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 na├»ve 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)