Friday, December 30, 2011

Prayers for the New Year

I'm not pessimistic about the Arab Spring because I think that whenever there's a revolution, the most violent people will come forward and take control at first. The question of whether they will stay in control is another question. So, despite the inauspicious start, it may have a positive effect in the long term.

Nevertheless, this does not allow us to ignore the atrocities that are taking place. The Middle East Forum has summarized Muslim persecution of Christians for the month of November, and it is pretty horrifying. Please pray for them.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Quote

My friend Syd told me about the following intriguing quotation from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King:

When Sam awoke, he found that he was lying on some soft bed, but over him gently swayed wide beechen boughs, and through their young leaves sunlight glimmered, green and gold. All the air was full of a sweet mingled scent.

He remembered that smell: the fragrance of Ithilien. 'Bless me!' he mused. 'How long have I been asleep?' For the scent had borne him back to the day when he had lit his little fire under the sunny bank; and for the moment all else between was out of waking memory. He stretched and drew a deep breath. 'Why, what a dream I've had!' he muttered. 'I am glad to wake!' He sat up and then he saw that Frodo was lying beside him and slept peacefully, one hand behind his head, and the other resting upon the coverlet. It was the right hand, and the third finger was missing.

Full memory flooded back, and Sam cried aloud: 'It wasn't a dream! Then where are we?'

And a voice spoke softly behind him: 'In the land of Ithilien, and in the keeping of the King; and he awaits you.' With that Gandalf stood before him, robed in white, his beard now gleaming like pure snow in the twinkling of the leafy sunlight. 'Well, Master Samwise, how do you feel?' he said.

But Sam lay back, and stared with open mouth, and for a moment, between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer. At last he gasped: 'Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What's happened to the world?'

'A great Shadow has departed,' said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known. But he himself burst into tears. Then, as a sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from his bed.

'How do I feel?' he cried. 'Well, I don't know how to say it. I feel, I feel' -- he waved his arms in the air -- 'I feel like spring after winter, and sun on the leaves; and like trumpets and harps and all the songs I have ever heard!' He stopped and he turned towards his master. 'But how's Mr. Frodo?' he said. 'Isn't it a shame about his poor hand? But I hope he's all right otherwise. He's had a cruel time.'

'Yes, I am all right otherwise,' said Frodo, sitting up and laughing in his turn. 'I fell asleep again waiting for you, Sam, you sleepyhead. I was awake early this morning, and now it must be nearly noon.'

'Noon?' said Sam, trying to calculate. 'Noon of what day?'

'The fourteenth of the New Year,' said Gandalf; 'or if you like, the eighth day of April in the Shire reckoning. But in Gondor the New Year will always now begin upon the twenty-fifth of March when Sauron fell, and when you were brought out of the fire to the King. He has tended you, and now he awaits you. You shall eat and drink with him. When you are ready I will lead you to him.'

Syd pointed out an interesting thing about this passage. The day when "everything sad [is] going to come untrue" and when "A great Shadow has departed" is the 25th of March, a day we do not celebrate. Instead, we celebrate nine months later. And now the King who has tended and will tend us, and with whom we shall eat and drink, awaits us. "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests".

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Spiritual Disciplines, Edgar Allan Poe, and South Park

The idea behind the spiritual disciplines, I gather, is to practice certain behaviors that develop one's personality in a positive direction. It's similar to an athelete's physical training: not only does he practice the specific activity he is planning to undertake (hitting the baseball with a bat, throwing a shotput, etc.) but he has to exercise to keep himself in good shape and to develop the muscles that will help him accomplish the specific activity more successfully. And even though the bench presses, squats, and shrugs may not seem to have any direct relevance to that activity, they do in fact help him to do it better. It's not a matter of trying so much as it is training. So it may not appear obvious how some spiritual disciplines will develop your character in a positive way (like fasting) but other people older, wiser, and further along in their training than you recommend it highly, just as the coach may tell the long-distance runner that he has to do a lot of crunches. We can't expect to do the right thing on a particular occasion if we haven't trained and built up the kind of character capable of doing it, anymore than we can expect to win a weightlifting competition if we've never built up the right kind of body capable of doing it.

Now the idea behind this idea is that we can, through little things, become capable of doing great things or horrific things. If we want to become capable of committing a terrible crime, we can perform little steps which incrementally make it easier. Of course, most people who commit crimes have not intentionally engaged in such a program. But you can see how it would work. Through our daily choices we are making ourselves more capable of great things or terrible things. The further down one road we go, the less able we are to do the things down the other road. If we choose to be angry or bitter or sad, we will eventually reach the point where we can no longer choose not to be angry or bitter or sad. Slowly, as we live our lives, we are taking away our own freedoms. This doesn't mean that the end result involves the removal of our free will, just that if we choose to do the things that develop good character, we will eventually be unwilling and unable to commit terrible acts. If we do not develop good character, our sphere of freedom could still include terrible acts. Of course it's different for every person: some people have an innate disposition for goodness or badness; some people are genuinely satisfied at one level while others will want to travel further down the path; some people will have a wider sphere of freedom so that they can encompass more of the opposite path than they have chosen. And of course, most people do not really choose their path, they just drift through life without going very far down either one -- or perhaps being unaware that they are going down one. Nevertheless, as a general truth we are, by our daily choices, becoming the people we will forever be. We are choosing to have a character that is good or bad or just passive. If we take the idea of eternal life seriously, we will want to have a good character; we will want to be capable of great things, not evil things. Eventually the sun will rise on our characters and turn them to stone, so we'd better make sure they're in a position you wouldn't mind being in forever.

We all want to indulge ourselves. When an opportunity presents itself, we will find excuses why it's appropriate to give in to this particular occasion. The problem with this is that if you don't practice not giving in to such temptations, you'll eventually be unable to refrain from doing so. When I was in the Marines I had a friend who slept around all the time, even though, at any given moment, he had a serious girlfriend. I told him one time that I felt sorry for whatever woman he would eventually marry because she would have a cheating husband. He was (understandably) offended by this. He insisted that he would be completely faithful to his wife. The reason this seemed so implausible to me is that he couldn't even be faithful to a girlfriend. He didn't practice being faithful, he didn't build up within himself the strength to turn women down when they offered themselves to him, so how could he seriously start doing it successfully for the first time once he was married?

This is the idea behind Edgar Allan Poe's wonderful short story "The Imp of the Perverse". Click on the title and read it first, because there are spoilers below, and it's not too long.

Done? OK, so the narrator enjoyed the feeling of rebellion we get when we are told we should or shouldn't do something. We instead want to assert ourselves and do the opposite of what we should or shouldn't do -- this is the imp of the perverse. The narrator enjoyed this so much he committed himself to never denying himself the pleasure of doing something that he felt he shouldn't and vice-versa. Not that he would do it unthinkingly; he would take his time, making sure he wouldn't get caught. But he would do it. So when he realized he "shouldn't" kill a relative for the inheritance, he went ahead and did it, and did it cleverly enough that he got away with it.

Then, years later, he feels very satisfied with himself, realizing that no one will ever be the wiser about his crime. Unless, of course, he were to confess it. But that's crazy, he shouldn't do that.


He had indulged himself for so long in doing whatever he shouldn't do, that he was unable to withstand this occasion. He didn't have the muscles built up to do what he should and not do what he shouldn't. He had taken away his own freedom, his own ability to disobey the imp of the perverse.

A more profane example comes from South Park. In the episode "Le Petit Tourette" Cartman discovers Tourette's Syndrome and pretends to have it so that he doesn't have to filter what he says. This is funny, partially because Cartman isn't really starting from a position of strength on this issue. Anyway, he swears, yells racial epithets, etc., and not only does he not suffer any negative consequences from it, but receives compassion and attention from everyone. Eventually, he manages to get himself booked on a national television show to talk about Tourette's. Of course, for him the only reason to do it is to have a national audience forced to hear whatever he wants to say. But before he goes on TV, he starts saying things he doesn't want to say. Personal things, embarassing things. He has spent so much time just yelling whatever he felt like yelling, that he was no longer able to filter it. Anything that popped into his head popped out of his mouth. Chaos and alleged hilarity ensue. You can watch the whole episode here.

The point is the same. Indulgence is very tempting, but the more we give in to it, the less able we are to refrain from it on occasions where we should, where we want to. This fits into the general perspective of the spiritual disciplines. We should exercise those faculties so that we are not compelled to do the wrong thing because we simply aren't strong enough to resist it. But again, the disciplines aren't about trying to do the right thing when the occasion presents itself, but of training yourself so it's not difficult to do the right thing on those occasions.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A sure indicator of philosophical achievement

Alvin Plantinga made the pages of the New York Times. I'll bet he's sitting at home thinking to himself, "I've finally made it big."

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Quote of the Day

First, who is going to assure us that the Epistles of Paul are themselves genuine? It is foolish of believers to resent these perpetual questions. Nothing was thought in those days of putting a respected name on your essay or epistle. Early Christian literature includes a number of spurious Epistles and Gospels. And, since Paul's style is so characteristic, the ordinary apparatus of literary criticism enables us to say that some of the Epistles which bear his name were not written by him. They have not the same style and ideas.

This does not matter so very much for my purpose, but I will take those Epistles of which Professor Drews admits the genuineness. He says that in these Paul never refers to Jesus as a human being: that his Jesus is a deity only, whom later Christians supposed to have lived on earth at one time: that the apparent references to earthly experiences are really quotations of the things attributed to the Messiah in the prophets.

It seems to me that the whole argument of Professor Drews, Professor Smith, and others breaks down before one statement which runs from end to end of Paul's Epistles: the emphatic statement that Christ died on a cross and rose from the dead, and that this is the very basis of faith in him. It is little use recalling that Osiris or Tammuz rose from the dead. Ignorant Egyptians could believe that a god, as such, had a body, which could be killed. To a man like Paul such an idea would seem monstrous. He distinguishes quite clearly between God and Jesus. God, a purely spiritual being, takes human shape in Jesus, and sheds his blood on a cross, is buried, and then, in human shape, comes to life again. I do not see how anybody not obsessed by a theory can fail to recognize that, less than ten years after the alleged crucifixion of Jesus, Paul fully accepted that part of his story. "Being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross." With infinite variations of expression, that formula is found in every Epistle, and it is Paul’s fundamental belief about Jesus.

Now this single statement carries us a very long way. No one has ever suggested that Paul had any doubt about the divinity of Jesus. it would follow, though Paul merely says that Jesus was "born of a woman," that he accepted some sort of miraculous story about the actual birth and childhood of this God in human shape. He refers repeatedly, in all Epistles, to Cephas or Peter and other Jews who boasted of some superior mission to his, because they had seen and known the Lord. He represents that Jesus preached and taught in Judea. In one place (I Cor. ix 14) he quotes as a saying of the Lord something ("They which preach the gospel should live by the gospel") which Matthew (x 10) and Luke (x 7) give, in other words, as the actual teaching of Jesus. He says nothing plainly about healing miracles; but is it likely that Paul believed Jesus to be God himself in human form and did not credit him with signs and wonders as he went about Judea? Finally, there is a passage (I Tim. vi 13) in which he speaks of his trial before Pontius Pilate: there are a hundred passages in which he says that Jesus was crucified, and by the Jews (I Thess. ii 15): and there are a thousand references to his physical resurrection.

We may put aside as spurious or interpolated such isolated statements as that the Christian supper is founded upon the actual last supper of Christ (I Cor. x 16 and xi 23-26): though no one will doubt that there was such a supper among the earliest Christians. We may similarly set aside the isolated references to Pontius Pilate, to Peter's claim to have seen Jesus after the resurrection, and to the ascension (Eph. iv 10). But there remains one unshakable story about Jesus which is found in every single Epistle. I run over them and for the convenience of the reader indicate these passages, one or more in every Epistle: Rom. i 3-4, iv 24, v and vi in full, etc.; I Cor. x 16, xi 23-6, xv, etc.; II Cor. iv 10; Gal. i 4, iv 4, vi 14; Eph. i 7, 20, etc.; Philipp. ii 8; Coloss. i 20, 22, etc.; I Thess. i 10, ii 15; I Tim. vi 13; II Tim. i 10, ii 18, etc.; Titus iii 4-6; Hebr. i 2-3, ii 9, ix 14, etc.

It is, therefore, no use (from our present point of view) arguing that this or that Epistle is not genuine. Unless we follow the eccentric opinion of Van Manen, and say that they are all spurious, Paul bears definite witness to Jesus. He lived on earth, in Judea, for at least two or three decades; because he was "born of a woman," yet lived to be a teacher. He was put to death on a cross by the Jews; and it was an article of faith with his followers that he rose from the dead. Just as consistently, from end to end, Paul repeats the assurance of Jesus that the end of the world is at hand, and the Lord will judge the living and the dead.

Farther, the Epistles uniformly and entirely depict the early Christian world in a manner which must interest us. Paul's great period of activity was from about 45 to 65 A.D. Let us say that the Epistles were mainly written between 50 and 60 A.D. There were then groups of believers in Jesus, on the same lines as Paul, in every large center from Jerusalem to Rome. Many of them were old enough to have lost their first fervor, and he describes them as much given to fornication. His persistence and emphasis also indicate that there is some reluctance to believe in the resurrection, which is, he says, "foolishness to the Greeks" -- thus clearly showing that he means a physical resurrection. The little "churches" or communities are full of dissensions, but they are not on Gnostic lines. They are about the Jewish law, the way in which Christ saves from sin, the resurrection, and the question of authority. There is repeated reference to a group of men, chiefly Cephas, who are described as the living companions and appointed apostles of Jesus. Their center is Jerusalem. They are intensely Jewish and have many a fiery conflict with Paul.

The witness of Paul is, then, that from about 40 A.D. to 60 A.D. there were, scattered over the Greco-Roman world, small groups of followers of Christ, and they were visited occasionally by Jews who had, they claimed, known Jesus in the flesh and received instruction from him. They all believed that he was the Son of God, who had assumed a human form and died on a cross to atone for the sins of men. This atonement by blood was of the very essence of their faith. It was the common idea of the time in the east that bloody sacrifice was the best atonement for sin, and it was a magnificent idea to some of these mystic Orientals that God himself should take human form and become a human sacrifice. To work out that belief they had to give God two aspects (which later theology would call "persons"), Father and Son; but Jewish religion had already plenty of references to Sons of God, and Greek mysticism also spoke of a Logos of God.

We will see later what this witness of Paul proves -- if it proves anything. For the moment it is enough to establish that Paul does believe in the human historicity of Christ. He never ceases to repeat that Jesus was a teacher in Judea, who died on the cross and rose from the dead. The condescension of God in taking human form, the shedding of real human blood in the ignominious punishment of the cross, are the quintessence of his gospel. The Jesus of Paul was a divine human person, who was put to death at Jerusalem somewhere about 30 A.D.

Joseph McCabe
"Did Jesus Ever Live?"
The Myth of the Resurrection and Other Essays

Sunday, December 11, 2011

How to Read a Blog

Here's the list of great books you can find at the end of Mortimer Adler's How To Read a Book. Don't go through them too quickly.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Classical Global Skepticism and the EAAN

Update (Sep. 12, 2015): I'm temporarily taking this post offline -- like for a year or so -- because it inspired me to write a more detailed article that is being published in an academic journal. Even though a blogpost doesn't (or at least shouldn't) count as a prior publication of something, and even though the article and blogpost are only similar in very broad strokes, I'd like to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

70 years

since the Pearl Harbor attacks. I was stationed on Oahu 20 years ago at K Bay, and a friend of mine and I planned to go to Pearl Harbor on the 50th anniversary of the attacks to get bombed. We ended up going to a movie instead. I'm slightly more respectful nowadays.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Please pray

for James Joyner and his two little girls. His wife passed away in her sleep at the age of 41 from unknown causes. Their daughters are 23 and 5 months old -- I'm sure the younger was still breastfeeding. Joyner suddenly finds himself a single father and has to deal with overwhelming grief. I can barely keep from tearing up just writing this.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Phoenix Landing

This is three years old and I can't believe I didn't mention it when it happened, but one of the utterly fascinating things involved with the Phoenix spacecraft is that another spacecraft, the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter in orbit around Mars, took pictures of Phoenix as it descended through the Martian atmosphere and after it landed. It just blows me away to think of two separate spacecraft coming into contact with each other like that.

The only thing that I find more mind-boggling than this is when Apollo 12 landed a stone's throw away from Surveyor 3 and the astronauts wondered on over to it.

Saturday, November 19, 2011


EU bans claim that water can prevent dehydration.

EU officials concluded that, following a three-year investigation, there was no evidence to prove the previously undisputed fact.

Producers of bottled water are now forbidden by law from making the claim and will face a two-year jail sentence if they defy the edict, which comes into force in the UK next month.

I need to get back to the States before they ban the actual drinking of water to prevent dehydration.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Quote of the Day

I dreamed that a number of us bought a ship and hired a crew and captain and went to sea. We called her the State. And a great storm arose and she began to make heavy weather of it, till at last there came a cry "All hands to the pumps -- owners and all!" We had too much sense to disobey the call and in less time than it takes to write the words we had all turned out, and allowed ourselves to be formed into squads at the pumps. Several emergency petty officers were appointed to teach us our work and keep us at it. In my dream I did not, even at the outset, greatly care for the look of some of these gentry; but at such a moment -- the ship being nearly under -- who could attend to a trifle like that? And we worked day and night at the pumps and very hard work we found it. And by the mercy of God we kept her afloat and kept her head on to it, till presently the weather improved.

I don't think that any of us expected the pumping squads to be dismissed there and then. We knew that the storm might not be really over and it was as well to be prepared for anything. We didn't even grumble (or not much) when we found that parades were to be no fewer. What did break our hearts were the things the petty officers now began to do to us when they had us on parade. They taught us nothing about pumping or handling a rope or indeed anything that might help to save their lives or ours. Either there was nothing more to learn or the petty officers did not know it. They began to teach us all sorts of things -- the history of shipbuilding, the habits of mermaids, how to dance the hornpipe and play the penny whistle and chew tobacco. For by this time the emergency petty officers (though the real crew laughed at them) had become so very, very nautical that they couldn't open their mouths without saying "Shiver my timbers" or "Avast" or "Belay".

And then one day, in my dream, one of them let the cat out of the bag. We heard him say, "Of course we shall keep all these compulsory squads in being for the next voyage: but they won't necessarily have anything to do with working the pumps. For, of course, shiver my timbers, we know there'll never be another storm, d'you see? But having once got hold of these lubbers we're not going to let them slip back again. Now's our chance to make this the sort of ship we want."

But the emergency petty officers were doomed to disappointment. For the owners (that was "us" in the dream, you understand) replied "What? Lose our freedom and not get security in return? Why, it was only for security we surrendered our freedom at all." And then someone cried, "Land in sight". And the owners with one accord took every one of the emergency petty officers by the scruff of his neck and the seat of his trousers and heaved the lot of them over the side. I protest that in my waking hours I would never have approved such an action. But the dreaming mind is regrettably immoral, and in the dream, when I saw all those meddling busybodies going plop-plop into the deep blue sea, I could do nothing but laugh.

My punishment was that the laughter woke me up.

C. S. Lewis
"A Dream"
Present Concerns

Monday, November 14, 2011

Archaeology of the EAAN

Alvin Plantinga has spent much of the last two decades arguing that naturalism is self-defeating. He calls his argument the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism or EAAN, and the reason it's evolutionary is because Plantinga applies it specifically to evolution. If naturalism is true, our belief-forming capacities are not aimed at the production of mostly true beliefs; rather, they are aimed at survival since that is what evolution would select for. But then any particular belief is not produced by cognitive faculties aimed at producing true beliefs -- including belief in evolution itself. Therefore, either evolution is true or naturalism is true; not both. Since naturalists generally consider evolution to be their primary argument (mistakenly, I would argue for further reasons), the EAAN takes their strongest weapon and uses it against them.

Plantinga's first widely-read presentation of this argument is chapter 12 (pp. 216-37) of Warrant and Proper Function (henceforth WPF), published in 1993, entitled "Is Naturalism Irrational?" (chapter 11 is relevant too). But I came across a handful of references to an earlier essay published in 1991 in Logos simply titled "An Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism." I suspected this article was probably just an earlier version of the final chapter of WPF but I'm one of those people who likes to track these obscure references down. Unfortunately, there are a few journals named Logos and none of those I had access to were the right one. So I finally resorted to drastic measures: I requested the article via inter-library loan.

The journal, it turns out, is the now-defunct Logos: Philosophic Issues in Christian Perspective, volume 12 (1991), with Plantinga's article taking up pages 27-49. As I suspected it's very similar to chapter 12 of WPF, although not identical; the chapter is an updated version of the essay. Regardless, now I had both.

Yet then I encountered another reference. William Alston begins his essay "Plantinga, Naturalism, and Defeat" (page 176 in James Beilby, ed., Naturalism Defeated? Essays on Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism [Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 2002]) by saying that Plantinga published the EAAN in two places at the same time, one of those places being WPF. The second reference was not to Logos, however: it was to Faith in Theory and Practice: Essays on Justifying Religious Belief, edited by Elizabeth S. Radcliffe and Carol J. White (Chicago: Open Court, 1993). My suspicion, however, was that the latter article was not the updated chapter but merely a republication of the original Logos essay. Fortunately, I did have access to this book in one of the faculty libraries, so I went and copied the article -- pp. 35-65 and titled "An Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism" -- and compared it to the earlier article. Sure enough, the Radcliffe-White article is identical to the Logos article (although it has an abstract not present in the latter) and thus is similar but not identical to the final chapter of WPF.

So if you're a pedantic researcher like me and want to track down these earlier references even though there are no significant differences between them and the version presented in WPF (which is available online here), you can just get the Radcliffe-White book, since it's much more accessible. You're welcome.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Spinozan SF

I've never read Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker, I've only read about it -- partially because C. S. Lewis wrote his Space Trilogy to provide a sort of Christian counter-example to it. Now I learn that Star Maker can be seen as a science-fiction expression of Spinoza's philosophy. That moves it to the top of my list.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Three more books

A friend for whom I recently did a minor favor very graciously bought me a $50 gift certificate for This is probably the best kind of gift to give to someone like me. The shipping costs to send them to Belgium were fairly high, but I managed to finagle three books out of it. I really wanted to get Jaegwon Kim's Physicalism, or Something Near Enough, but couldn't figure out a way of doing it and still getting two more books. I received my order a few days ago and realized that as the books are completely incommensurate with each other, they illustrate the diversity of my psychoses. Here they are, for what it's worth:

Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. I use this book in my dissertation, and it finally reached the point where it was much more convenient to own it than to continue getting it from a library. In fact, I really need to familiarize myself with all of Dennett's books as his philosophical foci overlap mine in several places. Also, the more I read him the more I like him.

Ronald L. Numbers, ed., Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion. I've been wanting this one ever since it came out, especially to read Dennis Danielson's chapter, but never had the spare change to buy it. Now all I need is the spare time to read it.

Dallas Willard, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge. I've mentioned before how this book sounds like it's written to address my particular spiritual condition. I read somewhere that you shouldn't constantly read new books on spirituality, but instead find a handful of books that speak to your condition and just feed off them. Dallas Willard's books fill that role for me. I also note that his website has brought back the page on his current projects which I mentioned here.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Happy Nigel Tufnel Day

Or corduroy day or whatever.

(Yes, I know it's Veterans Day -- Armistice Day in Europe -- but it kind of ticks me off because, as a Marine Corps veteran I've never had Veterans Day off. No it's other people who get to take it off to honor veterans but the actual veterans have to work. Seriously, how messed up is that? Why not make Veterans Day a day when you honor veterans by giving veterans the day off? Having a day to honor veterans where most veterans get treated the same as any other day makes you look kind of like a jerk. OK, sorry, rant off.)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Wir danken dir, Gott

Folks, I'm sorry I haven't been posting much of late. I can only appeal to the demands of academia again. In the meantime, here is another favorite piece of music: the opening sinfonia to "Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir" (we thank you, God, we thank you), by Johann Sebastian Bach, which is a reworking of a violin partita. I haven't been able to find a version of this on YouTube that I like, since they all place an emphasis on the organ, and my few years of attending church as a kid ruined me for organ music. Fortunately I found a version on Grooveshark that is all strings -- in fact, I think it's the same version I originally heard and loved which may explain why the organ versions don't move me as much.

This piece epitomizes baroque music for me. It's just magical. If I had to point to one piece of music that captures everything I love about classical music, this would be it. Take a listen.

Update (23 Oct): For comparison, here's the violin partita he culled it from (#3, Preludio):

Like my wife says, it's hard to believe all that is coming from one instrument.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence...

...until you're on the other side and realize there's nothing to eat but grass. I just read a hilarious and disturbingly accurate article from Cracked: 6 Reasons Your Plans to Move Abroad Might Not Work Out. Number 3 is "What You Hate About America, You Find Everywhere". I read this article Friday afternoon, and it was incredibly appropriate because that morning my wife and I observed a white European being insanely racist towards a black African, racism on a level that is all too common in Europe but would never happen in the States. Seriously, if the racist stuff that flies under the radar here happened in the States, cities would burn. It's mind-boggling. Probably the most blatant example of this is Zwarte Piet, "Black Pete". You see, in the lowlands, Santa Claus has a black slave named Pete who accompanies him wherever he goes. His job is to scare the children into being good. Because being black is scary. Oh, and also Pete is always portrayed by white people in blackface. Notice I write "white people" not "white men"; Pete is often portrayed by women.

Of course, another point made in the Cracked article is that when you live overseas you eventually start blaming your host culture for every single thing that you find offensive or annoying. For example, customer service is, as far as I can tell, an American phenomenon -- or perhaps an Anglo phenomenon. So is lining up to get on a bus, train, elevator, etc. So is safety. My wife and I were once walking down a busy street and passed a circular saw, plugged in and spinning, just laying there. No protective guard or anything. Some workers had been doing something with it, and went to take a break. Nobody else thought it was unusual to have a saw that could cut off their legs spinning away in the middle of the sidewalk, they just stepped around it.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Future Space

Future Pundit is a blog that focuses on all things technological. However, I'm really just interested in his posts on space exploration and space colonization.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Pajamas Linkfest

Here are a few interesting links from Pajamas Media, a collocation of bloggers. They tend towards libertarianism, but my interest in the stories below are not primarily political.

-- NASA’s ‘Shuttlyndra’ a Massive Waste of Tax Dollars by Rand Simburg who also blogs at Transterrestrial Musings.

-- Literary B-Sides: Five of the Most Under-Rated Books from Famous Authors

-- The Sicko Side of the Sci-Fi Circuit. I'd never heard any of this before, but I've never been to a SF convention.

-- Islam's History of Forced Conversions. Interesting, but purely anecdotal. He sees parallels between a recent event and an event from several hundred years ago. He needs to point to more than two examples in 500 years to make his case.

-- No More Harems: The Hidden History of Muslim and Ex-Muslim Feminism. Inspiring.

-- Hey Lady Gaga, Kids Have a Time-Tested Answer for Bullies: Punch Them in the Mouth. Fairly self-explanatory.

-- Deconstructing Mad Men’s Title Sequence. I watched some of the first season, but it didn't do anything for me. The title sequence, however, is haunting.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Quote of the Day

Sexual eros points to something deeper in a second way. As we have just seen, it is a sign or type of a deeper reality, a kind of love for God of which we now just have hints and intimations. It is also a sign, symbol, or type of God's love -- not just of the love God's children will someday have for him but of the love he also has for them. As we noted above (p. 312), Scripture regularly compares God's love for his people and Christ's love for his church to the love of a groom for his new bride. Now a widely shared traditional view of God has been that he is impassible, without desire or feeling or passion, unable to feel sorrow at the sad condition of his world and the suffering of his children, and equally unable to feel joy, delight, longing, or yearning. The reason for so thinking, roughly, is that in the tradition originating in Greek philosophy, passions were thought of (naturally enough) as passive, something that happens to you, something you undergo, rather than something you actively do. You are subject to anger, love, joy, and all the rest. God, however, is pure act; he doesn't 'undergo' anything at all; he acts, and is never merely passive; and he isn't subject to anything. As far as eros is concerned, furthermore, there is an additional reason for thinking that it isn't part of God's life: longing and yearning signify need and incompleteness. One who yearns for something doesn't yet have it, and needs it, or at any rate thinks he needs it; God is of course paradigmatically complete and needs nothing beyond himself. How, then, could he be subject to eros? God's love, according to this tradition, is exclusively agape, benevolence, a completely other-regarding, magnanimous love in which there is mercy but no element of desire. God loves us, but there is nothing we can do for him; he wishes nothing from us.

On this particular point I think we must take leave of the tradition; this is one of those places where it has paid too much attention to Greek philosophy and too little to the Bible. I believe God can and does suffer; his capacity for suffering exceeds ours in the same measure that his knowledge exceeds ours. Christ's suffering was no charade; he was prepared to endure the agonies of the cross and of hell itself ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"). God the Father was prepared to endure the anguish of seeing his Son, the second person of the trinity, consigned to the bitterly cruel and shameful death of the cross. And isn't the same true for other passions? "There is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent" (Luke 15:7); is God himself to be excluded from this rejoicing?

Similarly for eros: "As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you" (Isaiah 62:5). The bridegroom rejoicing over his bride doesn't love her with a merely agapeic love. He isn't like her benevolent elder brother (although Christ is also said to be our elder brother). He desires and longs for something outside himself, namely union with his beloved. The church is the bride of Christ, not his little sister. He is not her benevolent elder brother, but her husband, lover. These scriptural images imply that God isn't impassive, and that his love for us is not exclusively agapeic. They suggest that God's love for his people involves an erotic element of desire: he desires the right kind of response from us, and union with us, just as we desire union with him.

We can take this one step further (and here we may be crossing the boundary into groundless speculation). According to Jonathan Edwards, "The infinite happiness of the Father consists in the enjoyment of His Son." This presumably isn't agape. It doesn't involve an element of mercy, as in his love for us. It is, instead, a matter of God's taking enormous pleasure, enjoyment, delight, happiness, delectation in the Son. Given the necessary existence of the Father and the Son, and their having their most important properties essentially, there is no way in which God could be deprived of the Son; but if (per impossible) he were, it would occasion inconceivable sadness. The love in question is eros, not agape. It is a desire for union that is continually, eternally, and joyfully satisfied. And our being created in his image involves our capacity for eros and for love of what is genuinely lovable, as well as knowledge and agenthood.

Accordingly, the eros in our lives is a sign or a symbol of God's erotic love as well. Human erotic love is a sign of something deeper, something so deep that it is uncreated, an original and permanent and necessarily present feature of the universe. Eros undoubtedly characterizes many creatures other than human beings; no doubt much of the living universe shares this characteristic. More important, all of us creatures with eros reflect and partake in this profound divine property. So the most fundamental reality here is the love displayed by and in God: love within the trinity. This love is erotic. It is a matter of perceiving and desiring and enjoying union with something valuable, in this case, Someone of supreme value. And God's love for us is manifested in his generously inviting us into this charmed circle (though not, of course, to ontological equality), thus satisfying the deepest longings of our souls. Within this circle, there is mercy, self-sacrifice, overflowing agape; there is also that longing and delight, that yearning and joy that make up eros.

Alvin Plantinga
Warranted Christian Belief

Monday, September 26, 2011

Pessimism and Aphorism

Maverick Philosopher analyzes some aphorisms of Emil Cioran. I would offer Cioran more grace with regards to their consistency: to be consistent is to be systematic and to demand that aphorisms be systematic is to demand a standard they are not usually trying to meet. It's hard enough to be systematic when you're writing a systematic work. Plus, if you're trying to point to the absurdity of life, as Cioran is, consistency may not be a high priority. Nevertheless, I agree that you can point to the inconsistencies and recognize them as such, I just don't think it makes him "an unserious literary scribbler".

I'm very glad I encountered God before I encountered Cioran (or Schopenhauer). I'm naturally pessimistic, so philosophical pessimism would have ensnared me. My soul yearns, my heart cries out ... for non-existence. As Cioran puts it, "Is it possible that existence is our exile and nothingness our home?" An image I've carried with me since I was a teenager is that I want to vomit myself up. I want to vomit until there's nothing and no one left. Of course, this is contradictory (thank God): I have to exist to vomit, so there would always be a core being that remains.

I doubt I would have realized this if I had encountered philosophical pessimism before Christ. But Christianity explains it perfectly. "So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God -- through Jesus Christ our Lord!" A part of me wants to say I don't want to do good, that's the problem -- but then why is it a problem? There's a part of me, however small you want to make it, that recognizes it's a problem, that wants to do good; and it is this part of me that rebels against who I am and what I do and wants to vomit it up, exterminate it. That part of me wants to do good, wants to be holy. Pessimism says that since a part of me -- perhaps a large part of me -- is enmired in sin, evil, absurdity, that all of me must be. But if all of me is so enmired, what's the part of me that recognizes it for what it is and rebels against it? As Maverick Philosopher writes, "Cioran's thought undermines the very possibility of its own expression. That can't be good."

Pessimism is too simple; it views the situation as univocal when it is really a duality. But that shouldn't be too surprising: reality is often more complicated than how we would like it to be.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Site Seeing

I've decided to combine three elements of my sidebar into one, and economize them a bit, under the title Site Seeing. These are simply websites and blogs that I find interesting. Some of the sites, blogs in particular, cover politics, but the fact that I'm linking to them should not be taken as an endorsement or agreement.

First are several philosophy websites and blogs. Dallas Willard is a professor at USC, and is an expert on the philosophy of Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology. His site includes most of his philosophical essays. But Willard has made a name for himself in the Christian community by writing some incredibly insightful books on spirituality and Christian living (I wrote about one here), and his site also includes a large collection of his essays on these subjects as well. If you're a Christian, I can't recommend strongly enough that you get to know his writings. Victor Reppert's blog, Dangerous Idea (derived from his book C. S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea, which defends the argument from reason) is where he writes about philosophy, theology, C. S. Lewis, politics, etc. Dangerous Idea 2 is dedicated exclusively to the argument from reason. Just Thomism is an absolutely outstanding philosophy blog, one of the best around. It's written by James Chastek. Bill Vallicella's blog, Maverick Philosopher is equally outstanding in this regard. The Prosblogion is a group blog written by numerous philosophers of religion and very interesting. Another link is to William Lane Craig's site Reasonable Faith, although you have to have a username and password to access much of it. If you don't want to do that, his old site is still up, and has most of the stuff available from the new site. Craig's contribution to academia is primarily in defending Christianity. He has written numerous articles on philosophical proofs for and against the existence of God, as well as issues regarding the historical Jesus. I also link to a site on his debates. I'm also including the Philosophers' Carnival which links to various philosophical blogposts every three weeks, but is hosted by a different blog each time.

Next are some sites dealing with Christianity and culture that are definitely worth your time. Books and Culture is an online magazine, although its most recent articles are usually only available in print. Yet it's still very much worth checking out. Another excellent online magazine is First Things. Next is a purely online resource called Leadership U. They have plenty of articles on religion and culture, philosophy, science, etc. An excellent blog on contemporary culture is The Anchoress, written by Elizabeth Scalia, who also writes at First Things.

I've also listed several sites that deal chiefly with religion and science. Bede's Library is the apologetics site of James Hannam, a philosopher and historian of science, and the author of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (US title: The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution. James's website explodes many of the myths surrounding the alleged conflict between science and Christianity, and I'm very pleased that he invited me, and a few others, to join him on his blog Quodlibeta (formerly Bede's Journal). The Counterbalance Interactive Library has a bunch of lectures and articles by leading scientists and philosophers of science, arguing most points of view. It really is an excellent resource. Another site is Reasons to Believe, a Christian ministry. I've belonged to a local chapter of it, and they also do an excellent job. However, they are critical of evolution, something I find unnecessary. Nevertheless, that is pretty much the only point where they conflict with contemporary science; most of the site demonstrates how modern physics, astronomy, and cosmology not only fit within the Christian worldview, but support it, often to the exclusion of other worldviews.

As for science simpliciter, I link to the Carnival of Space, which updates interesting stories and facets of space travel every week. Cosmic Log is a blog written by Alan Boyle and focuses on science, especially space science (something I'm very interested in), but also comments on other issues. It's a good starting place for scientific news and discoveries. A few sites that promote space exploration and getting permanent human colonies on other solar system bodies besides the earth are the Mars Society and the Moon Society. You can probably guess which bodies they have in mind. They are actually in slight conflict, since the Mars Society advocates their Mars Direct program to go directly to Mars without first setting up stations on the Moon. Two more sites along these lines are the National Space Society and the Planetary Society. Finally is Vintage Space, an excellent blog dealing with the history of space exploration.

Now for miscellanea: First is Homestar Runner. If you don't already understand why I'm linking to them, any argument would be futile. It's the source of my (former) nom de cyber, Tragic Clown Dog. Actually, it was a toss-up between that and Mushy Chamberpot, but my wife nixed the latter. Next, Things of Interest. I discovered this right before I started writing this blog. This guy writes all kinds of stuff, but the most interesting are his short stories. He is reminiscent, to my mind, of Fredric Brown, who I consider one of the better SF writers around in terms of short stories. I write short fiction too, and frankly I was starting to get a little impressed with myself before I read this guy's stuff. Some of the blogs from my old blogroll that successfully made the transfer include: Raskolnikov, Lost in the Cosmos, which I originally found by doing a Technorati search to see if anyone linked to my first blog. After reading him a few times, I was hooked. Besides, how can you not like a guy who names himself after a Dostoyevsky character? Wayfaring Stranger is written by Tyson, who I met him online a few years ago, after he linked to me. He's a father and a pastor, and has prayed for me during some hard times. Very nice guy. His blog is mostly concerned with religious issues from a specifically Christian perspective. Jacob Longshore writes the Wordverter blog. We know each other face to face, because we studied at the same school. Also a very nice guy, and an expert on C. S. Peirce (pronounced "purse").

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Breath of Fresh Aire

When I was a kid my sister had the early Mannheim Steamroller albums and I just went rummaging through YouTube to find one particular tune from them that I've always found just haunting. When I get back to the States and my piano I'm going to get the sheet music to it. Here it is: Amber

While I was at it, I found a few more that I remember that are a little more, shall we say, jaunty. For example, The Cricket:

And The Third Door:

The first two are from Fresh Aire III and the third is from Fresh Aire II.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Quote of the Day

We must also recall that the whole scheme, the whole radical subpicture, seems incoherent in a familiar way. One who states and proposes this scheme makes several claims about the Dinge: that they are not in space and time, for example, and more poignantly, that our concepts don't apply to them (applying only to the phenomena), so that we cannot refer to or think about them. But if we really can't think the Dinge, then we can't think them (and can't whistle them either); if we can't think about them, we can't so much as entertain the thought that there are such things. The incoherence is patent.

Would it be possible to induce coherence by refusing to make the distinction between phenomena and noumena, speaking only of what, if we did make that distinction, would be the phenomena, and claiming that whatever there is, is either a bit of experience or an object constructed by us from bits of experience by way of concepts (i.e., rules for constructing things from experience)? That is extremely hard to believe: are the stars, for example, which, as far as we can tell, existed long before we did, either bits of human experience or objects constructed by us from bits of human experience? How are we supposed to make sense of that? On this view, furthermore, the objection to Christian belief would not be that serious Christians improperly take it that they can refer to God; the objection would be that there is no God. If there were such a person, he certainly wouldn't be either a bit of human experience or something we have constructed from it. Still further, on this picture we ourselves (because we are among the things there are) would either have constructed ourselves from bits of experience or we would just be bits of experience; but of course we couldn't have constructed ourselves before we existed, so we must have started off, at least, as bits of experience with the power to construct things. Not a pretty picture. And even if we could somehow induce coherence here, why should we feel obliged to believe it? What possible claim could such a bizarre scheme have on us?

By way of conclusion then: it doesn't look as if there is good reason in Kant or in the neighborhood of Kant for the conclusion that our concepts do not apply to God, so that we cannot think about him. Contemporary theologians and others sometimes complain that contemporary philosophers of religion often write as if they have never read their Kant. Perhaps the reason they write that way, however, is not that they have never read their Kant but rather that they have read him and remain unconvinced. They may be unconvinced that Kant actually claimed that our concepts do not apply to God. Alternatively, they may concede that Kant did claim this, but remain unconvinced that he was right; after all, it is not just a given of the intellectual life that Kant is right. Either way, they don't think Kant gives us reason to hold that we cannot think about God.

Alvin Plantinga
Warranted Christian Belief

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Images of Evil

(Update, June 14 2017: I've updated this post by substituting some videos that are clearer and altering some text that described the particular videos that were replaced.)

I suspect that as everyone from an older generation remembered where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot, everyone from my generation will remember how they heard about 9/11. It's been ten years since those terrorist attacks, and it's far too easy to not think about the events of that day. I believe that these attacks were blatantly evil, and we have to remind ourselves of this in order to combat further atrocities from being committed in the future. So in order to recall that there is real evil in the world, here are the videos of the various plane strikes from 9/11. Bear in mind as you watch these that I'm not posting them to satiate anyone's morbid curiosity. You're watching hundreds of people, in the planes and in the buildings, being murdered. So consider that your content warning. Also, if you want to leave a comment espousing some conspiracy theory nonsense, find another website.

American Airlines flight 11
This is the famous and clearest shot of the first plane, filmed by the Naudet brothers, two French documentarians who were filming a documentary on New York firefighters. They completed it, although it became a documentary of 9/11. You can see part 1 here and then follow the links to part 2, 3, etc. The following video shows the plane hit then shows it again in slow motion.

This next one is much more difficult to see so I chose a video that stabilizes it, plays it several times, and slows it down. The guy who took this, Pavel Hlava, didn't even realize he had caught the first plane striking the twin towers until months later. After filming this part, he went through a tunnel, and upon emerging he filmed the second plane hitting the towers.

The next one is a collection of photographs from a webcam that was part of a video art project by Wolfgang Staehle, that took a picture of the Manhattan skyline every four seconds or so from the rooftop of another building. It has a picture of the plane approaching and then immediately after it hit. I had a video that showed the photos but it's no longer available, so here are the pictures. For some reason, in most collections of these photos, the middle one, right after the plane hits, is excluded.

The next one doesn't show the plane hitting the tower, but you hear it, and then the cameraman shows one of the towers and the smoke plume. It was filmed by a news crew from WNYW in New York.

United Airlines flight 175
After the first plane strike, everyone and their dog were looking up at the twin towers, and those who had video cameras were filming it. Thus the second plane strike was caught by multiple people from multiple angles, and millions of people saw it live on TV. Here's a compilation of 30 of the clearest shots.

And here's a collection that alleges to be all of the videos made public of the second plane strike, although the clips are shorter than the previous one.

American Airlines flight 77
There is very little video showing the plane that hit the Pentagon, although it was witnessed by hundreds of people. This shows the video taken from a security check-point. Like the Staehle webcam, you only see a snapshot of the plane on the right side of the video at 0:25 and then the explosion.

This next one shows only the relevant portion of the previous video.

And this one shows the same thing from the security check-point one lane over.

This video shows a computer reconstruction of the Pentagon plane strike, which then interposes it on the security video above to show how they match.

And this is a video taken from a security camera at a Doubletree hotel that shows the explosion but does not capture the plane approaching because of the relative positions of the camera and the plane.

United Airlines flight 93
The fourth plane that crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania was not caught on film. Up until a few days ago, the photograph below was the only known photo of the smoke plume created when it crashed into a field. This is the plane the passengers tried to take back, and forced the terrorists to crash it before it reached its target (probably either the United States Capitol building or the White House). The passengers may have been able to get control of the cockpit in the last few moments, but they were unable to stop the plane from crashing.

However, just a few days ago a family released a video taken of the smoke plume after the plane crashed. The man who shot it has since passed away, and his family wants to remain anonymous.

While hundreds of people were killed when the planes struck the towers, most of the people who died there died in the subsequent fires, or when they fell or jumped from the towers, or when the buildings collapsed. These were also filmed by multiple cameras and multiple news crews. So the prolificity of such videos is one reason why I'm not going to try to collect them all here.

Another reason is that my point in showing the actual plane strikes (or the immediate aftermath in the case of United 93) is to show the evil of 9/11 and I think that is best exemplified by the free actions of the terrorists who committed it (even though Islamic theology generally denies human free will). The reason I want to show the evil is because I think it must be confronted and stopped rather than glossed over or accommodated, and for obvious reasons, we want to forget the horror of that day. While the videos of the people jumping and of the towers collapsing are horrific, they are results of the original act undertaken by people who chose to align themselves with evil.

The third reason I'm not going to show pictures of people jumping from the towers to their deaths and the towers collapsing is that, frankly, I'm morally exhausted by all of this.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Social issues

1. I've taken several tests to determine my political standing -- not being intelligent enough to simply know them -- and here are the results of the most recent:

I feel neutral, oh so neutral...

This isn't too surprising, since my political views are not systematic but eclectic. Many of my answers were almost contradictory to other answers. I'm posting this so that next time someone tries to pigeon-hole me as one thing or another, I can just send them here to show them that the political world really does revolve around me.

2. One of the questions is whether patriotism makes sense, since we don't have any control over the citizenships we receive upon birth. I strongly disagreed with that. I didn't have any control over who my parents are either, but to suggest that therefore I shouldn't love them deeply, that I shouldn't be willing to sacrifice anything, perhaps everything, on their behalf is not only false but immoral.

3. Some friends sent me a couple of links, and I feel the need to pass them on. One is that Americans are still perceived as the coolest people in the world. The subtitle points out that Belgians come in last, and they sent me a link that emphasizes that point here.

Now as one of the coolest people living among the least cool, let me just say this in defense of the Flemingos: they get crap from all sides. Everybody hates them. They're like Europe's New Jersey. I have found them to be wonderful people and I greatly respect them. They certainly have a tendency toward passivity, but if everyone hated you, you probably would too. They've been conquered so many times that they can't be expected to be standing tall. What impresses me about them is that they're still standing.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Quote of the Day

The first move: materialism as scientific hypothesis
U. T. Place argued that it is tenable to say that certain events and processes traditionally classified as mental (for example, sensation) are identical with events and processes in the brain. That this is indeed so he labelled as materialism, and argued that it is in fact a scientific hypothesis. In response to Smart he agreed further that the conditions required for the assertability of such a hypothesis -- conditions under which alone such an identity statement can be true -- are subject to philosophical debate rather than empirical testing. But once such conditions are specified, the remaining question is empirical. For the described 'mental' events and processes have a certain complexity, which brain events and processes may or may not have. The name "materialism" is also given to this or closely similar claims about the psychological e.g. by David Armstrong.

There are three preliminary questions to be raised. First of all, not every replacement for what I have called the Thesis can be accepted as the 'real' materialism -- can this one? Since the main question before us is what exactly the materialist's main thesis could be, we should perhaps accept any seriously offered contender. But if we could identify certain familiar psychological events and processes with physiological ones in some not too weak sense, we would hardly be finished with the traditional concerns of materialism. That a person has a purpose, for example, does not consist in any specific type of occurrent event or process; nor that her sins are forgiven, that she is in a state of grace, or that she is precious beyond rubies. And these are only examples about persons; what else may there not be between heaven and earth never dreamt of in materialist philosophy? I don't want to be fanciful, but merely establishing that sensations are brainstates seems hardly more than a drop in the bucket for the materialist. The virtue of such a ringing Thesis as "Matter is All" was to settle the hash of all such stuff once and for all.

Second preliminary question: does the description of the 'mental' or the psychological in terms of which the replacement thesis is formulated, do justice to its intended concern? Armstrong was rather more conscious than Place of the second preliminary question when he was debating Malcolm, a Wittgensteinian. Today he would also have to contend with putative failures of functionalism, arguments that no computational theory of consciousness could even in principle be successful, and demonstrations that truth conditions for belief attributions must have historical and social parameters outside the believer.

But leave these debates aside. Third question: supposing the empirical claim is false, or is scientifically investigated and found wanting, will there or will there not be a fall-back position to call 'the real materialism after all'? It would be a poor game if after much scientific strife, the loser could say "that's not it at all, that is not what I meant at all." Well, what if we accept Place's or Armstrong's formulation, and their empirical claims are found wanting? Suppose, for example, that no neurological process can be identified which can even in principle predict human decisions reached simultaneously or at the exact end of that process. The next empirical question would be what probabilities can be assigned to the (neutrally described) actions being decided upon, conditional on the states of the central nervous system. If these probabilities cannot even in principle be made as near zero and one as we like, is that the end of materialism?

Think of the exact parallel: no quantum state will predict the exact time of radio-active decay. Is that the end of materialism? It is not; and neither would materialism come to an end if what humans do could be related only probabilistically to their brainstates. A favorite belief of the materialists would have to be relinquished, but they would all know how to retrench. For the spirit of materialism is never exhausted in piece-meal empirical claims.

The second move: whatever it takes
If you press a materialist, you quickly find that the most important constraint on the meaning of the Thesis is that it should be compatible with science, whatever science comes up with. This is contrary to what some of them say. If, they say, certain phenomena could not be explained purely in terms of material factors, then the scientific thing to do would be to give up materialism. But, holding the Thesis, they make the bold conjecture that this will never happen. That what would never happen?

If that question cannot be answered with a precise and independent account of what material factors are, there is still one option. That is to nail a completeness claim to science, or to a specific science such as physics. The instructive example here is J. J. C. Smart, who begins his essay "Materialism" with an offer to explain what he means:

By 'materialism' I mean the theory that there is nothing in the world over and above those entities which are postulated by physics (or, or course, those entities which will be postulated by future and more adequate physical theories).

He quickly discusses some older and more recent postulations in actual physics, which make that 'theory' look substantive. But of course the parenthetical qualification makes that discussion completely irrelevant!

Smart may believe, or think that he believes, the 'theory' here formulated; but if he does, he certainly does not know what he believes. For of course he has no more idea than you or I of what physics will postulate in the future. It is a truly courageous faith, that believes in an 'I know not what' -- isn't it?

Indeed, in believing this, Smart cannot be certain that he believes anything at all. Suppose science goes on forever, and every theory is eventually succeeded by a better one. That has certainly been the case so far, and always some accepted successor has implied that the previously postulated entities (known, after all, only by description) do not exist. If that is also how it will continue, world without end, then Smart's so-called theory -- as formulated above -- entails that there is nothing. Let's not be too quick to celebrate this demonstration of clear empirical content (about what the future of physics will not be like). Most likely Smart did not notice this implication and would have preferred to rephrase if he had.

In a clear indication that he is at least subliminally aware of the problem, Smart quickly adds some extra content. Not content with his initial formulation once he realizes that it is compatible with emergent properties, holism, and the irreducibility of biology to physics, he says

I wish to lay down that it is incompatible with materialism that there should be any irreducibly emergent laws or properties, say in biology or psychology.... I also want to deny any theory of 'emergent properties'.... (ibid. pp. 203-204)

We should read this as an amendment of the above definition of materialism, for the 'theory' formulated above does not fit this bill. We must wonder how Smart knows that it is not adequate. Is he perhaps telling us that either physics will forever eschew emergent properties, or else materialism is false? Since quantum physics provides, at this point, a clear example of holism, should we conclude that materialism has already come to an end?

Of course not. Faced with the consequences of the stance that materialism should be whatever it takes to be a completeness claim for physics, Smart started backpedalling. Everything that is "repugnant" to him (to use his phrase) may be incorporated in future physics. So he adds, in effect, that physics will be false if that happens. But faced with that consequence, no materialist will stick by him if he sticks by that. They'll point out, quite rightly, that he was of a 'classical' mind, and like so often happens with the older generation in physics itself, quite unable to assimilate new visions of the structure of the material world.

Materialism as false consciousness
So is it all just a matter of scientific reactionaries with their self-trivializing theses dressed up as uncompromising metaphysical constraints on science? No, it is not. For all this effort to codify materialism bespeaks something much more important: the spirit of materialism. Materialism is a hardy philosophical tradition, which appears differently substantiated in each philosophical era. Each instantiation has its empirical as well as its non-empirical claims, which interpret for that era, in its own terms, the invariant attitudes and convictions which I call here the 'spirit of materialism'.

How shall we identify what is really involved in materialism? Our great clue is the apparent ability of materialists to revise the content of their main thesis, as science changes. If we took literally the claim of a materialist that his position is simply belief in the claim that all is matter, as currently construed, we would be faced with an insoluble mystery. For how would such a materialist know how to retrench when his favorite scientific hypotheses fail? How did the 18th century materialists know that gravity, or forces in general, were material? How did they know in the 19th century that the electro-magnetic field was material, and persisted in this conviction after the aether had been sent packing?

Of course it is possible to measure certain quantities. But that cannot provide the criterion needed. Just think again of the transition from Cartesian to Newtonian physics. Newton identified forces as the causes of changes in states of motion. Accordingly, if you measure the direction and rate of change of momentum, you obtain a description of that cause in terms of its effects. (The recipe for measuring force direction and magnitude is exactly to measure those effects.) But it could be added consistently that these causes are immaterial, spiritual -- even mental, if Mind does not need to be someone's mind. If instead the forces are said to be material just like the extended bodies so classified before, the materialist must seemingly have some rather mysterious type of knowledge: a knowledge-that the newly introduced entities have the je ne sais quoi which makes for materiality.

But what is it then, in this metaphysical position, that guides the change in content, which it would be pedantic to signal with a change in name? If the "physicalist" or "naturalist" part of this philosophical position is not merely the desire or commitment to have metaphysics guided by physics -- i. e. something that cannot be captured in any thesis or factual belief -- then what is it? This knowledge of how to retrench cannot derive from the substantive belief currently identified as the view that all is physical. So what does it derive from? Whatever the answer is, that, and not the explicit thesis, is the real answer to what materialism is.

Hence I propose the following diagnosis of materialism: it is not identifiable with a theory about what there is, but only with an attitude or cluster of attitudes. These attitudes include strong deference to science in matters of opinion about what there is, and the inclination to accept (approximative) completeness claims for science as actually constituted at any given time. Given this diagnosis, the apparent knowledge of what is and what is not material among newly hypothesized entities is mere appearance. The ability to adjust the content of the thesis that all is matter again and again is then explained instead by a knowing-how to retrench which derives from invariant attitudes. This does not reflect badly on materialism; on the contrary, it gives materialism its due. But it does imply that only the confusion of theses held with attitudes expressed, which yields false consciousness, can account for the conviction that science requires presumptive materialism.

I mean this as a diagnosis of materialism, not a refutation. Its incarnation at any moment will be some position distinguished by certain empirical consequences, and these will either stand or fall as science evolves. But whether they stand or fall, materialism as general philosophical position, as historical tradition in philosophy, will survive. Given this, however, there can -- for that very reason -- be no question of regarding materialism as an assumption at the foundations of science. There is no 'presumptive materialism' which constrains scientific theories to consistency with certain determinate factual theses. For even materialism itself is not so constrained, and it survives by changing so as to accommodate the new sciences.

Bas C. van Fraassen
"Science, Materialism, and False Consciousness"
Warrant in Contemporary Epistemology: Essays in Honor of Plantinga's Theory of Knowledge

Monday, September 5, 2011

Thought of the Day

Jesus baptized death.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Domino-what now?

The religious controversy du jour is that a New York Times editor wrote that he wants to ask the Republican candidates for President certain questions about whether their religious views would have an effect on their governing. It's mostly a controversy because he doesn't realize that the same questions would be just as appropriate for Democrat candidates. President Obama, for example, has said explicitly that his political views are directly influenced by his Christian beliefs. Nor does the editor seem aware that religious devotion has influenced many of America's greatest Presidents, such as Abraham Lincoln. Moreover, he claims that three candidates in particular belong to a "fervid subset of evangelical Christianity", despite the fact that the three mentioned are Methodist, Lutheran, and Catholic respectively. At any rate, the article in question is just condescending to all religious believers, and the editor seems completely oblivious to it. This just feeds into the charge that the mainstream media doesn't "get religion." So of the myriad responses that have been made, I'll just send you to the rebuttal posted at Get Religion. (Oh, OK, here's one from Strange Herring too.)

But one part of the article that stood out to me is his emphasis on whether the candidates support "Dominionism", a theological movement to establish the Old Testament laws as the laws of the United States. I've heard of this movement before, but not in the places one would expect. I have a Masters degree in Theology from a fairly conservative-minded seminary (theologically conservative, that is) that was essentially evangelical. Our two main textbooks for the standard theology courses were Christian Theology by Millard Erickson and Integrative Theology by Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest, although these were supplemented by dozens of other books on all sorts of theological topics. So I've studied evangelical theology pretty extensively. At no point in my studies was this Dominionist movement mentioned, or anything comparable to it. The point being that this movement has no influence within evangelical Christianity. It is an extreme position that simply has no purchase on most Christians or Christian theologians precisely because it is so extreme.

So I didn't hear of this movement from studying evangelical Christian theology. Where did I hear it? You probably already know: from the mainstream media. Every now and then, certain forces in society feel the need to exaggerate the dangers of their political opponents, and so discovered this insignificant movement and decided to apply it to any and all Christians -- or wait, sorry, just those Christians they disagree with politically. It's not that different from smearing all Christians as flat-earthers just because there are some actual people who claim that the earth is flat. The number of proponents of Dominionism and flat-earthism are probably about the same, after all.

To be clear, though, I don't consider this to be anything like a conspiracy on the part of the media. I think it is simply a blind spot. A willful blind spot perhaps; a self-reinforcing blind spot. But a blind spot nonetheless.