Saturday, October 30, 2010

Halloween and the Occult

Halloween is here, and for some religious people it is a very touchy subject. Some people, especially some Christians, think it's occultic and spiritually dangerous. Last year it was reported that the Vatican had condemned it, but that turned out to be slightly misinformed. A good essay on this written by Christian philosopher and apologist Kenneth Richard Samples goes over several common objections Christians have to Halloween, and correcting them: "The Tricky Topic of Halloween" (you'll have to scroll down a little). Ultimately, if someone still feels that celebrating Halloween violates their conscience and their devotion to their religion, then they should not participate in it. But we have an obligation to make sure that we've got the story straight and aren't just listening to one side of the issue. This is true of any subject.

Some people who have some anxiety about Halloween feel the same way about other things, such as the Harry Potter books and movies. I don't know anything about them, having never read the books, and only having seen the first movie on a plane with faulty earphones. I've seen books by Christians on both sides. Looking for God in Harry Potter and The Gospel According to Harry Potter obviously suggest that not only is there nothing to be concerned about, there is something to be encouraged. But others disagree.

I remember when I saw the movie Jumanji in the theater with a church group. I really enjoyed it and thought it incredibly imaginative. I was surprised when one member of the group said she almost walked out because of "occultic" elements she saw in it. Specifically, she thought it was reminiscent of ouija boards. I disagreed with this on several levels: first, the parallels between the game in Jumanji and ouija boards seemed very superficial. Second, at any rate, the movie clearly portrayed the game as something extremely dangerous that no one in their right mind would ever want to play. Third, I'm not really concerned about ouija boards because I strongly suspect that they're best explained as some subconscious response on the part of the participants rather than occultic forces, although I've never really investigated it in depth. Nevertheless, if one shows an interest in the occult, it can certainly open some dangerous doors regardless.

I've drifted away from the subject of Halloween, but you see the common thread here. I believe that there is a spiritual world, some of the elements of which are hostile to us. But I don't think this gives us a license to start seeing a demon behind every bush.

The shrinking target of the anti-war movement

Wikileaks, the group that is releasing classified data of governments they disagree with, had a couple of interesting and unintentional side effects of their release of documents about the Iraq War. As Glenn Reynolds says, though, they're not news to anyone who's been paying attention. First is that the two Lancet studies which posited absurdly inflated numbers of Iraqi civilian casualties -- released right before elections in order to influence them -- were, well, absurdly inflated. They claimed that 100,000 civilians were killed within the first year of the war, and 600,000 within the first three years. I still have a hard time believing that anyone took such blatant and obvious propaganda seriously. (Just to give one reason: that many corpses in that short a time in that small an area would have created enormous health issues for the survivors; no such issues arose.) The grand total is about 109,000 deaths, of which 24,000 were enemy insurgents and another 19,000 were Iraqi defense forces and coalition forces. That makes the civilian death rate for the Iraq War from 2003 to 2009 about 66,000 people, or about 11,000 civilians per year. This is lower than South Africa's murder rate for the same time period, and much lower than the civilian death rate in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was in charge. With this last point we can subtract the rate of civilian deaths during the Iraq War from the rate of deaths during Saddam's reign to reach the number of Iraqi lives saved by the Iraq War. Again, this won't be news to anyone who's been paying attention.

Second is that, while they didn't find the huge caches of WMDs in Iraq that they were expecting, they still found WMDs in Iraq, in sufficient quantity to do serious damage. Bear in mind that the reason they're called weapons of mass destruction is because they can cause a lot of damage with only small amounts of some agent (chemical, biological, or nuclear). However, what they've found thus far dates back to the first Gulf War. This is not insignificant, since the cease-fire was predicated on Saddam destroying all of his WMDs. Since he didn't, the casus belli was still in effect. And while some of the chemical agents they found had deteriorated to some extent, they were still extremely dangerous.

Nevertheless, one of the several justifications the Bush administration gave for the Iraq War was that Saddam was actively producing chemical and biological WMDs in large amounts, and was pursuing nuclear weapons as well. They have not found evidence of this. However, they have found evidence that Saddam was going to start production of WMDs as soon as the UN inspectors left and the sanctions were lifted. Again, this is not insignificant: in order to prevent Saddam from producing WMDs, either the sanctions would have had to have been made permanent -- which would never have happened -- or Saddam would have had to be deposed. Since the first of these options is absurdly unrealistic, we either had to let Saddam develop WMDs and share them with his numerous terrorist connections, or invade.

I've argued before that the Iraq War could have been justified solely as the second stage of the War on Terrorism, without any reference to WMDs. Nevertheless, it's interesting how much the anti-war movement's target has consistently shrunk. They can't claim that Saddam didn't have extensive ties to terrorists (of course he did), they can't claim that the death toll in Iraq reached absurd levels, they can't claim Saddam wasn't going to develop WMDs unless we stepped in and stopped him, they can't even claim he didn't have WMDs. As Tigerhawk says, "The first really objective history of the Iraq war will have to wait until somebody who did not live through the propaganda around that war is old enough to write it."

Friday, October 29, 2010

Thursday, October 28, 2010


I lack the poetry appreciation gene. I simply find myself unmoved by poetry, but I recognize this as a failing, and if given the choice, would have this inability removed. For those of you who do appreciate poetry, here is Spirits in Bondage, a collection of poetry written and published by C. S. Lewis before he became a Christian (you can also purchase it). One of the poems at least ("Ode to a New Year's Day") expresses his atheism at the time. Via Victor Reppert.

Friday, October 22, 2010


Here's another favorite piece of music (though not the favorite): "Fanfare for the Common Man" by Aaron Copland. It's just the perfect expression of the spirit of the brass instruments. However, I have to admit that the title biases me in its favor. "Fanfare" expresses the nobility of each individual, the claim that everyone has something glorious about them. The Bible explains this by saying that human beings are created in the image of God. Of course, the Bible also claims that we are fallen, but this does not remove God's image from us. As Pascal put it, "What a Chimera is man! What a novelty, a monster, a chaos, a contradiction, a prodigy! Judge of all things, an imbecile worm; depository of truth, and sewer of error and doubt; the glory and refuse of the universe." "Fanfare for the Common Man" expresses the first half of this, the nobility, the glory of humanity. For the second half, you'll have to listen to Schoenberg.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Quote of the Day

We should, then, test world views by their logical consistency and by how well they fit the facts known by experience. In our day and age, however, certain people, under the influence of Eastern mysticism or its Western step-child, the New Age Movement, deny that consistency is a test for truth. They affirm that reality is ultimately illogical or that logical contradictions correspond to reality. They assert that in Eastern thought the Absolute or God or the Real transcends the logical categories of human thought. They are apt to interpret the demand for logical consistency as a piece of Western imperialism. Trying to reason with such people can be very frustrating, because they will cheerfully concede that their view is logically incoherent and yet insist that it is true.

What such people seem to be saying is that the classical law of thought known as the Law of Excluded Middle is not necessarily true; that is to say, they deny that of a proposition and its negation, necessarily, one is true and the other is false. Such a denial could take two different forms. It could be interpreted on the one hand to mean that a proposition and its negation both can be true (or both false). Thus, it is true both that God is love and, in the same sense, that God is not love. Since both are true, the Law of Contradiction, that a proposition and its negation cannot both be true (or both false) at the same time, is also denied. On the other hand, the original denial could be interpreted to mean that of a proposition and its negation neither may be true (or neither false). Thus, it is not true that God is good and it is not true that God is not good; there is just no truth value at all for such propositions. In this case, it is the classical Principle of Bivalence, that for any proposition, necessarily that proposition is either true or false, that is denied along with the Law of Excluded Middle.

Now I am inclined to say that such claims are frankly crazy and unintelligible. To say that God is both good and not good in the same sense or that God neither exists nor does not exist is just incomprehensible to me.

In our politically correct age, there is a tendency to vilify all that is Western and to exalt Eastern modes of thought. To assert that Eastern thought is seriously deficient in making such claims is to be a sort of epistemological bigot, blinkered by the constraints of the logic-chopping Western mind. But this attitude is far too simplistic. In the first place, there are thinkers within the tradition of Western thought alone who have held the mystical views under discussion (Plotinus would be a good example), so that there is no need to play off East against West in this matter. Secondly, the extent to which such thinking represents "the Eastern mind" has been greatly exaggerated. In the East the common man -- and the philosopher, too -- lives by the Laws of Contradiction and Excluded Middle in his everyday life; he affirms them every time he walks through a doorway rather than into the wall. It is only at an extremely theoretical level of philosophical speculation that such laws are denied. And even at that level, the situation is not monochromatic: Confucianism, Hinayana Buddhism, pluralistic Hinduism as exemplified in Sankhya-Yoga, Vaishesika-Nyaya, and Mimasa schools of thought, and even Jainism do not deny the application of the classical laws of thought to ultimate reality. Thus, a critique of Eastern thought from within Eastern thought can be -- and has been -- made. We in the West should not therefore be embarrassed or apologetic about our heritage; on the contrary, it is one of the glories of ancient Greece that her thinkers came to enunciate clearly the principles of logical reasoning, and the triumph of logical reasoning over competing modes of thought in the West has been one of the West's greatest strengths and proudest achievements.

Why think then that such self-evident truths as the principles of logic are in fact invalid for ultimate reality? Such a claim seems to be both self-refuting and arbitrary. For consider a claim like "God cannot be described by propositions governed by the Principle of Bivalence." If such a claim is true, then it is not true, since it itself is a proposition describing God and so has no truth value. Thus, such a claim refutes itself. Of course, if it is not true, then it is not true, as the Eastern mystic alleged, that God cannot be described by propositions governed by the Principle of Bivalence. Thus, if the claim is not true, it is not true and if it is true, it is not true, so that in either case the claim turns out to be not true. Or consider the claim that "God cannot be described by propositions governed by the Law of Contradiction." If this proposition is true, then, since it describes God, it is not itself governed by the Law of Contradiction. There, it is equally true that "God can be described by propositions governed by the Law of Contradiction." But then which propositions are these that are so governed? There must be some, for the Eastern mystic is committed to the truth of this claim. But if he produces any, then they immediately refute his original claim that there are no such proposition. His claim thus commits him to the existence of counter-examples which serve to refute that very claim.

William Lane Craig
Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 2nd edition

Sunday, October 10, 2010

On cucumbers and monkeys

I change the blog description -- the little blurb underneath the blog's title -- every now and then. I just put a new one up and to ward off any charge of being vaguely unwholesome, I offer the following explanatory video.


Is nothing sacred anymore?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Doubting Darwin's Doubt

Alvin Plantinga, in his Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism, employs what he calls "Darwin's Doubt". He quotes a letter Charles Darwin wrote to William Graham where Darwin asks whether our beliefs can be considered trustworthy if they are result of our evolutionary ancestors' struggle for survival, and suggests that if the lower animals have cognitive states like beliefs we wouldn't consider them trustworthy. Thus Darwin himself had an inkling of the problem that Plantinga's problem addresses: if our minds are merely the product of evolution, why should we trust them? In particular, why should we trust them when they tell us about evolution?

This suggests that the object of Darwin's Doubt was Darwin's own belief in evolution. But the letter itself suggests something different, something that I find even more interesting. Below is the entire letter, taken from volume 1 (pp. 315-17) of The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Including an Autobiographical Chapter, edited by his son Francis Darwin.

Down, July 3rd, 1881.
Dear Sir,

I hope that you will not think it intrusive on my part to thank you heartily for the pleasure which I have derived from reading your admirably written 'Creed of science,' though I have not yet quite finished it, as now that I am old I read very slowly. It is a very long time since any other book has interested me so much. The work must have cost you several years and much hard labour with full leisure for work. You would not probably expect any one fully to agree with you on so many abstruse subjects; and there are some points in your book which I cannot digest. The chief one is that the existence of so-called natural laws implies purpose. I cannot see this. Not to mention that many expect that the several great laws will some day be found to follow inevitably from some one single law, yet taking the laws as we now know them, and look at the moon, where the law of gravitation -- and no doubt of the conservation of energy -- of the atomic theory, &c. &c., hold good, and I cannot see that there is then necessarily any purpose. Would there be purpose if the lowest organisms alone, destitute of consciousness existed in the moon? But I have had no practice in abstract reasoning, and I may be all astray. Nevertheless you have expressed my inward conviction, though far more vividly and clearly than I could have done that the Universe is not the result of chance. But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind? Secondly, I think that I could make somewhat of a case against the enormous importance which you attribute to our greatest men; I have been accustomed to think, second, third, and fourth rate men of very high importance, at least in the case of Science. Lastly, I could show fight on natural selection having done and doing more for the progress of civilization than you seem inclined to admit. Remember what risk the nations of Europe ran, not so many centuries ago of being overwhelmed by the Turks, and how ridiculous such an idea now is! The more civilized so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilized races throughout the world. But I will write no more, and not even mention the many points in your work which have much interested me. I have indeed cause to apologise for troubling you with my impressions, and my sole excuse is the excitement in my mind which your book has aroused.

I beg leave to remain,
Dear Sir,
Yours faithfully and obliged
Charles Darwin

Pay no attention to that racist behind the curtain. Francis Darwin footnotes the phrase "that the Universe is not the result of chance" with the following:

The Duke of Argyll ('Good Words,' Ap. 1885, p. 244) has recorded a few words on this subject, spoken by my father in the last year of his life. "... in the course of that conversation I said to Mr. Darwin, with reference to some of his own remarkable works on the 'Fertilisation of Orchids,' and upon 'The Earthworms,' and various other observations he made of the wonderful contrivances for certain purposes in nature -- I said it was impossible to look at these without seeing that they were the effect and the expression of mind. I shall never forget Mr. Darwin's answer. He looked at me very hard and said, 'Well, that often comes over me with overwhelming force; but at other times,' and he shook his head vaguely, adding, 'it seems to go away.'"

So what Darwin was doubting was not evolution but his own belief or impression that the universe shows itself to be the product of intelligence, of mind. That is what he questions in light of evolution.

This isn't a gotcha! moment for Plantinga however. On the one hand, the letter could easily be understood as saying that doubting the belief in an intelligent creator opens the door to doubting all of our cognitive faculties. This is how Plantinga presents the issue, by taking it the further step of applying it to our belief in naturalism and even evolution itself, but Darwin could have been implying it in the letter already. Regardless, even if Darwin didn't apply it this way, it doesn't mean that we can't.

On the other hand, Darwin may just be applying his doubt to the beliefs that were inconvenient for him in some way. That's also a possible interpretation of the letter, but I think it's far too uncharitable. It accuses Darwin of being inconsistent and using ad hoc reasoning; worse than that, of doing so consciously. I'm very uncomfortable with charging Darwin with dishonesty.

On the third hand, perhaps Darwin was only applying this doubt to the thoughts we have before we turn a critical eye on them, our instinctive reactions prior to having the light of reason shone upon them. He doesn't say that in the letter either, but I think the letter could also be reasonably understood this way. In that case, he wouldn't be applying his doubt to evolution, because his belief in evolution is precisely the product of critical thinking. He doesn't doubt the process of reason or rationality, just the building blocks that the process works with.

Again, it's certainly possible that that's all Darwin meant. The problem is that there doesn't seem to be any reason for applying it to one and not the other. In fact, most arguments like Plantinga's explicitly question whether the process of reasoning could be trusted if our minds are what they are merely in order to increase the likelihood of our survival and propagation. It certainly seems that reason is veracious, but why should we trust this "seeming"? Perhaps it was useful to our survival to have an overwhelming impression of the veracity of reason -- just as Darwin had the occasional overwhelming impression that nature is a product of a divine mind -- regardless of whether reason actually is veracious. So Darwin's Doubt applies. Indeed, Darwin's Doubt is a universal acid, eating through every traditional concept and leaving in its wake ... well, nothing. It's an acid.

But now, to return to the elephant in the room, Darwin had the overwhelming impression that the order present in nature bespeaks of a divine mind. That strikes me as a pretty big deal. Moreover, this belief was still coming over Darwin with "overwhelming force", albeit intermittently, within a year of his death. And he gets himself out of that belief by suggesting that evolution by itself makes it difficult to see why our beliefs should be trustworthy, a point that kicks the door wide open to Plantinga's argument and the charge that naturalism is ultimately self-defeating. Again, Darwin may not have intended to apply his doubt to his own belief in evolution, but there's no reason it would apply to one and not the other. The point of course is not to challenge whether evolution is true but to challenge whether it's the whole story: if it were then the belief that it's the whole story would not be trustworthy.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)