the sea was too wide to sail across or because the equatorial zones were too hot to sail through" (Russell). Therefore, no one from one side of the earth could have gotten to the other side, so that if there were people on the other side of the earth they could not share a common origin with us. Some have unfortunately taken these statements to mean that they were denying there was an "other side" of the world at all. But these authors were making anthropological statements, not geographical ones.

The only individuals who clearly affirmed a flat earth were Lactantius (third and fourth centuries), whose "views eventually led to his works being condemned as heretical after his death" (Russell); Severian (fourth century); and Cosmas Indicopleustes (sixth century) who exerted virtually zero influence on his contemporaries or the Middle Ages: "The first translation of Cosmas into Latin, his very first introduction into western Europe, was not until 1706. He had absolutely no influence on medieval western thought" (Russell). By way of contrast, Copernicus translated some short writings of Theophylactus Simocatta from Greek to Latin in 1509. While this was the first such translation published in Poland, and thus had some importance in that regard, the text he chose was not. The reason he chose Theophylactus is because all the good stuff had already been translated, so he had to settle for the dregs. Cosmas wasn't translated for another two centuries. To suggest he was even taken seriously by the handful of people who read him is just absurd.

Additionally, Diodore of Tarsus (fourth century) and Theodore of Mopsuestia (fourth and fifth centuries) are referenced by other Christians as affirming a flat earth in order to refute them, but the actual writings in question are lost. Isidore of Seville (sixth and seventh centuries) is often given as an example of a flat-earther, because some of his writings seem to affirm corollaries of a flat earth. But since he also gives a figure for the earth's circumference (80,000 stadia) and affirms that the sky is spherical and equidistant from the earth on all sides, it is difficult to attribute a belief in a flat earth to him.

So Lactantius, Severian, Cosmas Indicopleustes, Diodore, and Theodore of Mopsuestia make a grand total of five Christian writers who affirmed, or apparently affirmed, a flat earth, all of whom lived in late Antiquity at the very latest, and none of whom were taken seriously.

So how did such a silly idea become so popular? According to Russell, it goes back to about 1830 when Washington Irving published his story of Columbus, and took some license with the historical account. In Irving's story, Columbus wasn't trying to discover an alternate route to the East Indies by sailing west around the world: he was trying to prove more basically that the Earth is round in the first place. Before this time, everyone thought the Earth was flat because that's what the Bible teaches. Columbus's detractors were the priests and inquisitors who didn't want anyone challenging their authority to proclaim what reality was or wasn't.

Despite the absurdity of these claims, by about 1870, western society had pretty much uncritically accepted the idea that everyone thought the world was flat prior to Columbus's voyages (including, ironically, some Christians who took it upon themselves to defend flat-earthism). There were two primary reasons for this naïve acceptance that the ancients and medievals thought the earth was flat: First, the 19th century was a time of great optimism for the human race. People thought that we were quickly advancing towards a manmade utopia, and for many this implied the superiority of modern man over his predecessors. Thus, it was very conducive to this worldview to portray those who lived prior to the Enlightenment as a bunch of uneducated half-wits who didn’t even know the earth is round. World War I pretty much eradicated the optimism, but much of the disrespect for and contempt of our predecessors remained and remains still.

Second, at this time, some people were very confident that scientific discoveries would eventually explain everything without any recourse to God (naturalism). However, many scientists did not accept naturalism, so a cultural campaign was initiated which sought to identify it with science itself, and to this end represented any denial of naturalism as part and parcel of ignorant religious believers getting in the way of truth and progress. Examples were found, twisted, and sometimes completely invented in order to illustrate the point. The flat earth was a perfect candidate for one of these "examples": in Irving's story, he had made Columbus's opponents the priests and inquisitors who didn’t want anyone challenging their authority to make pronouncements about what constituted reality. Indeed, a lot of naturalism's credibility comes from the degree of absurdity in examples of what religious people believe or have believed about the physical world. When this degree of absurdity turns out to be misinformed -- either totally invented or significantly misrepresented -- naturalism no longer appears as obvious.

So the flat earth myth isn't just an urban legend; it's propaganda, deliberate misinformation that is presented in order to prop up a position without going through the tedium of finding actual evidence for it. It doesn't bode well for your worldview if you have to change reality in order to make it fit.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Halloween and the Occult

Halloween is here, and for some religious people it is a very touchy subject. Some people, especially some Christians, think it's occultic and spiritually dangerous. Last year it was reported that the Vatican had condemned it, but that turned out to be slightly misinformed. A good essay on this written by Christian philosopher and apologist Kenneth Richard Samples goes over several common objections Christians have to Halloween, and correcting them: "The Tricky Topic of Halloween" (you'll have to scroll down a little). Ultimately, if someone still feels that celebrating Halloween violates their conscience and their devotion to their religion, then they should not participate in it. But we have an obligation to make sure that we've got the story straight and aren't just listening to one side of the issue. This is true of any subject.

Some people who have some anxiety about Halloween feel the same way about other things, such as the Harry Potter books and movies. I don't know anything about them, having never read the books, and only having seen the first movie on a plane with faulty earphones. I've seen books by Christians on both sides. Looking for God in Harry Potter and The Gospel According to Harry Potter obviously suggest that not only is there nothing to be concerned about, there is something to be encouraged. But others disagree.

I remember when I saw the movie Jumanji in the theater with a church group. I really enjoyed it and thought it incredibly imaginative. I was surprised when one member of the group said she almost walked out because of "occultic" elements she saw in it. Specifically, she thought it was reminiscent of ouija boards. I disagreed with this on several levels: first, the parallels between the game in Jumanji and ouija boards seemed very superficial. Second, at any rate, the movie clearly portrayed the game as something extremely dangerous that no one in their right mind would ever want to play. Third, I'm not really concerned about ouija boards because I strongly suspect that they're best explained as some subconscious response on the part of the participants rather than occultic forces, although I've never really investigated it in depth. Nevertheless, if one shows an interest in the occult, it can certainly open some dangerous doors regardless.

I've drifted away from the subject of Halloween, but you see the common thread here. I believe that there is a spiritual world, some of the elements of which are hostile to us. But I don't think this gives us a license to start seeing a demon behind every bush.

The shrinking target of the anti-war movement

Wikileaks, the group that is releasing classified data of governments they disagree with, had a couple of interesting and unintentional side effects of their release of documents about the Iraq War. As Glenn Reynolds says, though, they're not news to anyone who's been paying attention. First is that the two Lancet studies which posited absurdly inflated numbers of Iraqi civilian casualties -- released right before elections in order to influence them -- were, well, absurdly inflated. They claimed that 100,000 civilians were killed within the first year of the war, and 600,000 within the first three years. I still have a hard time believing that anyone took such blatant and obvious propaganda seriously. (Just to give one reason: that many corpses in that short a time in that small an area would have created enormous health issues for the survivors; no such issues arose.) The grand total is about 109,000 deaths, of which 24,000 were enemy insurgents and another 19,000 were Iraqi defense forces and coalition forces. That makes the civilian death rate for the Iraq War from 2003 to 2009 about 66,000 people, or about 11,000 civilians per year. This is lower than South Africa's murder rate for the same time period, and much lower than the civilian death rate in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was in charge. With this last point we can subtract the rate of civilian deaths during the Iraq War from the rate of deaths during Saddam's reign to reach the number of Iraqi lives saved by the Iraq War. Again, this won't be news to anyone who's been paying attention.

Second is that, while they didn't find the huge caches of WMDs in Iraq that they were expecting, they still found WMDs in Iraq, in sufficient quantity to do serious damage. Bear in mind that the reason they're called weapons of mass destruction is because they can cause a lot of damage with only small amounts of some agent (chemical, biological, or nuclear). However, what they've found thus far dates back to the first Gulf War. This is not insignificant, since the cease-fire was predicated on Saddam destroying all of his WMDs. Since he didn't, the casus belli was still in effect. And while some of the chemical agents they found had deteriorated to some extent, they were still extremely dangerous.

Nevertheless, one of the several justifications the Bush administration gave for the Iraq War was that Saddam was actively producing chemical and biological WMDs in large amounts, and was pursuing nuclear weapons as well. They have not found evidence of this. However, they have found evidence that Saddam was going to start production of WMDs as soon as the UN inspectors left and the sanctions were lifted. Again, this is not insignificant: in order to prevent Saddam from producing WMDs, either the sanctions would have had to have been made permanent -- which would never have happened -- or Saddam would have had to be deposed. Since the first of these options is absurdly unrealistic, we either had to let Saddam develop WMDs and share them with his numerous terrorist connections, or invade.

I've argued before that the Iraq War could have been justified solely as the second stage of the War on Terrorism, without any reference to WMDs. Nevertheless, it's interesting how much the anti-war movement's target has consistently shrunk. They can't claim that Saddam didn't have extensive ties to terrorists (of course he did), they can't claim that the death toll in Iraq reached absurd levels, they can't claim Saddam wasn't going to develop WMDs unless we stepped in and stopped him, they can't even claim he didn't have WMDs. As Tigerhawk says, "The first really objective history of the Iraq war will have to wait until somebody who did not live through the propaganda around that war is old enough to write it."