Sunday, December 31, 2017

Uh, sorry

On the sidebar is the blog archive. I started out strong, but then settled down into around a hundred posts a year. In 2011 and 2012 I managed 88 posts each year. But starting in 2014, the number of annual posts dropped dramatically. Finally, this year, I got back into the swing of things. And as I entered December, I had 82 posts, with a good chance of breaking 90, and very good odds I would at least reach the 88 posts that I had in previous years. I already had a few meaty posts that were mostly written and just needed another short paragraph or so before clicking "Publish." But then, for no readily apparent reason, I kept finding other things to do. So with this post, I'm at 84 posts for the year. Not too shabby, but I had such high hopes. So, to apologize for hardly posting anything this month, I'll link you to Dave Barry's 2017 Year in Review. Merry belated Christmas and Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

A few more spacey links

-- Incredible. They recently fired up Voyager 1's trajectory thrusters, and they worked perfectly. It took over 39 hours after they first broadcast the signal to hear back from the spacecraft that it was a success because it's 19 and a half light hours away. More here.

-- Andy Weir, who wrote The Martian, has another book out about a Moon base, Artemis. Ima gotsta get it. Popular Mechanics explores the science and technology behind it.

-- What looks to be the beginning of an interesting series of articles: "How the Apollo fire propelled NASA to the Moon".

-- Some new discoveries make it (slightly) more likely that Jupiter's moon Europa could harbor life.

Update (11 December): Another big link: Trump orders NASA to send American astronauts to the Moon, Mars.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017


-- This is amazing. It is the oldest piece of music known, dating from about 1400 BC. Obviously there is a lot of interpretation since it wasn't written in our musical notation, but it's still incredible. I'm linking to it instead of embedding it because you need to read the comments section.

-- I've written before about the book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence by philosopher David Benatar. I've always asked, jokingly, "Did he dedicate it to his parents?" Well, a new article in the New Yorker reveals that he actually did. Bill Vallicella comments on Benatar's position, called anti-natalism, and actually points (here and here) to Christian anti-natalism: that is, that the Christian position should be to not bring any more people into existence.

-- "Flows of 'water' on Mars may actually be sand, new study reveals". I thought we already knew this. At least, I remember linking to a study that suggested it, but I can't find the post now, so it may have been on another blog.

-- The inestimable Edward Feser reviews the inestimable Daniel Dennett's most recent book, the inestimable From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds. Feser's review is entitled One Long Circular Argument. It begins thus:

How do you get blood from a stone? Easy. Start by redefining “blood” to mean “a variety of stone.” Next, maintaining as straight a face as possible, dramatically expound upon some trivial respect in which stone is similar to blood. For example, describe how, when a red stone is pulverized and stirred into water, the resulting mixture looks sort of like blood. Condescendingly roll your eyes at your incredulous listener’s insistence that there are other and more important respects in which stone and blood are dissimilar. Accuse him of obscurantism and bad faith. Finally, wax erudite about the latest research in mineralogy, insinuating that it somehow shows that to reject your thesis is to reject Science Itself. 
Of course, no one would be fooled by so farcical a procedure. But substitute “mind” for “blood” and “matter” for “stone,” and you have the recipe for Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back.

I haven't read the book yet, but that description sums up Dennett's whole oeuvre so well it's a little disturbing.

-- J.R. Lucas, "The Gödelian Argument: Turn Over the Page"Etica e Politica 5/1 (2003).

-- Peter van Inwagen, "The Compatibility of Darwinism and Design", in Neil A. Manson, ed., God and Design: The Teleological Argument and Modern Science (New York: Routledge, 2003).

-- Ted Chiang, "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling", Subterranean Press (this last one is science-fiction, if you're wondering).

Friday, November 24, 2017


A Sufi mosque in Egypt, on the Sinai Peninsula on the Mediterranean, was subject to a horrific terrorist attack. 235 people are reported dead so far. 235, including 15 to 25 children. My gosh, just pray for them. It's absolutely horrific. I've written before that Sufism is usually considered a mystical form of Islam, but many Muslims (perhaps most) consider it heretical. I presume that would be the motive here, but the larger part of me isn't interested in the motives of evil people for committing evil but on asking how we stop them.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Flatsy McFlathead

For earlier posts on flat earth advocates, see here, here, and here.

Saturday, November 18, 2017


Malcolm Young died. Here are some reactions from various rockers.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

On prayer, again

So we've had another couple of spree shootings, both by people without any ties to terror organizations, but with apparently significant mental and emotional problems. Neither shooter could legally own guns. The first was in a church in Texas on November 5, and 26 people were killed. Naturally, many people began to pray for the survivors and the families of those who were killed. Out came the knives. Rather than link to some of the venomous statements, I'll just summarize and sanitize them: "The people in the church were already praying and it didn't stop the massacre. Why do you think more praying will have any impact. Instead of praying (read: stop praying), try doing something instead."

Now I discussed this before, but one point I didn't make is that this kind of objection only works if we assume that God is some kind of mechanism, and praying to him automatically (or at least, in significant proportions) produces the desired effect. But of course, this contradicts the actual religions of the people doing the praying. God is a person, a mind, with free will. We can't make him do anything. This certainly creates an issue, which is commonly called the problem of evil, but that doesn't account for the condemnation and malice directed towards those who pray. This quote by C.S. Lewis gives a good summary of why asking whether prayer works is basically a category mistake.

But there was another issue that struck me in the aftermath of the Texas shooting. It has two parts. First, a few days beforehand, on Halloween, there was a terrorist attack in New York, where a man, claiming to be acting on behalf of ISIS, drove a truck over a bunch of pedestrians, killing eight and injuring a dozen more. The man called out the takbir, "Allahu akbar" (God is greater, or the greatest) which is a very common phrase in Islam, stated during all kinds of things, good and bad. It has, unfortunately, become strongly associated with terrorism, as terrorists say it when committing their atrocities. The takbir is a prayer, although it's not a petitionary prayer -- that is, it's not specifically asking God for something, but is instead praising him. And for days afterwards, there were several opinion pieces in the media defending this prayer, trying to separate it from its association with terrorism (examples here, here, and here). Fine. But this created a sharp contrast. When a Muslim prays while committing an act of horrendous evil, his prayer is defended. When Christians pray after a horrendous evil has been committed against them, their prayer is condemned.

Second, a few days after the Texas shooting, on the anniversary of the Presidential election, people in several cities who were, shall we say, displeased with the results, congregated to scream at the sky. That's pretty darn close to prayers offered in the aftermath of a horrendous evil, and I suspect (though I can't prove) that most of the people who engaged in this activity were those who would defend the takbir and lambaste the Christians praying.

The point, which I hope is obvious, is that there is some pretty severe hypocrisy going on by those who condemn Christians for having the audacity to pray after a horrific event. The Texas shooting was sandwiched between two events which provoked radically different responses from the same people. 1) Evil man cries out to God while committing his evil, 2) Christians cry out to God after evil man commits evil against them, 3) people congregate to cry out to God because of the political situation in the United States. If you're only condemning the second case, you're not being consistent.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Quote of the Day

Our present condition, then, is explained by the fact that we are members of a spoiled species. I do not mean that our sufferings are a punishment for being what we cannot now help being nor that we are morally responsible for the rebellion of a remote ancestor. If, nonetheless, I call our present condition one of original Sin, and not merely one of original misfortune, that is because our actual religious experience does not allow us to regard it in any other way. Theoretically, I suppose, we might say "Yes: we behave like vermin, but then that is because we are vermin. And that, at any rate, is not our fault." But the fact that we are vermin, so far from being felt as an excuse, is a greater shame and grief to us than any of the particular acts which it leads us to commit. The situation is not nearly so hard to understand as some people make out. It arises among human beings whenever a very badly brought up boy is introduced into a decent family. They rightly remind themselves that it is "not his own fault" that he is a bully, a coward, a tale-bearer and a liar. But, however it came there, his present character is nonetheless detestable. They not only hate it, but ought to hate it. They cannot love him for what he is, they can only try to turn him into what he is not. In the meantime, though the boy is most unfortunate in having been so brought up, you cannot quite call his character a "misfortune" as if he were one thing and his character another. It is he -- he himself -- who bullies and sneaks and likes doing it. And if he begins to mend he will inevitably feel shame and guilt at what he is just beginning to cease to be.

C.S. Lewis
The Problem of Pain

Thursday, November 9, 2017


-- Here's an interesting (and long) series of quotes by political pundits on their reactions in the lead-up to, in the midst of, and in the aftermath of, the 2016 Presidential election. I couldn't focus on the election because I was still too overwhelmed by the flat-out miracle of the Cubs winning the World Series a few days earlier.

-- Huh. 84 confirmed facts in the last 16 chapters of the book of Acts.

-- Here's an article on "The Poisoned Will of Jean Meslier", an 18th century French priest, who wrote a book condemning all religion as evil, and which was only found after his death. If you want to read the poison itself, here ya go.

-- I know about the philosopher Sally Haslanger because I very briefly reference her husband in my book, but I don't know that much about her. This account of her career frustrates me. Immensely. Right out of her doctoral studies in the mid-1980s, she got a tenure-track position at UCal Irvine. Then a year later, she got a tenure-track position at Princeton. At this point, she hadn't published anything. Three years later she went to a tenure-track position at U Michigan, and in 1992, was offered a tenured (not tenure-track, but tenured) position at Cornell. At this point she had only published three articles. I assume things were different then, but I find that account nearly miraculous. I've published several articles and a book and I'm only an adjunct. I can't even find a non-tenure-track but full-time position. But that's not what frustrates me about the account of her career. Again, I assume that it was easier to get a tenure-track position then, and I strongly suspect that she knew the right people and knew how to network, two areas where I am sadly lacking. No, what frustrates me is that Haslanger says she has "a deep well of rage" inside her because of how shabbily she's been treated. Her career is proof of miracles and she says she's been mistreated. I have no words.

-- I'm sorry, but this is hilarious.

-- This is cool. Going over old astronomical photographic plates, scientists discovered evidence of planets orbiting other stars a hundred years ago, but the scientists of the time just didn't understand what it meant.

-- This . . . seems weird. A student group at a Catholic university (Georgetown) is being condemned by the university for defending and upholding official Catholic teaching on the nature of sexuality. I mean, I can understand why the topic would be controversial, but they're only promoting official Catholic teaching on that topic at a Catholic institution. They're being threatened with having their status as an official student group removed.

-- Alvin Plantinga, "A Valid Ontological Argument?" Philosophical Review 70 (1961): 93-101.

-- Dallas Willard, "The Case against Quine's Case for Psychologism," in Perspectives in Psychologism, ed. Mark Notturno (New York: Brill, 1989), 286-295.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

"Tu sei morta"

A few years ago I linked to a video of an aria from Monteverdi's opera L'Orfeo. I linked to it because I couldn't embed it. Now I can, so here it is. Monteverdi was, depending on how you look at it, either a late Renaissance composer or an early Baroque composer. He died before any of the Baroque composers we all know and love were even born, but he was clearly developing music beyond Renaissance concepts. L'Orfeo is about the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and the aria below is after Eurydice has died and Orpheus vows to go to the underworld and sing to Hades to try to convince him to let her return to the land of the living. I chose a video that translates his words, but for some reason doesn't translate the last line Orpheus sings before leaving for the underworld: "Goodbye earth, goodbye sky, and sun, goodbye." I find it heartbreaking.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

SF authors

For some science-fiction authors I plan to read as many of their books and their short stories as I can. Below are those who have achieved this elevated rank. I'm sure I've forgotten some people, so I will probably add to this post in the future (I tried adding to it in the past but it didn't work out too well).

Charles Sheffield -- I started with The Ganymede Club and this led to other books in that sorta series, Cold as Ice and Dark as Day. Rustam Battacharyia is one of my heroes. I've also read Mind Pool, Summertide, and Web Between the Worlds.

Robert Charles Wilson -- I first read his short story "Utriusque Cosmi" which may be the best thing I've ever read. I've since read ChronolithsDarwinia, and Blind Lake, all of which are well-worth the reading.

Liu Cixin -- I've only read his Three Body Problem trilogy, but it's enough to hook me.

Tim Powers -- This one's funny because a lot of his books aren't even sci-fi, they're often more like supernatural thrillers. The only thing I can compare them to is the novels of Charles Williams, except Williams is much drier. Powers also packs a lot of information into his stories. The Anubis Gates would have been a 1,000-page book for anyone else, he manages it in less than 400. I've also read Declare and Three Days to Never.

In addition,there are some authors who I will read many books of, but probably not all.

Fredric Brown -- He should probably go in the previous list because I will read all of his sci-fi. But he also wrote mystery/detective stories and novels, and I doubt I'll read any of those. A lot of his fiction is in the short story format, very short stories. He wrote flash fiction before flash fiction was cool.

Michael Flynn -- This one I recently switched from the first category to this one. And it's not because I don't like his writing, it's just that, of all the sci-fi authors I've read, Flynn strikes me as honest-to-God literature. It's too deep for me. It took me months to read The Wreck of the River of Stars which is a beautiful character study, but I just couldn't take too much of it in one sitting. I've also read Eifelheim, In the Country of the Blind, the Firestar tetralogy, and his short story collection The Forest of Time and Other Stories. Not to mention a book he wrote with Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven, Fallen Angels. Speaking of which...

Larry Niven -- I've liked Niven's stuff, but most of what I read was what he wrote with Pournelle. I'm just recently getting into his solo writings (although I read Ringworld years ago). So far, everything I've read by him is great, but not all of his books appeal to me, so I put him on this list instead of the first one.

Robert Heinlein -- This one's easy. I love Heinlein's stuff, but starting in the 1960s his books started becoming more about evangelizing his particular political views rather than the story. Stranger in a Strange Land is a case in point. The stories in question are still outstanding, but I just dislike being preached to. I'm very much a pot calling the kettle black here, because I occasionally write sci-fi as an expression of my religious and philosophical ideas. My motive for doing so is that's just how the stories come to me, through contemplation of the religious and philosophical ideas. And, of course, that may well be how it is for others, but I still don't like it when other people do to me what I do to them -- or at least would do to them since I am unpublished and unread.

Kim Stanley Robinson -- I've mentioned before that I have a love/hate relationship with Robinson's writings. The only other author who has given me as much of a sense of place is Charles Dickens. But then a) Robinson also gets preachy, b) he can be pretty anti-Christian, and c) sometimes it seems like he's just trying to show off how much he knows. None of this is to say that I won't read his stuff, but not all of it. His novel Shaman holds no attraction to me. I first read his Mars trilogy, along with the short story companion book The Martians, the latter of which has the novella "Green Mars", a different story from the novel of the same name, and which is the best thing of Robinson's I've read. I've also read Icehenge, Years of Rice and Salt, Antarctica2312, and Memory of Whiteness. When I was living in Belgium the local library only had the first of his California trilogy in English, so I got that, and to my surprise, loved it. So I got the rest of that trilogy although I haven't read it yet. I may someday check out his trilogy on global warming, but I'm avoiding it because of his preachiness.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Happy Reformation Day

It's 500 years to the day since Martin Luther posted his 95 theses. You can read them here. In unrelated news, for my Halloween costume, I taped a bunch of Smarties to my jeans. I'm Mr. Smartiepants.

Sunday, October 29, 2017


I wrote a little while ago that I'd primarily be reading philosophy articles rather than philosophy books, so the books on the sidebar that I'm currently reading would only consist of science-fiction and non-philosophy non-fiction. But the last week and a half has been consumed with another set of projects, so I haven't even been reading many articles. It's also had the effect of not many blogposts. Apologies.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Quote of the Day

Scriven speaks of obligations, duties, with respect to belief: in the absence of evidence, he says, atheism is obligatory. What sorts of principles of epistemic obligation underlie this claim? Obviously we cannot sensibly hold that for any proposition A, if S has no evidence for A, then S is rationally obliged to believe ~A; for then if S has no evidence for A and also none for ~A, S will be obliged to believe both A and ~A. Some of what Scriven says suggests that it is just existential propositions with respect to which S is obliged to toe this very demanding line.


Scriven believes that positive existential hypotheses have a very different standing from negative existential hypotheses. In the absence of evidence, he seems to think, one is obliged to believe the denial of a positive existential hypothesis, whereas of course the same does not hold for negative existential hypotheses. It is hard to see any reason for thus discriminating against positive existential hypotheses -- why should they be thought of as less credible, ab initio, than negative existential hypotheses? Indeed, according to Carnap and many of his followers, universal propositions have an a priori probability of zero; since the negative existential ~(∃x)Fx is equivalent to a universal proposition ((x)~Fx), it too would have an a priori probability of zero, so that its positive existential denial would have an a priori probability of 1. Now it is no doubt a bit excessive to claim that the a priori credibility of positive existential propositions is 1, but is there any reason to suppose that in the absence of evidence either way, negative existentials have a stronger claim on us that positive existentials? It is at the least very hard to see what such reason might be.

In any event Scriven's suggestion is entirely unsuccessful. Consider

(12) There is at least one human being that was not created by God.

It is a necessary truth that

(13) If God exists, then God has created all the human beings there are.

(If you think (13) is not necessary, then replace "God" in (12) and (13) by "the being who is identical with God and has created all the human beings there are.") (12) is a positive existential proposition; hence on Scriven's suggestion we ought to believe its denial unless we have evidence for it. Hence if the arguments for (12) fail, we should accept its denial. But any argument for (12), given the necessity of (13), can be transformed into an argument for the nonexistence of God -- an argument which is successful if the original argument for (11) ["God does not exist"] is. So if the arguments for the nonexistence of God fail, then so do the arguments for (12). But, by Scriven's principle, if the arguments for (12) fail, we are rationally obliged to believe its denial, that is,

(14) Every human being has been created by God.

On this principle, therefore, if the arguments against the existence of God fail, we are rationally obliged to believe that every human being has been created by God; and if both the arguments for and the arguments against the existence of God fail, then we are obliged to believe both that God does not exist and that we have all been created by him. No doubt Scriven would view this as an unsatisfactory result.

Alvin Plantinga
"Reason and Belief in God" in
Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God
edited by Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff

Jim's comments: I have some comments on this but I'll add them later.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Counting heads; or, The eyes have it

Via Ann Althouse I read an article about Jeremy Bentham's head. Here's the first paragraph:


Well, yeah, but you could say that about a lot of people.


Oh. Sorry.

for a man sometimes known as the father of modern utilitarianism. He had a pet bear, an adored black cat (named the Reverend Doctor Lankhim), and a penchant for showing dinner party guests the two glass eyes he kept in his pocket. The eyeballs were part of a larger project: Bentham wanted his body publicly dissected; his skeleton cleaned up, fully articulated, and padded with straw; and his head mummified for display.

And now I have this image of Bentham at a dinner party, telling one of his guests, "I have my father's eyes." Then he casually reaches into his pocket . . .

Sunday, October 8, 2017


Mendelssohn, at his best, is at least as good as Mozart, at his best.


I heard this piece in my car during a long drive and was just in awe. Then I heard the last minute and a half -- starting at about 30:10 -- and my jaw dropped. Who does this? Who writes music like this? It's insane. (Don't skip to it, you have to hear the whole thing in order to get the full effect of that last minute and a half.) That's when I planned to write this blogpost. And when I arrived at home and looked up the piece in order to write about it, I discovered that Mendelssohn wrote it when he was thirteen years old. Thirteen. I was absolutely amazed by this piece before I learned that it was written by a thirteen-year-old. Go ahead, suggest some counter-evidence in the comments, and I'll just bring in more evidence for my claim.

Update (8 November): OK, no one has commented to propose a counter-example from Mozart so I guess I'll have to do it myself. Here's his piano concerto #20 in D minor. The first movement is simply one of the greatest things ever written, and the other two are outstanding.

And then, as my counter-counter-example, I submit Mendelssohn's violin concerto in E minor.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Thought of the Day

From now on I'm just going to call coffee "proof of God." "You want some proof of God? I just brewed some." "Do you take sugar in your proof of God?" Etc. After all, coffee is the grounds of bean.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Please pray

for the victims of the shooting in Las Vegas. At the time I'm writing this, 58 people are confirmed dead and over 500 are injured. The gunman, as far as we know so far, had no gun or military background, and no ideological background.

I guess I need to comment on how some people now object to asking for prayers in events like this. Instead of sending thoughts and prayers (how do you send thoughts?), we should be doing something to prevent the next tragedy from happening. This objection first gained force during the San Bernardino terrorist attack. Unfortunately it became a trending topic while the attack was still ongoing, and the people trapped inside were texting people and begging them to pray for them. At any rate, some people objected that prayer doesn't actually do anything, it's a way to pretend that you're doing something without having to do the hard work of actually making a kind of world where events like that don't happen. Obviously, as a Christian, I think prayer can be effectual, I think God has created a world where he sometimes responds to prayer. But this can't be tested, and this, understandably, leads those who don't believe in these things to conclude that prayer is ineffectual. But that doesn't provide any reason to think prayer actually is ineffectual, it just doesn't provide us with any testable basis for deciding one way or the other.

So that's my first counter-objection: I think God does respond to prayer, but this cannot be tested. My second counter-objection is that there is nothing preventing us from praying and engaging in whatever methods we think necessary to prevent further attacks. Not only is there no conflict here, they often work hand-in-hand. The idea that it has to be one or the other is a false dichotomy.

My third counter-objection is that when people say we should work to prevent future tragedies, they usually have in mind a particular solution. But of course, other people may think that there are better solutions. The objection then is saying that unless you agree with a particular solution, you're not trying to solve the problem at all. This is just dishonest. Moreover, often the proposed action is to enact more legislation involving gun ownership. I'm not saying anything about gun control in general here, but these tragedies are almost always the product of people breaking the gun laws that are already on the books. That is, enacting more restrictive gun laws wouldn't have stopped them, so there's no reason to think that it would prevent the next one. It strikes me as wishful thinking. For them to criticize others for praying about tragedies is a bit much.

I have to add, however, that I do have some sympathy for this objection. Very often "sending out thoughts and prayers" is a type of virtue-signaling. It's a way to announce "I'm a good person!" by paying attention -- just a tiny amount of attention -- to the suffering of others. Of course, in this case, the attention is absolutely minimal, and the whole point is to take other people's attention off the actual event and onto oneself. All we can do is to make sure that we are not among those people who use horrific tragedies in this way. Genuinely pray and genuinely ask others to pray and genuinely try to figure out how to minimize such events in the future and work toward that solution.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Pleyel it again Sam

I was reading the Wikipedia entry for Joseph Haydn and it included this little tidbit about one of his visits to London:

Another problem arose from the jealously competitive efforts of a senior, rival orchestra, the Professional Concerts, who recruited Haydn's old pupil Ignaz Pleyel as a rival visiting composer; the two composers, refusing to play along with the concocted rivalry, dined together and put each other's symphonies on their concert programs.

I don't recall ever hearing of Pleyel before, so I typed him into YouTube and started listening to one of his 41 symphonies. It's pretty darn good, and it sounds a lot like Haydn. Here 'tis for your listening pleasure.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017


This blog and Quodlibeta are the extent of my social media presence -- and comments left on other people's blogs. I don't do Facebook or Twitter or whatever else. It's bad enough that I have to talk to people in real life. But I've had an idea for a Twitter account, one that I do not have the time to do. I would just retweet news stories and headlines of a political nature, but with the main actors reversed. So if President Trump does something outrageous, I'd link to it with the comment that a prominent opponent of Trump did it. If a prominent opponent of Trump says something outrageous, I'd link to it with the comment that Trump said it. The point is that people would have their political knee-jerk reactions kick into overdrive, and then read the story and see that it was their side (or a side they are sympathetic to) that did whatever had gotten them so freaked out. And then they would immediately not have a problem with it, but they'd be left with the realization that they were offended when they thought the other side was doing it. It would be an educational service to show people how they hold one side to different standards than the other. You can extend it further: a Muslim leader says something sexist or homophobic, and I'd retweet as if a Christian leader had said it. My moniker would be "The Oppo-twit". But, as I say, I don't have the time. And frankly, even if I did, I'd be very wary of wading into the pool of political commentary. That pool already has more pee than chlorine in it.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Quote of the Day

The moral experience and the numinous experience are so far from being the same that they may exist for quite long periods without establishing a mutual contact. In many forms of Paganism the worship of the gods and the ethical discussions of the philosophers have very little to do with each other. The third stage in religious development arises when men identify them -- when the Numinous Power of which they feel awe is made the guardian of the morality to which they feel obligation. Once again, this may seem to you very "natural." What can be more natural than for a savage haunted at once by awe and by guilt to think that the power which awes him is also the authority which condemns his guilt? And it is, indeed, natural to humanity. But it is not in the least obvious. The actual behaviour of that universe which the Numinous haunts bears no resemblance to the behaviour which morality demands of us. The one seems wasteful, ruthless, and unjust; the other enjoins upon us the opposite qualities. Nor can the identification of the two be explained as a wish fulfilment, for it fulfils no one's wishes. We desire nothing less than to see that Law whose naked authority is already unsupportable armed with the incalculable claims of the Numinous. Of all the jumps that humanity takes in its religious history this is certainly the most surprising. It is not unnatural that many sections of the human race refused it; non-moral religion, and non-religious morality, existed and still exist. Perhaps only a single people, as a people, took the new step with perfect decision -- I mean the Jews: but great individuals in all times and places have taken it also, and only those who take it are safe from the obscenities and barbarities of unmoralised worship or the cold, sad self-righteousness of sheer moralism. Judged by its fruits, this step is a step towards increased health. And though logic does not compel us to take it, it is very hard to resist -- even on Paganism and Pantheism morality is always breaking in, and even Stoicism finds itself willy-nilly bowing the knee to God. Once more, it may be madness -- a madness congenital to man and oddly fortunate in its results -- or it may be revelation. And if revelation, then it is most really and truly in Abraham that all peoples shall be blessed, for it was the Jews who fully and unambiguously identified the awful Presence haunting black mountain-tops and thunderclouds with "the righteous Lord" who "loveth righteousness."

C.S. Lewis
The Problem of Pain

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Adieu Cassini

At about 5 o'clock tomorrow morning, the Cassini spacecraft will plunge into Saturn nearly 20 years after it was launched from Earth and over 13 years after it began orbiting Saturn. It's been the source of an incredible amount of information. Cassini allowed scientists to discover seven new moons of Saturn for example.

I started writing the Religion Blog for OregonLive about the time Cassini entered Saturn's orbit, but as it didn't have much relevance for religion, I couldn't justify blogging about it. However, several months later, Cassini released the Huygens probe to fall towards Saturn's largest moon Titan, hopefully parachuting down while taking pictures, and hopefully landing softly and taking more pictures. All of these hopefullys paid off. Since Titan is one of the potential sites that scientists have speculated might have some form of life, I wrote a blogpost about the origin of life and what the potential discovery of extra-terrestrial life might mean for Christianity.

Below is my original blogpost. The updates are from that post, not something I'm adding on now.


Friday, January 14, 2005
A Caveat on the Origin of Life
In just a couple of hours from the time of this writing (late Thursday night), at 1:05 a.m. Pacific time, the Huygens Probe will plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn's largest moon, Titan. It will then deploy a parachute and take measurements and pictures as it descends, and possibly after it lands if everything goes just right. It will probably be able to function for no more than 30 minutes, and the radio signals it transmits to the Cassini spacecraft will then take a couple of hours to reach Earth.

I am really jazzed about this. It's going to send pictures from within Titan's atmosphere, and possibly from the surface itself. Of course, part of the reason they sent this thing is because Titan's atmosphere is too opaque to see through, so any given picture will probably just be a greyish blur. But it will be a greyish blur from Titan!

I've commented before about how Titan is a primary site-of-interest for origins-of-life research because it meets one of several dozen necessary prerequisites for life to exist (high nitrogen content). I wrote about the religious implications of origin-of-life research last May. But I need to point something out that I haven't before: there is no a priori reason to assume that God created life supernaturally. The Bible constantly refers to God bringing about certain effects through the natural laws he set up. For example, most movies about Moses parting the Red Sea depict it supernaturally: he holds up his staff or strikes it to the ground and the water flees away. But the Bible gives a different picture.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.

So it seems to me that if God parted the waters by means of a strong wind, he may very well have created the first forms of life by means of natural processes as well. In fact, in Genesis 1 God states "Let the land produce" various forms of life, not once, but twice. This description strikes me as being consistent with God using the elements of nature to bring about an effect (although it certainly doesn't demand such an interpretation). So again, if it is discovered tomorrow that life can come into existence by natural processes, it really wouldn't hurt my faith at all -- anymore than if some scientists came out with a study showing that, under certain conditions, a strong east wind could temporarily blow back the water of the Red Sea.

Of course, if science demonstrated that natural processes are insufficient to account for the origin of life, then other-than-natural processes are pretty much the only alternative. And this seems to be the actual state of affairs.

Update (11:30 a.m.): The Huygens Probe made a soft landing and continued transmitting data! Woo hoo!

Update (11:40 a.m.): has live coverage.

Update (8:30 p.m.): First pictures!

From 16.2 km up we see what looks like streams leading to an ocean (of methane probably):

From the surface:

Sam Jaffe points out "We have seen the face of Titan and it looks...kind of like Santa Fe."

Monday, September 11, 2017

There is evil in this world

A few years ago I put up a post showing all the videos of the planes hijacked on September 11, 2001 hitting the World Trade Center, the security cameras that show the little there is to see of the plane hitting the Pentagon, and a video of the immediate aftermath of the fourth plane that was crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. This year I'm putting up compilations of the aftermath of the World Trade Center plane hits: the people who fell from the buildings, and the collapse of the two towers. I make no attempt to be exhaustive as I did before. As I said in the earlier post, if you want to leave a comment spewing some conspiracy theory, find another website. My purpose is to show that there is real evil in the world and our response to it must be to destroy it, not to accommodate it. I'm not showing these videos for us to rubberneck at them in order to satisfy some morbid sense of curiosity: as you watch, bear in mind that you are watching real human beings -- mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters -- dying. Obviously, these videos are graphic and very disturbing.

Here are videos about the people who fell. We don't know if they actually chose to jump or if they fell by accident in their struggle to get to the windows for breathable air. Obviously there is a strong content warning.

A compilation of the collapse of the South Tower, 9:59 am:

A compilation of the collapse of the North Tower, 10:28 am:

One thing I'm not including here are the phone calls by people on board the planes and especially of people inside the towers. I'm not including them because the ones I've heard are just too devastating. I may be going too far already by showing the videos of the people who fell, but the phone calls are too much for me to listen to.

Friday, September 8, 2017


Jerry Pournelle has died. I always hoped to meet him. Here's his website. The universe seems like a smaller place now.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Bassoon partita

I've never heard Bach's Partita in A minor played by a bassoon before, but man it sounds good. What a gorgeous-sounding instrument.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Quote of the Day

Bob went to Europe and traveled widely. His search deepened and became philosophical as well as political and social. Some travelers' backpacks were filled with clothes; Bob's were weighed down with books by Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, Beckett, Alan Watts, Robert Heinlein. R.D. Laing, and C.S. Lewis. The latter was added after a Christian teacher in Switzerland challenged him to live consistently with his convictions: If Bob's emerging nihilism was right, what would that mean for him in practice? This challenge to consistency slowly cut home.

While hitchhiking from Gibraltar to Stockholm, he was given a long lift by a Cambridge don and his wife. The don was a philosopher, and Bob found himself pressing their conversation toward the logical conclusion of his own philosophical position, as if challenging the Englishman to put forward an answer that they both could believe. The more Bob pressed, the less he found. The Englishman saw no meaning in the universe and reduced everything to biochemical responses.

"So you mean," Bob said, after hours of conversation between Madrid and Bordeaux, "that after all these years of marriage there has really been nothing more to your relationship than biochemical reactions and illusions of love and caring?"

"Yes," said the don, "that's right." His wife, seated next to him in the car, burst into tears.

It was an incredible moment for Bob -- part triumph, part guilt. Guilt not only because he'd driven a sword between a husband and wife, but also from knowing that he did not live consistently either. He had valued love, compassion, justice, and human dignity, but on the basis of his philosophy these things had no meaning.

Os Guinness
Long Journey Home

Friday, August 25, 2017


We drove south to be in the path of totality of the eclipse last Monday. It was pretty amazing. As we approached totality, the temperature dropped suddenly, and it started getting dark. But it wasn't the same kind of dark you see at twilight. At twilight, the sun's rays are hitting your position horizontally, which means they're travelling through a lot more atmosphere. Here, the sun's rays were almost vertical. So when those rays get blocked the darkness doesn't have the same feel to it.

And seeing the sun's corona was absolutely amazing. My sister-in-law pointed out that at about the eleven o'clock position, the corona was red instead of yellow. Patterico claims he saw a solar flare with his naked eye, which would be pretty amazing. It reminded me of this post where I pointed out that, for millennia, solar eclipses were the only way humankind could observe the sun's corona and so learn about the universe. In fact, there is no other place in our solar system where you can stand on one body and have another body block out the sun, but just barely enough to allow the corona to be visible. There are plenty of other examples like this where it seems like the earth and the universe are not merely set up to allow for advanced life but to allow for science. Another example from the linked post is that a planet has to be in a spiral galaxy and be between spiral arms. In just about any other place in any other type of galaxy, you wouldn't be able to see beyond the nearby stellar neighborhood, much less out of the galaxy.

At one point I realized that a partially eclipsed sun looks like the Cheshire Cat's smile. It was like an emoji in the sky. A smiling mouth. And if that mouth had suddenly puckered up, I would have said, "Eek! Lips!"

OK, I'll stop.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Recent acquisitions

Anselm, Basic Writings: Proslogium; Monologium; Cur Deus Homo; Gaunilo's In Behalf of the Fool
Immanuel Kant, Great Books of the Western World, vol. 42: Critique of Pure Reason; Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals; Critique of Practical Reason; Excerpts from the Metaphysics of Morals; Critique of Judgment
J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview
Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions

Ben Bova, ed., The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, volume 2A
Tony Daniel, Metaplanetary: A Novel of Interplanetary Civil War
Gardner Dozois, ed., The Good Stuff: Adventure SF in the Grand Tradition
Gardner Dozois, ed., The Year's Best Science Fiction, multiple volumes
Michael Moorcock, Behold the Man

1. I'm very happy about the Anselm and the Kant. These are collections with their most important writings in single volumes that I got for less than $3.50 each. I've been hamstrung on several occasions by not having a specific text to reference for Kant, and now I have one. This is the third volume of Great Books of the Western World that I've bought, after the two Aristotle volumes. I might get some others, notably those collecting the great scientific writings. Yes, of course you can read Anselm and Kant online, they're in the public domain, but a) when I'm writing something I need a specific edition and its specific page numbers to reference (I'm not comfortable with just writing "A341, B399"); and b) I haven't made the transition to reading books on a screen instead of the written page yet. I hope I'll be able to at some point. But regardless, after the zombie apocalypse, all of the books we've stored on our Kindles will no longer be accessible, but all the hard copies will be.

2. I'm paying much more than I usually pay for the Moreland and Craig ($20) but I think it's worth it. I've been wanting that book for a while, and I found several copies that were over ten bucks cheaper than it usually is.

3. I'm very interested to read Rosenberg. He debated Craig, which you can watch here or read here, and it was later published by Routledge with essays on the debate by several other philosophers, scientists, and rhetoricians. The issue I'm most interested in is Rosenberg's claim that his conclusions are scientific -- that is, that science leads us to his conclusions, not philosophical argument. The conclusions in question seem to be eliminative materialism, which denies (for example) that anyone has beliefs and that sentences have meaning.

4. The list would be a lot longer if I listed all the volumes of Dozois's Year's Best SF that I've bought recently. I'll write a separate post on them. One of my reasons for wanting these is that they're how I troll for new authors.

5. The book store actually sent the wrong book instead of Dozois's The Good Stuff, but they immediately apologized, sent me the right one via priority shipping, and told me to do whatever I want with the one they sent accidentally. So although it hasn't arrived yet, all's right with the world. The Good Stuff is two books in one volume (The Good Old Stuff and The Good New Stuff). Most of them are not in my volumes of Year's Best SF. I always find it hard to resist multiple books in a single volume for the price of a normal book (see: Anselm and Kant).

6. I've been wanting Interplanetary for a while now. Tony Daniel is one of those authors I discovered reading Dozois's Year's Best SF.

7. Ben Bova edited the second volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, which, ironically, is itself collected in two volumes, and which collects the best novellas from before about 1960. (Volume 1 does the same for short stories, and was edited by Robert Silverburg.) So I got volume 2A which is the first volume of the second volume. I want to point out here that these are the only books by Bova that I will get, because he just edited them. When I was getting back into science fiction about 20 years ago, one of the first books I read was his Saturn. It was horrible. Some people on a spaceship going to Saturn, they don't even arrive until the last 50 pages or so, the characters were ridiculous (the bad guy was a fundamentalist Christian woman who was secretly a lesbian or something), and the big reveal at the end is that the rings of Saturn are actually alive. Terrible and beyond disappointing because it looked liked Bova was writing novels about one of the particular types of science fiction I love (near future exploration and settlement of our solar system). He wrote a whole series of novels called Grand Tour that are set on various planets, dwarf planets, moons, and asteroids. But after Saturn left such a horrible taste in my brain, I'm off him for good.

8. Michael Moorcock's Behold the Man is another one I've been wanting a long time. I've read about this book, and I have a short story idea that's moderately similar (although not anti-Christian as his seems to be), so I wanted to compare my idea to Moorcock's. There are several other stories and books in the "time-travelling to see Jesus" sub-sub-genre: here's a list.

Update (30 Aug.): This is one part funny, one part annoying. The bookstore that sent me the wrong book just sent me another copy of the same wrong book. It's The Captive by Victoria Holt. It appears to be a gothic romance, meaning it is not remotely similar to the actual book I ordered, The Good Stuff: Adventure Science Fiction in the Grand Tradition.

Update (2 Sep.): Now it's just annoying. The book they sent has an almost identical ISBN to what I'd ordered, and they realized they never had the actual book I wanted. So they apologized and refunded my money. Which is fine, but I'd wanted to trade that money for the book.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Thought of the Day

Plants are nature's way of turning dirt into vegans.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Unfinished books

Over four years after his death, Dallas Willard's website still has a list of ongoing projects that he was working on at the time of his death, along with requests for readers to pray for them. When the site administrators discover that page and remove it from the website, it will be a very sad day for me. Here are the three that are listed, along with a brief description.

The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge. A philosophical essay on the outcome of work in Moral Theory during the 20th Century.
Logic and the Objectivity of Knowledge. A revision of Dr. Willard's book originally published in 1984.
The Rage Against Identity: Philosophical Roots of Deconstructionism. A critical analysis of the lines of thought and motivations, both cultural and philosophical, underlying the attack on identity (of universals as well as particulars) from Hume to Derrida.

The front page of his website points out that three of Willard's former students are completing The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge, which I am very happy about. That's a book I would love to read and that needs to be written. However, I'm still heartbroken that The Rage against Identity isn't going to be written. The title comes from a passage in Willard's Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ:

Today you will hear many presumably learned people say that there is no such thing as human nature, or that human beings do not have a nature. Now, there is a long historical development back of this view, which we cannot deal with here, and it is not entirely without an important point. But that point is mis-made in the statement that human beings do not have a nature. It then becomes a part of the unchecked political and moral rage against identity that characterizes modern life. This is a rage predicated upon the idea that identity restricts freedom. If I am a human being, as opposed to, say, a brussels sprout or a squirrel, that places a restriction upon what I can do, what I ought to do, or what should be done to me.

How can anyone with a philosophical spirit not want to read that? Bear in mind that Willard was an expert on European philosophy and the fields where this claim that "identity restricts freedom" is being made. He was in a unique position to write such a book. And now we'll never read it. Maybe we can encourage some of those former students of his to get a hold of the manuscript and finish it.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Blowing up the flat earth

Daniel J. Boorstin was a historian and Librarian of Congress. He is known among historians of science for his absurd claims about the flat earth myth in his book The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself. The following is a fisking of one of the more egregious passages from chapter 14, "The Flat Earth Returns." At first I was going to make this a quote of the day with some comments afterwards, but there were so many details I wanted to comment on that I decided to intersperse my comments throughout. As is my pattern (see here and here), Boorstin's text is in red font and indented with my comments in normal text.

"Can any one be so foolish," asked the revered Lactantius, "the Christian Cicero," whom Constantine chose to tutor his son, 

OK, stop. Lactantius's views were controversial enough to be condemned as heretical after his death. And yes, the Renaissance humanists called him the Christian Cicero, but this was over a millennium after his death, and it had nothing to do with his views on the shape of the earth (nor did his condemnation for that matter). I don't mean to suggest that he was not held in high esteem by some, but Boorstin is only presenting the positive assessment of him. Leaving out the negative assessment is pretty misleading.

"as to believe that there are men whose feet are higher than their heads, or places where things may be hanging downwards, trees growing backwards, or rain falling upwards? Where is the marvel of the hanging gardens of Babylon if we are to allow of a hanging world at the Antipodes?" 

Yup, Lactantius was one of five Christians who affirmed (or at least apparently affirmed) the unusual view that the earth is flat. Five. Total. Lactantius was by far the most prestigious of them, and whatever accolades he received were unrelated to his bizarre view about the earth's shape. The sphericity of the earth was the almost universal position within the Roman Empire and Christendom at that time.

Saint Augustine, Chrysostom, and others of their stature heartily agreed that the Antipodes ("anti"-"podes," a place where men's feet were opposite) could not exist.

Augustine, Chrysostom, and others did not agree that a place where men's feet were opposite could not exist but that men where men's feet were opposite could not exist. "Podes" means feet and a place doesn't have feet -- men do. The references of Augustine and others were not geographical statements about the shape of the earth but anthropological statements about the geographical extent of the human race. One of our earliest references to antipodes, after all, comes from Plato's Timaeus in the fourth century BC, and it explicitly affirms the sphericity of the earth.

Classic theories of the Antipodes described an impassable fiery zone surrounding the equator which separated us from an inhabited region on the other side of the globe. 

Yes, exactly right. The issue with antipodes was not whether there was an other side of the earth but whether there could be human beings there. It was thought at the time that the equatorial region was too hot to travel through and the ocean too wide to sail across. As such, if there were "people" on the other side of the earth, they couldn't be the descendants of Adam and Eve because there would have been no way for them to get there from here; and if they weren't descendants of Adam and Eve then they wouldn't be human beings because they would not share a common origin with us. This raised further theological questions as to whether antipodes would be stained by original sin, and if so, whether Christ's atonement would apply to them -- questions that could be avoided if we simply denied the existence of antipodes. However, it should be pointed out that this move was far from universal. Other Christians accepted the possibility of antipodes. It was controversial to affirm their existence, certainly, but not heretical. Note also how similar this is to the question today of whether intelligent extraterrestrials exist; if so whether they are fallen; and if so whether Christ's atonement would apply to them, or whether God will have provided some other form of redemption for them. In both cases, for the antipodes and the aliens, we don't have enough information to answer these questions, so absent further revelation, we can only speculate. I wrote a post to start a series on this issue several years ago but never followed through on it. Now I'm thinking I should reboot it.

So, returning to Daniel Boorstin, at this point I start thinking, aha, at first he sounded like he was going to exaggerate the extent of flat-earthism within Christianity, but he knows that the issue about antipodes was anthropological not geographical, so maybe he's going to get it right.

This raised serious doubts in the Christian mind about the sphericity of the earth. 

(Sigh) No, no it didn't Daniel.

The race that lived below that torrid zone of course could not be of the race of Adam,

That's about people, not the shape of the earth.

nor among those redeemed by the dispensation of Christ.

That's about people, not the shape of the earth.

If one believed that Noah's Ark had come to rest on Mt. Ararat north of the equator, then there was no way for living creatures to have an Antipodes.

That's about people, not the shape of the earth.

To avoid heretical possibilities, faithful Christians preferred to believe there could be no Antipodes,

That's about people, not the shape of the earth. Also, as mentioned, affirming the existence of antipodes was controversial but not heretical. I've only ever heard of one guy, Vergilius of Salzburg, receiving any kind of opprobrium for affirming the existence of antipodes. And the issue there was the theological issues mentioned above by myself and Boorstin: if there are inhabitants of the other side of the world, do they share a common origin with us, do they share the stain of original sin with us, and does Christ's atonement apply to them? If the issue raised "heretical possibilities," which it didn't, it would have been in this area, not with regards to the sphericity of the earth

or even, if necessary, that the earth was no sphere.

And there it is. Five. Five Christian writers affirmed a flat earth, Daniel.

Saint Augustine, too, was explicit and dogmatic, and his immense authority, compounded with that of Isidore, the Venerable Bede, Saint Boniface, and others, warned away rash spirits.

None of these people claimed the earth was flat. Isidore is sometimes included among the flat-earthers, but most historians deny that he was one.

The ancient Greek and Roman geographers had not been troubled by such matters. But no Christian could entertain the possibility that any men were not descended from Adam or could be so cut off by tropical fires that they were unreachable by Christ's Gospel. 

Plenty of people did. It was a controversial issue, and controversies don't become controversies if there aren't people on both sides of them. Most people in the early Middle Ages were skeptical about the possibility of antipodes, but some accepted it.

"Yes, verily," declared Romans 10:18, "their sound went forth all over the earth, and their words unto the ends of the whole world." Neither Faith nor Scripture had any place for beings unknown to Adam or to Christ. 

OK, I suspect -- I hope -- "unknown to Adam or to Christ" is a way for Boorstin to refer to the theological issues about creatures with distinct origins from us and the extent of Christ's atonement. Because otherwise it makes no sense. Unknown to Christ? See, here's the thing: according to Christianity God is omniscient. That means he knows everything. So if there are antipodes God knows them. And while Christ gave up the exercise of his omniscience (not his omniscience itself), he only did so during his incarnation. Unknown to Adam? I'm not sure what this even means since everyone alive in the first millennium AD would have been unknown to Adam, having been born after he would have died. Maybe Adam is a stand-in for the human race, so Boorstin is saying "Neither Faith nor Scripture had any place for beings unknown to humanity." But if that's what he means, then it's obviously false. They didn't suffer from delusions of grandeur, they didn't think they might be omniscient, they knew perfectly well that there were many places they hadn't been to yet, and they didn't know precisely what was there. So, again, since I can't make sense of "beings unknown to Adam or to Christ," I strongly suspect Boorstin is just using this as shorthand to refer to the theological issues discussed above. But, regardless, it's just not true that "Neither Faith nor Scripture had any place for beings" outside the human race. Wouldn't angels fit into that category? I'm pretty sure Scripture, faith (whatever Boorstin means by that), and theology affirm the existence of angels.

I further suspect (I could easily be wrong) that Boorstin has in the back of his mind what I'm going to call "The Big Fish in a Small Pond Myth." The suggestion here is that people thought the universe was much smaller in ancient times because they thought the earth was the most important place, and so there couldn't be a lot of space or a lot of locations that were irrelevant to human life. But of course this is completely ridiculous, as I wrote here. Long story short: the earth was considered one of the smallest objects in an unfathomably large universe. The only bodies they thought were smaller than the earth were Mercury, Venus, and the Moon: everything else was bigger, even the smallest stars. And while they thought the universe only extended out to Saturn's orbit plus a sphere of stars, they had approximated the distance to Saturn pretty well, and that distance is simply greater than our imaginations can handle. If you don't believe that, check out If the Moon Were Only One Pixel and scroll right to get an idea of the incredible distances involved. Remember, you only have to go out to Saturn, but also remember that the ancients had gauged that distance pretty accurately. For all practical purposes, they thought the earth was a point of zero volume within an infinitely large universe, and they stated this pretty directly.

The bearing of this on the Big Fish in a Small Pond Myth is that the ancients and medievals thought that the vast, vast majority of the cosmos was completely irrelevant to human existence, at least in a spatial sense. So the idea that there were places outside of humanity's influence was common knowledge. I doubt anyone seriously thought otherwise.

"God forbid," wrote a tenth-century interpreter of Boethius, "that anybody think we accept the stories of antipodes, which are in every way contradictory to Christian faith." 

Yep, it was controversial. But not heretical. And it didn't imply that the earth was anything other than a sphere.

"Belief in Antipodes" became another stock charge against heretics prepared for burning.

Really? Like who? Who was burned for believing in antipodes? Who was even excommunicated? Vergilius was reproved, and he's the only one I can find who even suffered that.

Some few compromising spirits tried to accept a spherical earth for geographic reasons, while still denying the existence of Antipodean inhabitants for theological reasons. But their number did not multiply.

Dude. Five Christians denied the earth is a sphere. Apart from them, EVERYONE who denied the existence of the antipodes accepted a spherical earth. "Their number did not multiply"? Other than those five, their number includes EVERYONE.

It was a fanatical recent convert, Cosmas of Alexandria, who provided a full-fledged Topographia Christiana, which lasted these many centuries to the dismay and embarrassment of modern Christians.

Well, yeah, Cosmas is embarrassing, but if only wise and intelligent people could become Christians, that would probably constitute a reason to reject Christianity. At any rate, Cosmas wasn't even translated into Latin to make the Topographia available to western Europe until the early 18th century. You know what Greek works were translated before then? All of them. In 1509, Copernicus translated some short writings of Theophylactus Simocatta from Greek into Latin. He had to settle for such an obscure text because all of the good stuff had already been translated, many of them more than once. Theophylactus was the dregs. Cosmas wasn't translated for another two centuries. He had zero influence.

We do not know his real name, but he was called Cosmas on account of the fame of his geographic work,

I don't know why he was called Cosmas, but I know it wasn't for the reason Boorstin states, viz. "the fame of his geographic work." You know how I know that? Because his geographic work achieved no fame. He was unknown in his own time, unknown throughout the rest of the Middle Ages, unknown during the Renaissance, and unknown in the early Modern era. It was only when he was translated in the 18th century that people became aware of him as a curiosity. That translation was itself motivated by the translation of a few excerpts from his book a few decades earlier by some manuscript collectors. He exerted virtually no influence on his contemporaries or the Middle Ages.

and nicknamed Indicopleustes (Indian Traveler), because he was a merchant who traveled around the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and had traded in Abyssinia and as far east as Ceylon. After his conversion to Christianity about A.D. 548, Cosmas became a monk and retired to a cloister on Mt. Sinai where he wrote his memoirs and his classic defense of the Christian view of the earth.

Oh for *@#%'s sake. "The Christian view of the earth"? Really? If anything, the Christian view of the earth at the time would have been Ptolemy's view of the earth, since that was the science of the day, and the Ptolemaic view unambiguously affirmed the earth to be a sphere.

This massive illustrated treatise in twelve books gives us the earliest surviving maps of Christian origin.

Well if that just means the earliest surviving maps written by a Christian, then I guess that's true. Of course, given Ptolemy's authority, Ptolemy's map would have been the Christian one at that time for the same reason that Ptolemy's cosmology was the Christian one. It was the science of the day.

Cosmas rewarded the faithful with a full measure of vitriol against pagan error and a wonderfully simple diagram of the Christian universe. 

"The Christian universe." Right. Not "The universe as advocated by a lone conspiracy-theory-minded crank" but "The Christian universe." And Cosmas wasn't able to reward the faithful with his vitriol and diagrams because nobody read him.

In his very first book he destroyed the abominable heresy of the sphericity of the earth. Then he expounded his own system, supported, of course, from Scripture, then from the Church Fathers, and finally from some non-Christian sources. 

Dude, that's what conspiracy theorists do. They pick and choose some information, remove it from its context, ignore all the evidence supporting that context, and then use the little pieces of information to construct a new context. You can find people doing that in support of just about any view. There's people who defend Christianity or atheism in this way, but that doesn't mean you can smear all Christians and atheists as dishonest and/or unintelligent hacks.

What he provided was not so much a theory as a simply, clear, and attractive visual model.

. . . which nobody read.

When the apostle Paul in Hebrews 9:1-3, declared the first Tabernacle of Moses to be the pattern of this whole world, he conveniently provided Cosmas his plan in all necessary detail. Cosmas had no trouble translating Saint Paul's words into physical reality. 

Huh. It's curious that no one else took the author of Hebrews the way Cosmas did. It's almost as if Cosmas was going against the established understanding of the text. Also, Paul probably isn't the author of Hebrews, although it was thought that he was until the Modern era. But I think we can assume that by ascribing Hebrews to Paul, Boorstin is probably just giving what Cosmas would have thought about it.

The first Tabernacle "had ordinances of divine service and worldly sanctuary; for there was a Tabernacle made; the first wherein was the candlestick, and the table and shewbread, which is called the Sanctuary." By a "worldly" sanctuary Saint Paul meant "that it was, so to speak, a pattern of the world, wherein was also the candlestick, by this meaning the luminaries of heaven, and the table, that is, the earth, and the shew-bread, by this meaning the fruits which it produces annually." When Scripture said that the table of the Tabernacle should be two cubits long and one cubit wide, it meant that the whole flat earth was twice as long, east to west, as it was wide.

Huh again. It's also curious that no one followed in Cosmas's footsteps in this interpretation of Hebrews. It's almost as if it has no exegetical basis whatsoever.

In Cosmas' appealing plan, the whole earth was a vast rectangular box, most resembling a trunk with a bulging lid, the arch of heaven, above which the Creator surveyed his works. In the north was a great mountain, around which the sun moved, and who obstructions of the sunlight explained the variant lengths of the days and the seasons. The lands of the world were, of course, symmetrical: in the East the Indians, in the South the Ethiops, in the West the Celts, and in the North the Scythians. And from Paradise flowed the four great rivers: the Indus or Ganges into India; the Nile through Ethiopia to Egypt; and the Tigris and the Euphrates that watered Mesopotamia. 

And we have people who think the planes that hit the twin towers on 9/11 were holograms, or that the Moon landings were fake, or that the Holocaust didn't happen, or that Jesus never existed. So what? There's always silly people making silly claims. Unless you have a reason to think the silly claims were more widespread than a single writer who exerted no influence on his contemporaries or the Middle Ages, spending so much time on Cosmas is an attempt to mislead people into thinking he is representative when he isn't.

There was, of course, only one "face" of the earth -- that which God gave to us the descendants of Adam -- which made any suggestion of Antipodes both absurd and heretical.

Only. Five. Christians. Affirmed. A. Flat. Earth. Point to someone who was excommunicated for affirming antipodes, Daniel. Point to an official decree declaring belief in antipodes to be heretical. No? You can't? What a surprise. I should give Boorstin some grace here though: maybe he's just speaking in Cosmas's voice. That is, maybe he's just stating what he thinks Cosmas said or would have said.

Cosmas' work is still very much worth consulting as a wholesome tonic for any who believe there may be limits to human credulity. 

You know what other work could be similarly consulted Daniel? Yours. Ba dum ksh.

After Cosmas came a legion of Christian geographers each offering his own variant on the Scriptural plan. 

And none of whom affirmed a flat earth. Remember that? The actual subject you're writing about? I mean, the title of this chapter is "The Flat Earth Returns" for Pete's sake. It seems kind of significant that now you're talking about people who denied that the earth is flat without mentioning that fact.

There was Orosius, the Spanish priest of the fifth century who wrote a famous encyclopedia, Historiae adversum paganos, where he retailed the familiar threefold division of the world into Asia, Europe, and Africa, embellished by some generalizations of his own:

Which didn't include a flat earth. The following is a quote from Orosius that Boorstin gives.

Much more land remains uncultivated and unexplored in Africa because of the heat of the Sun than in Europe because of the intensity of the cold, for certainly almost all animals and plants adapt themselves more readily and easily to great cold than to great heat. There is an obvious reason why Africa, so far as contour and population are concerned, appears small in every respect (i.e., when compared with Europe and Asia). Owing to her natural location the continent has less space and owing to the bad climate she has more desert land.

This seems pretty tame and utterly irrelevant to the issue of the earth's sphericity.

Then the even more influential Christian encyclopedist Isidore Archbishop of Seville in the seventh century explained that the earth was known as orbis terrarum because of its roundness (orbis) like a wheel. 

"Round like a wheel" (quia sicut rota est) is a phrase that Isidore himself uses, so I can't give Boorstin grief for repeating it here. This is one of the passages that make some people count him among the flat-earthers. However, Isidore is only referring to the land mass that includes Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa. Like all maps of the time (apart from Cosmas's perhaps), he's referring to the known world. Since he gives indications elsewhere that the earth is spherical, most historians do not take him to be affirming a flat earth here.

At any rate, this kind of map is more commonly called a T and O map. These maps were certainly round and flat, but the reason they were flat is . . . wait for it . . . they were maps. You might think that's unnecessary to point out, but I have encountered people who argue from the fact that ancient and medieval maps are flat to the conclusion that the people who drew them must have thought the earth was flat. I'm serious.

"It is quite evident," he observed, "that the two parts Europe and Africa occupy half the world and that Asia alone occupies the other half. The former were made into two parts because the Great Sea called the Mediterranean enters from the Ocean between them and cuts them apart." Isidore's "wheel maps" followed the convention of the time by putting east at the top:

Again, Isidore's maps, like all other maps of the time, were meant to show the known world. I've never heard them referred to as "wheel maps," and Boorstin doesn't give a reference for that phrase. However a google search on "Isidore" and "wheel maps" comes up with a few hundred results, so I guess he could be quoting someone. What follows is a quote from Isidore.

Paradise is a place lying in the eastern parts, whose name is translated out of the Greek into Latin as hortus [i.e., garden]. It is called in the Hebrew tongue Eden, which is translated in our language as Deliciae [i.e., place of luxury or delight]. Uniting these two gives us Garden of Delight; for it is planted with every kind of wood and fruit-bearing tree having also the tree of life. There is neither cold nor heat there but a continual spring temperature.
From the middle of the Garden, a spring gushes forth to water the whole grove, and, dividing up, it provides the sources of four rivers. Approach to this place was barred to man after his sin, for now it is hedged about on all sides by a sword-like flame, that is to say it is surrounded by a wall of fire that reaches almost to the sky.

Once again, I don't see how any of this is relevant to the issue of whether the earth is round. Isidore is merely commenting on his understanding of Genesis 2. I'll just note here that, centuries earlier, Origen, one of the early Church Fathers, argued that "no one of understanding" could take the account of the garden of Eden as referring to an actual place (De Principiis 4:1:16).

Christian geographers who lacked facts to fill their landscapes found a rich resource in the ancient fantasies. While they were contemptuous of pagan science, which they considered a menace to Christian faith,

Yeah, that's complete crap. Of course there are exceptions, but in general Christians accepted pagan science. Certainly they assigned a low priority to it, they thought other things were much more important, but they didn't tend to treat it with contempt, much less did they consider it "a menace to Christian faith." Again, this is in general: it varied from person to person. David C. Lindberg, probably the greatest science historian of the last half century, writes, "No institution or cultural force of the patristic period offered more encouragement for the investigation of nature than did the Christian church. Contemporary pagan culture was no more favorable to disinterested speculation about the cosmos than was Christian culture. It follows that the presence of the Christian church enhanced, rather than damaged, the development of natural sciences."

their prejudice did not include pagan myths.

I'm not sure what he's referring to here. The early Christian church (earlier than the period that Boorstin is writing about) was very hostile to pagan myths. Over time the church certainly adopted some pagan practices, like those we now associate with Christmas, but not the accompanying myths. If Boorstin is just thinking of these practices, then I guess you could make that claim, but once again, it's pretty misleading. It sounds like he's referring to the stories in those myths, not just the practices. So it's interesting that Boorstin gets these two points exactly backwards: he says the Christians were hostile to pagan science but not pagan myths, when actually they were hostile to pagan myths but not pagan science.

Once again, I suspect -- and I could be wrong -- that Boorstin is thinking about the claim that there are parallels to Jesus' life in world mythology, and that these may have influenced the development of Christian theology. So there are allegedly virgin births, resurrections, last suppers, baptisms, etc. in all sorts of myths around the world before the advent of Christianity. The problem with this is that it is not true. The myths in question do not parallel Christianity in any serious detail, and this has been the consensus view of New Testament historians for over a century. To see my earlier posts on this, see here, here, here, and here.

These were so numerous, so colorful, and so contradictory that they could serve the most dogmatic Christian purposes.

Oh that's cute. Pagan myths were contradictory and so could be used to serve Christian dogma. Gosh, what does that imply? Certainly not that most of the great logicians in human history were Christians. Certainly not that Christian theologians spent their lives reflecting on doctrines in order to make them logically coherent and consistent with the larger body of knowledge. You know, one of the first things I discovered when I was trying to refute Christianity was that it couldn't be dismissed as foolish. It might be false, but too many people much, much smarter than me thought it made sense. I couldn't bring myself to seriously think my knee-jerk reaction was a surer guide to truth than the lifelong reflections of some of the most intelligent people who have ever lived.

While Christian geographers feared the close calculations of Eratosthenes, Hipparchus, and Ptolemy,

Like who? Who feared these close calculations? What did they write that leads you to that conclusion? What about the Christians who built on their calculations?

they cheerfully embellished their pious Jerusalem-centered maps with the wildest ventures of pagan imaginations. Julius Solinus (fl. A.D. 250), surnamed Polyhistor, or "Teller of Varied Tales," provided the standard source of geographic myth during all the years of the Great Interruption, from the fourth till the fourteenth centuries.

Rather than comment on his throwaway line about "the Great Interruption," I'll just point you to James's book God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (American title: The Genesis of Science).

Solinus himself was probably not a Christian. Nine-tenths of his Collectanea rerum memorabilium (Gallery of Wonderful Things), first published about A.D. 230-240, came straight out of Pliny's Natural History, though Solinus does not even mention his name. And the rest was foraged from other classical authors. Solinus' peculiar talent, as a recent historian of geography observes, was "to extract the dross and leave the gold." It is doubtful if anyone else over so long a period has ever influenced geography "so profoundly or so mischievously."

OK, now we're not even talking about Christians anymore, let alone flat-earthers. Boorstin's argument is that "Stupid Christians believed the earth was flat because look at this one guy nobody read. And there's another guy who wasn't a Christian who said some stupid stuff about other subjects too." Come on man, focus.

Yet Solinus' dross had wide appeal. Saint Augustine himself drew on Solinus, as did all the other leading Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages. 

I hate to think I'm growing cynical, but I'm starting to suspect that Augustine may have just quoted Solinus once or twice, and a handful of other Christian authors may have as well, and those who didn't are excluded from the guild of "leading Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages" on grounds that Boorstin considers too obvious to mention. And we'll just ignore all those non-Christian authors who quoted Solinus as well because that wouldn't serve our purpose.

The stories and fabulous images that Solinus retailed enlivened Christian maps right down to the Age of Discovery. They became an all-encompassing network of fantasy, replacing the forgotten rational gridwork of latitude and longitude, which had been Ptolemy's legacy.

Holy crap, did he just refer to the forgotten legacy of Ptolemy? Admittedly, Ptolemy's legacy was felt more in astronomy than geography: Almagest was more well-known than Geographia, but the latter was still extremely influential. Moreover, Ptolemy's legacy regarding astronomy involved as a core element that the earth is a sphere, and this legacy was all but universal throughout late antiquity and the Middle Ages. As Albert Van Helden writes in Measuring the Universe: Cosmic Dimensions from Aristarchus to Halley, "From the second to the sixteenth century, astronomy was a commentary on Ptolemy. No man ever wielded posthumously such a pervasive and long-lived authority in astronomy, and it is to be doubted that anyone ever will again." Since a spherical earth was one of the foundational elements of Ptolemy's astronomy, for Boorstin to use maps to suggest that people thought the earth was flat in the Middle Ages is just intellectually dishonest. You couldn't explore medieval science sufficiently to find out the influence of Ptolemy's geography without finding out the influence of his astronomy and the spherical earth upon which it is predicated.

I'll stop here, but man, Boorstin's scholarship is sloppy to say the least. It's almost like The Discoverers was written by an Internet troll. Just in case you need another example, here's a quote from chapter 20, "Ptolemy Revived and Revised": "No amount of theology would persuade a mariner that the rocks his ship foundered on were not real. The outlines of the seacoast, marked off by hard experience, could not be modified or ignored by what was written in Isidore of Seville or even in Saint Augustine." OK, exactly what theological claims would bear on where rocks were located in the sea? And where did Isidore or Augustine write about the coastlines? (Spoiler: they didn't. Boorstin just made it up.) At some point, you have to disregard an author as a crank, and I'm afraid Boorstin reaches that point all too quickly.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)