Wednesday, April 28, 2010


My sister sent me the link to this video. It has the feel of a Pixar short, but the credits belie this impression.

Monday, April 26, 2010

More on Recycling

As a follow-up to this post, my wife just told me that she was out with the kids the other day, and were near the place we take our recycling. They have one big receptacle for colored glass and another for clear glass, so, like everyone else, we dutifully separate them accordingly. While they were there, the truck came by to empty out the receptacles, and since my son loves everything that's large and mechanical they stopped to watch. First he dumped the receptacle of clear glass into the truck. Then he dumped the receptacle of colored glass into the same truck. If I weren't already cynical about it, this would certainly have been enough to send me over to the dark side.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Congratulations Mr. and Mrs. Verter

The Wordverter and Francie the Wise got married today. I introduced them so I get some major brownie points. They're both great people and when great people find each other it's just really really cool.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Causality and the Big Bang

Since Big Bang cosmology is the claim that matter, energy, space, and time all sprang into existence, it strikes many people as similar to the theistic doctrine of creation ex nihilo (and by "similar" I mean "identical"). So some philosophers and some cosmologists have tried to find ways of avoiding the theistic implications.

One of the most common is to claim that causality is a physical phenomenon; it describes what takes place within the universe. You can't apply it to the beginning of the physical universe. The idea here is that causality is a posteriori like the laws of physics or chemistry, not a priori like the laws of logic. As such, it only describes the conditions inside the universe and can't be applied to the beginning of the universe itself. This is the tack taken by some illustrious philosophers, such as Adolf Grünbaum and Quentin Smith

It's certainly true that causality is not a priori in the same way the laws of logic are. We simply can't imagine the law of non-contradiction failing to hold, but we can imagine causality failing to hold -- that is, we can imagine (form a mental picture of) something popping into existence without a cause. But it's incorrect to say that we discover causality the same way we discover the laws of physics, i.e. through observation. Causality is derived from our basic intuition that something does not come from nothing (ex nihilo nihil fit: out of nothing, nothing comes). To limit this intuition to physical processes would be a case of special pleading; there's no reason why it wouldn't apply to the beginning of the universe. Causality is not a physical principle, it's a metaphysical principle.

Perhaps one could suggest that once we have the principle of causality via intuition, we can then establish it via observation and continue to believe it based on the latter. But it's not clear to me how causality could be falsified, or what would count as observation of causality not holding. At best you could say that you didn't observe a cause of an effect, but everyone would infer that the effect does in fact have a cause and we just didn't observe it. It's not like you could set up a scientific experiment to observe the absence of causality, since if the conditions you set up are sufficient to bring about the effect, then obviously the former caused the latter. As such, I think William Lane Craig's argument that causality has never been falsified is an empty claim. There are plenty of times where we observe an effect without a cause, but no amount of such experiences will ever convince a sane person that the effects didn't have a cause, merely that the causes weren't observed.

Or, perhaps one could simply deny the intuition. There are problems with this though: for one thing, science presupposes causality. If causality goes out the window, science goes with it. This is not only absurd and unacceptable, it's a conclusion I doubt nontheists would be willing to accept, since they (mistakenly) think science is on their side. For another thing, while causality is not a priori in the same way that the laws of logic are, it is still a precondition of thought. If causality did not hold, then there would not be an appropriate connection between our beliefs and their objects, such that we could never know if any of them are true. So it's not merely scientific knowledge that would be endangered; if we deny causality, then the possibility of any knowledge becomes impossible. So it's not like this intuition is just some random assertion.

But doesn't quantum physics posit virtual particles coming into existence without causes? This is a misunderstanding. As Craig writes,

... virtual particles do not literally come into existence spontaneously out of nothing. Rather the energy locked up in a vacuum fluctuates spontaneously in such a way as to convert into evanescent particles that return almost immediately to the vacuum. ... The microstructure of the quantum vacuum is a sea of continually forming and dissolving particles which borrow energy from the vacuum for their brief existence. A quantum vacuum is thus far from nothing, and vacuum fluctuations do not constitute an exception to the principle that whatever begins to exist has a cause.

Another suggestion might be that Hume denied causality. But ignoring the fact that Hume was not inerrant, this is another misunderstanding. Hume argued that just because we've observed a particular cause producing a particular effect in the past, we cannot know that the cause will produce the same effect. In other words, he argued that we can't infer an effect from a cause. Those who deny causality applies to the creation of the universe are claiming that we can't infer a cause from an effect -- that just because we observe that an effect has taken place, we can't claim that it was caused. This is radically different from what Hume was claiming, and Hume explicitly repudiates such an idea as absurd.

A final claim might be to suggest that applying causality to the Big Bang is just as problematic for the traditional theistic doctrine of creation. The doctrine, after all, is called creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) and the intuition is that ex nihilo nihil fit (out of nothing, nothing comes). But again, this is a misunderstanding. Creation ex nihilo is the claim that the universe didn't have a material cause -- that it wasn't constructed out of some pre-existent "stuff". This is certainly a radical claim and we should recognize it as such. But it doesn't deny that the universe has an efficient cause -- some entity or agent that brings about the effect -- since the claim is that God is the efficient cause of the universe. Those who deny that causality would apply to the beginning of the universe, however, are claiming that the universe had neither a material cause nor an efficient cause. So I simply put it to you, which of these two explanations is more plausible: that the universe's beginning has an efficient cause but no material cause, or that it has neither?

Now it's all well and good to say that applying causality to the beginning of the universe creates some philosophical issues, but the alternative is that it just popped into existence without any cause whatsoever. That people who portray themselves as skeptics would be willing to accept this shows that their skepticism is absurdly selective. If this is the the only way to avoid believing in God then there's just no contest.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Two Arguments

1. I've mentioned the Simplicity Argument before. Roughly, the idea is that a thought (of the color blue for example) cannot be subdivided into constituent parts. However, the neurons, molecules, and atoms that are involved in someone thinking of the color blue can be subdivided. Therefore, thoughts -- and by extension, thought -- cannot be reduced to the physical processes involved in thinking. Therefore, there must be a non-physical aspect of the human being which is unified and indestructable. Some of the Argument's proponents have started a website on it here, and have kindly linked to my review of the book The Achilles of Rationalist Arguments which deals with the Simplicity Argument as it developed in early Modern philosophy.

2. Another interesting argument, although one I'm much more skeptical of, is the Argument from Evolution. That link takes you to a blog that presents an argument to the effect that biological evolution is not only compatible with Christianity, but is actually evidence for Christianity. Click on over to check it out and vote on how convincing you find it. The guy who came up with it also blogs here. There are other arguments from evolution out there -- Plantinga has one, Craig has another -- so I was expecting it to be a reiteration of something I'd already heard; but it looks original (at least I've never heard of it before).

Saturday, April 17, 2010


OK, I finally succumbed to vanity and put a followers gadget on my sidebar. Feel free to register on it and make me feel better about myself.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Flew to God

Antony Flew has died. This happened a week ago and I didn't hear about it until today. He was one of the most prestigious atheist philosophers of the 20th century, but he came to believe in God several years ago. Ironically, it was largely due to the theistic argument most ridiculed by atheist philosophers: the teleological (or design) argument as applied to biology. He thought the complexity of life discovered by contemporary science showed that God must exist. He never accepted any religion; his belief was in an Aristotelian God, a Prime Mover, who didn't interact with his creation. You can read an interview he gave soon after his conversion, which was published in Philosophia Christi (a philosophy journal), here.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Pure Rock

The most rocking song I've ever heard was never released as a single, doesn't have a video, didn't get any radio air time, and the band doesn't play it in their concerts. Listen to it here. Wow.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Quote of the Day

You ask me why I've never written anything about the Holy Communion. For the very simple reason that I am not good enough at Theology. I have nothing to offer. Hiding any light I think I've got under a bushel is not my besetting sin! I am much more prone to prattle unseasonably. But there is a point at which even I would gladly keep silent.
Some people seem able to discuss different theories of this act as if they understood them all and needed only evidence as to which was best. This light has been withheld from me. I do not know and can't imagine what the disciples understood our Lord to mean when, His body still unbroken and His blood unshed, He handed them the bread and wine, saying they were His body and blood. I can find with the forms of my human understanding no connection between eating a man -- and it is as Man that the Lord has flesh -- and entering into any spiritual oneness or community or κοινωνία with him. And I find "substance" (in Aristotle's sense), when stripped of its own accidents and endowed with the accidents of some other substance, an object I cannot think. My effort to do so produces mere nursery-thinking -- a picture of something like very rarefied plasticine. On the other hand, I get on no better with those who tell me that the elements are mere bread and mere wine, used symbolically to remind me of the death of Christ. They are, on the natural level, such a very odd symbol of that. But it would be profane to suppose that they are as arbitrary as they seem to me. I well believe there is in reality an appropriateness, even a necessity, in their selection. But it remains, for me, hidden. Again, if they are, if the whole act is, simply memorial, it would seem to follow that its value must be purely psychological, and dependent on the recipient's sensibility at the moment of reception. And I cannot see why this particular reminder -- a hundred other things may, psychologically, remind me of Christ's death, equally, or perhaps more -- should be so uniquely important as all Christendom (and my own heart) unhesitatingly declare.

However, then, it may be for others, for me the something which holds together and "informs" all the objects, words, and actions of this rite is unknown and unimaginable. I am not saying to anyone in the world, "Your explanation is wrong." I am saying, "Your explanation leaves the mystery for me still a mystery."

Yet I find no difficulty in believing that the veil between the worlds, nowhere else (for me) so opaque to the intellect, is nowhere else so thin and permeable to divine operation. Here a hand from the hidden country touches not only my soul buy my body. Here the prig, the don, the modern in me have no privilege over the save or the child. Here is big medicine and strong magic. Favete linguis.
I hope I do not offend God by making my Communions in the frame of mind I have been describing. The command, after all, was Take, eat: not Take, understand.

C. S. Lewis
Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Mammoth news

I always thought woolly mammoths went extinct ten, twenty thousand years ago. Then I read this article which says, among other things, that there were woolly mammoths still around in 1700 BC. Then I read further that the last of the species lived on Wrangel Island, in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of northeast Russia. Then I remember a fascinating book a friend made me read several years ago about a disastrous expedition to Wrangel, entitled The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk. Then I remember I have other things I have to do besides think about woolly mammoths and Wrangel Island.

Friday, April 9, 2010


I just rediscovered this old Monty Python sketch, and since I've lived in Belgium for about five years, I found it especially funny offensive.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Christ Myth Myth

I've gone over this before here and here, so let me just summarize. Some people think 1) Jesus Christ is mythological rather than historical, and their primary evidence of this is that 2) there are parallels of Jesus in world mythology. Some take this the further step of arguing that 3) Jesus is completely mythological and thus completely unhistorical; that is, no such person as Jesus of Nazareth ever existed. I'll deal with these in reverse order. In the following, by "scholars" I mean "scholars of the relevant disciplines", i.e. historical Jesus scholars: people with PhDs in ancient history or New Testament history or something similar. I'm sure there are experts in pharmacology or library science who have different views than the scholars I'm referring to, but this is irrelevant since their area of expertise has no bearing on the subject in question. To think otherwise would be to commit the fallacy of irrelevant authority.

3) No scholar thinks it even remotely possible that Jesus may not have existed. Those that do mention such claims explicitly put them on the same intellectual level as Holocaust denial, Moon landing hoax claims, and other conspiracy theories. Indeed, scholars maintain that certain events regarding Jesus are historically certain, and he would obviously have had to exist in order for these events to have taken place. So, for example, Jesus' crucifixion is considered by scholars to be one of the central events in human history; you can't deny it without having to deny most of ancient history in order to be consistent, and it would render subsequent historical development virtually inexplicable. N. T. Wright, the most prestigious contemporary scholar, wrote in The Resurrection of the Son of God that this is true of the empty tomb and post-mortem appearances of Jesus as well: "I regard this conclusion as coming in the same sort of category of historical probability so high as to be historically certain, as the death of Augustus in AD 14 or the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70". Similarly, William Lane Craig has called Jesus' post-mortem appearances "a fact that is almost universally acknowledged by New Testament scholars today".

2) The claim that there are parallels to Jesus in world mythology was only ever held by a minority of scholars, and has been completely rejected by scholars for nearly a century. The parallels in question were conceived so broadly that virtually anything would fit. As such, they were completely contrived. There are, of course, some authors who argue for these parallels even today, but they are not scholars. Joseph Campbell comes to mind: he wrote extensively about mythology and how the Christian myths had many antecedents (except the antecedents were far superior to the Christian version). But Campbell didn't have a PhD, he had a Master's degree in French literature. That's certainly very valuable and a noteworthy accomplishment, but it doesn't qualify him to be considered a historical Jesus scholar. I have a couple of Master's degrees in Philosophy; that doesn't qualify me to be considered a scholar of solid state physics. At any rate, many universities have "The Bible as Literature" courses which are essentially stages to advocate the parallels between Jesus and mythology. But again, these courses are not taught by historical Jesus scholars, they are taught by people with degrees in unrelated disciplines. I find this unfortunate.

1) The idea that the gospels are mythological survived a few decades longer within scholarly circles than did the idea that there are mythological parallels to Jesus. Rudolf Bultmann advocated the view that when the gospels are "demythologized", very little of Jesus could be known beyond the fact that he existed and was killed by crucifixion. Bultmann lived to the 1970s, but his views were rejected by the 1950s with the initiation of the Second Quest for the historical Jesus (we are currently in the midst of the Third Quest). But there is a much more obvious problem with the claim that the gospels are mythological. Mythology is, at least partially, a literary genre, a style of writing. But I'm unaware of any scholar, ever, who argued that the gospels are written in the genre of mythology. Rather, those who claimed they were mythological argued that what the gospels record could not be historical, and so must be mythological, regardless of the genre in which they were written. This point is easily demonstrated: simply read some actual myths -- not modern accounts of myths, but the actual myths themselves -- side by side with the gospels. It's obvious that they don't belong to the same genre, the same type of writing. Thus, James D. G. Dunn argued in the entry for "Myth" in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels that the entry wasn't really necessary: "Myth is a term of at least doubtful relevance to the study of Jesus and the Gospels". The genre of the gospels has been a matter of dispute for the last couple of hundred years, although most scholars would have said that they are written as historical writings. But in the last 20-30 years there has been an incredible revolution within historical Jesus studies to the effect that most scholars today consider the gospels to have been written in the literary genre of ancient biography. Of course, this doesn't speak to their reliability in matters of detail, but it certainly makes it difficult to claim they don't have a solid historical core at all.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)