Saturday, October 8, 2016

Remembrance of Earth's Past

Two Christmases ago my lovely wife bought me a few books from a small bookstore. Fortunately, she kept the receipt, so I brought them back to exchange them for some books I actually wanted. As I was browsing their relatively small science-fiction section, I found The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, a work translated from Chinese. I immediately grabbed it: I'd heard about this book and this author and had put it on my list of books to get. Liu is a lauded science-fiction author in China (actually, his name is Liu Cixin, but since the Chinese put the family name first, when he was translated into English, they put the family name last in order to not confuse us), and this book is the first of a trilogy that makes up his most famous work, Remembrance of Earth's Past.

Anyway, I bought it, read it, and loved it. LOVED it. So when the second book in the trilogy was translated, The Dark Forest, I bought it immediately. Incidentally, I never do this: I'm always patient enough for a book to come out in a mass market edition, or at least for it to become less popular so I can buy a cheap used copy of it. But I couldn't wait. And Dark Forest was absolutely amazing; it presents a brilliant solution to the Fermi Paradox involving game theory. Independently, both of these books are among the best books I've ever read.

So of course I pre-ordered the third book in the trilogy, Death's End. (This was my first time pre-ordering a book by the way.) It came out at the end of last month, and I got it about a week and a half ago. I have a bunch of things on my plate at the moment, but I'm still going through it when I can. So far it's exceeding my expectations, which were pretty darn high. So I encourage everyone to get these books as soon as you can and read them. Just check them out from the library if you have to. They are so beyond worth it, I can't even express it. Liu has managed to very quickly become one of my all-time favorite fiction authors; I don't actually rank them, but I'd have to say he's at least in my top three (lucky him). I also note a collection of Liu's short stories has also been translated, The Wandering Earth, which I'm going to get as soon as I can justify it. And Three Body Problem is being made into a movie, due to be released next year.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Christian ethics and homosexuality

Richard Swinburne gave the keynote address at a conference for the Society of Christian Philosophers in which he defended the traditional Christian position that homosexual acts are immoral, and apparently argued that those who experience same-sex attraction are disabled in some way. By some accounts he was inflammatory and insensitive in this; by other accounts he was only presenting claims that he published years ago in his book Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy. The President of the SCP is Michael Rea (whose book World without Design: The Ontological Consequences of Naturalism is on my shelf waiting to be read) apologized for the hurt caused by the presentation and that Swinburne's views are not those of the SCP, which was founded to be inclusive of all those who consider themselves Christian. As Eleanor Stump pointed out, Rea didn't actually condemn Swinburne or his claims, or even criticize them. Nevertheless, there's a cyberstorm over whether Swinburne's lecture was out-of-bounds and whether Rea's apology was appropriate. I'll just send you to Rea's apology on Facebook that has numerous responses -- some positive, some negative -- some thoughtful some not so much -- and follow it up with William Vallicella's comments and links over at Maverick Philosopher.

Now in one of those links I read that in his presentation Swinburne also argued that the fetus is not really a person until 22 weeks gestation and so abortion should be allowed up until that stage. I understand why people with same sex attraction would be offended and hurt by someone claiming that homosexual acts are immoral, but it seems to me that someone who lost a fetus before 22 weeks gestation and considered it to be their child, their baby, would have just as much a claim to be offended and hurt by claims that their deceased child was never really a person. But such claims are made frequently, in academic conferences and in society at large, and I don't hear a comparable sense of outrage by it. And I think that's appropriate: in order to discuss these things, we have to be exposed to all sides of the issue, even those we consider offensive. I mean this is ethics. Ethical issues tend to involve situations that people are emotionally and personally invested in, and debating those issues is bound to hurt someone and hurt them deeply. But the idea that we shouldn't discuss those issues for that reason does not seem to me to be the right response, although I think any debate must be done with respect for those who disagree, even if you don't respect their position. I have to heavily qualify this though: I have my issues that I'm sensitive to too, and while I occasionally try to toughen myself up regarding some of them, most of the time I take the easier route and just try to avoid having to consider the possibility that I'm disastrously wrong. So I'm not in a position to judge anybody.

I'll supplement all this with a post by a gay Christian philosopher who writes something similar to what I expressed above and communicates how difficult it can be for him.

I’m an openly gay philosopher at a top-five program, and these issues are terribly important to me because I struggle daily to reconcile my sexuality with my faith. This stuff makes a difference to how I might lead my life, a phenomenon that is sadly rare in contemporary analytic philosophy. If a philosopher like Richard Swinburne has something to say, I need and want to know. I want to lead a Christian life, and I’ve grown to think that means living a celibate one. I’m not sure though! I want more debate. So, please, don’t scare any dissident philosophers away from the podium. ...  
I ask this not because views like Swinburne’s are without cost. When I read arguments like Swinburne’s, my heart sinks a bit because I worry that they might be sound. I miss my last boyfriend and sometimes regret telling him I couldn’t ever marry him in good faith because I suspect gay marriage to be incoherent and gay relations immoral. It’s f*cking rough. But, for all that, please don’t protect my feelings. For, as philosophers, our vocation is the pursuit of truth and the virtuous life—and that’s surely worth the sweat and tears.

I can't fathom the stress of having something as powerful as your sex drive be exclusively oriented in a way that conflicts with your deeply-held religious views. I say "exclusively" because of course I experience the occasional temptations to propagate my genetic material more widely than Christian morality dictates. But to have no legitimate sexual outlet would be terrifying. And I'm amazed at this man's willingness to unflinchingly pursue the rationale behind both sides of an issue, his willingness to follow the arguments wherever they lead, when one side of that issue would completely devastate him if it's true. So I am frankly in awe of the man who wrote the above quote. I want to sit at his feet and learn virtue from him. I can't even imagine having the inner strength necessary to choose celibacy as he did.

Incidentally, he goes on to say that, while he's accepted at his current institution, if he moved to another one, he would not come out of the closet -- about his Christianity. Not until he earned tenure. That reminded me of a recent comment by a Christian sociologist: "Outside of academia I faced more problems as a black. But inside academia I face more problems as a Christian, and it is not even close."

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Would you go?

Elon Musk has announced that he plans to start sending colony ships to Mars with about 100 people on board within ten years. It would be a one-way trip, making it sound a lot like the beginning of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy. He also said they should be prepared to die -- not in the sense of living there for the rest of their lives, but in the sense of the huge potential for accidents and large-scale failures in such an environment. That reminds me of the words of the glorious Gus Grissom: "If we die we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life." For those of you who don't know (and shame on you), Grissom died in a fire in the Apollo 1 spacecraft. If that hadn't happened, NASA was planning for him to be the first man on the Moon.

Musk said he would like to go to Mars himself but he has children and wants them to grow up with a father. I'm of the same mind: if I had no family (and were healthy enough to even be considered in the first place), I'd probably put my name in the running. But the most important thing I'll ever do is be a father to my kids and a husband to my wife. Matthew McConaughey's character in Interstellar said (quoting his deceased wife), something to the effect of, "Once your children are born, your only purpose in life is to be memories for your kids."