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.

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)

Sunday, August 6, 2017


I wrote a little while ago that I would probably have fewer philosophy books listed on my "currently reading" GoodReads widget on the sidebar because I'm going to be focusing on journal articles in the coming months. However, some of the articles I'm going over are in books, but I'm only reading them as need arises, so those books will be spending a lot of time on the sidebar (in fact, they already have). I'm also going over God's Philosophers again because I'm teaching Religion and Science this fall. The punchline is that, after warning my readers that I would have fewer academic books listed, I now have more than usual.

Friday, August 4, 2017


Once again, science refutes the Bible. And once again, no it doesn't.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Moon mining

Here's a couple of posts on Moon matters: first a private company plans to start mining the Moon by 2020; and second the Moon apparently has significantly more water than previously thought, which could allow lunar colonies to be self-supporting in that regard.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Friday, July 14, 2017


Update: OK, I've had the idea for a series of posts like this for years, labelled "life," with a gif or video showing futility or panic or failure or pain or something along those lines. I finally kicked it off with the post below of Kermit the Frog frantically flailing his arms around, but immediately realized that most people wouldn't see it as panic or chaotic but as what it actually is: Kermit yelling "Yay!" after introducing the Muppet Show and its guest star. So it looks like I was saying life = celebration, which is the exact opposite of what I wanted. Then I did this one as a video because I think the music makes it. But at about the same time I posted it, I received in the mail The Year's Best Science Fiction, 34th Annual Collection by Gardner Dozois, the most recent addition to the series. I pre-ordered it a month and a half ago when my wife found a Barnes and Noble gift card and let me use it to buy volumes 32 and 34 (thank you Sweetheart). And it made me so happy to hold the book in my hand that I realized this whole idea behind a series of posts equating life with bad things was wrongheaded. So basically God told me to stop being such a pessimist. Yes sir.

Update (August 6): Oh my gosh, I just realized I'd posted this video five years ago.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

A Tale of Two Movies . . . and Two Prayers

Last week I finally broke down and watched United 93. It's a real-time portrayal of the fourth plane hijacked on 9/11, the one where the passengers tried to take it back and ultimately stopped the hijackers from crashing the plane into their target (probably either the Capitol building or the White House). It is pretty hard to watch. I was living in Europe when this movie came out, and at the time I knew I wouldn't be able to handle it. I talked with another expat who felt the same way, but we thought maybe if we saw it together we could get through it. However, he lived too far away and we never actually followed up on it. In reading about the film and the events they portray, I learned some interesting things. In one of the phone calls made by a passenger, he said they were going to charge the terrorists, not to try to save their own lives but to stop them from reaching their target. This is awesome and humbling. I'm sure they hoped to somehow take back the plane and land it, but just the fact that stopping the terrorists played a role in their decision to fight back is amazing. I also learned that passengers from some of the other planes also said on phone calls that some of them were thinking of trying to take their planes back too. This was before they even knew they were suicide missions. One thing the movie did was show the terrorists having a fake bomb strapped to one of them that they were threatening to blow up. To fight back under these circumstances, not knowing whether that bomb was real or not shows incredible bravery. They also showed the passengers not realizing for a while that the pilots had been killed and weren't flying the plane. I don't know if that's what really happened -- not knowing whether the terrorists themselves were flying the plane -- but it certainly seems plausible.

But one particular part stood out for me, partially because it reminded me of a vaguely similar scene from another movie dealing with Islamic terrorism: The Siege. (If you haven't seen that movie, there are spoilers ahead.) In United 93, before the passengers charge the terrorists, you see several of them saying the Lord's Prayer, over the phone or just to themselves. They prayed for God to deliver them from evil and for him to forgive them as they forgive those who have sinned against them. Then the film cuts to the terrorists praying Islamic prayers and reciting the Shahada: "there is no God but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God." They recite this while they literally have blood on their hands, and are surrounded by the bodies of the people they murdered. The contrast could not be more stark. I'm amazed that a Hollywood movie was made which so clearly showed this contrast.

The similar scene from The Siege happened towards the end. (Remember: spoilers coming.) In the movie, there were a spate of terrorist incidents throughout New York City (this came out a few years before 9/11). They put all the Muslims into detention camps until they could figure out which ones were the terrorists and which ones weren't. Annette Bening is a CIA agent who has been working in the Islamic world for years, and is now protecting one of her informers. I think she reveals at some point that she is a lapsed Christian. In the end she gets shot by an Islamic terrorist. As she's dying, Denzel Washington starts reciting the Lord's Prayer with her. As Annette Bening finishes the Lord's Prayer, she concludes by saying "Insha'Allah" which means "God willing," and dies.

You might think this is no big deal. Christians often say "God willing" too. But it doesn't mean the same thing in Islam as it does in Christianity. Christian theologies almost always allow for there to be events which God does not will or even want, but which he allows. However, if God allows it, then he has a reason for doing so. Even the most evil events are not brute irredeemable horrors, God uses them to weave together the whole story of creation and salvation. As C.S. Lewis puts it in The Problem of Pain, "A merciful man aims at his neighbour's good and so does 'God's will', consciously co-operating with 'the simple good'. A cruel man oppresses his neighbour, and so does simple evil. But in doing such evil, he is used by God, without his own knowledge or consent, to produce the complex good -- so that the first man serves God as a son, and the second as a tool. For you will certainly carry out God's purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John." So even evil events play a role in establishing God's ultimate plan. God creates a universe in which every event plays a role in bringing about this plan. Thus, saying "God willing" in the Christian context means something closer to "If what I'm planning is something that could play a role in achieving God's ultimate plan."

In Islam, however, "God willing" is an affirmation of theological fatalism. It expresses the view that God is the only cause of everything that happens; that nothing happens unless God actively wills that it take place. While there may be some Christian groups who advocate something along these lines, the Hyper-Calvinists perhaps, it is almost universal within Christian theology to distinguish between events that God wills and events he merely allows. The second category can then be further divided up into events that God allows and wants, and events that God allows but doesn't want (and I guess a third class of events that God allows but that he doesn't feel strongly about either way). In contrast, Islam has only one category: events that God wills.

This difference between Christianity and Islam comes to a head when we look at their disparate views on salvation. As Jens Christensen writes in Mission to Islam and Beyond, "The whole content of the Gospel is simply this one thing: to show mankind that God is faithful towards His creation. He has restricted Himself with pacts, covenants and promises; . . . The 'if' in Christianity is always predicated of man: if you will believe, if you will trust, if you will accept, then God is faithful, you can always count on Him." So to ask God to forgive and save us if he wills to do so is just nonsensical. God has already promised that he will forgive us as long as we genuinely repent and have genuine faith. If we ask God to forgive us and then tack on a "God willing" at the end, it's saying if the God who doesn't change his mind doesn't change his mind, if the trustworthy God is trustworthy, then . . . . Putting an "if" in front of those statements makes them incoherent.

But Annette Bening's character does precisely that: she prays the Lord's prayer, asking God to deliver her from evil and forgive her for her sins, and then adds "if God wills it." God may forgive her, but he may not, and there's nothing we can say one way or the other. As Christensen points out, whereas in Christianity the "if" is predicated of us -- if we trust God, if we accept him, etc. -- in Islam the "if" is predicated of God -- if God chooses to save us, if God chooses to send us to heaven or hell. For Bening's character to say "if God wills it" after asking him to forgive her and deliver her from evil is to express the theological fatalism of Islam. It's to say that she doesn't trust God, doesn't believe him to be the kind of God who wants to save her, who loves her so much that he was incarnated as a human being to die to obtain her salvation.

Now this strikes me as a deep point, so maybe I'm giving the filmmakers too much credit to suggest that, like United 93, they were trying to contrast the hopefulness and peace that Christianity offers with the hopelessness and chaos that Islam offers. If they were, though, then again I'm amazed that a Hollywood movie was made that so clearly showed this contrast.

Friday, July 7, 2017

I'm a bad influence

Yesterday my son said he wants a pet Cthulhu. He's nine.


Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The original Brexit

Since I noted Canada's 150th anniversary a few days ago, I can't fail to wish everyone a happy Independence Day. 241 years. It's a little disturbing because I have some childhood memories of our bicentennial. There's people still alive who should remember our sesquicentennial.

Monday, July 3, 2017

How to become an astronaut

Lots of kids want to be astronauts when they grow up. My generation got screwed in that regard. We went from Kitty Hawk to Mare Tranquillitatis in 66 years. Then, after a few more trips, we stopped going to the Moon and just went into low earth orbit over and over again. (This made no sense: as Heinlein, I think, said, once you reach low earth orbit, you're halfway to anywhere in the solar system in terms of energy expenditure.)

Well, things might be changing: the President just revived the National Space Council and the House Armed Service Committee just voted to split the Air Force in half, with one half becoming the U.S. Space Corps. This reminded me of a conversation I had with my son several weeks ago when he asked me how to become an astronaut. I told him I have no idea what actual private or government organizations that are pursuing space exploration will look for, but I know what I'd look for in a potential astronaut. Specifically, I told him two things I'd look for. They're not completely separate; in many cases if you get one you'd also get the other.

First, I'd want someone with experience in living and working long-term in a small, remote community. This could be an isolated military base or just an isolated science station or village. By "isolated" I don't mean that the person spent time alone. What I'd look for is someone who spent an extended period of time in a small community which did not have any other people nearby. Part of the goal here is to show that you could live with a small number of other people (thus being by yourself in an isolated area wouldn't help) without any nearby support for an extended period of time. Obviously, if we set up a station on the Moon or Mars or an asteroid or wherever, any people there would be cut off from the rest of human civilization in significant ways, and the closest case to that now is people living in small remote communities.

Second, I'd want someone with experience living long-term in confined quarters. A submariner would be perfect. Submarines are designed to minimize the open space inside, which means that claustrophobes need not apply. Spaceships transporting people to wherever would similarly require a minimal amount of open space inside. And if we establish manned stations somewhere, they probably would have to be designed along similar lines. It would be nice to have an extensive station with plenty of open space, but it might not be feasible. And note that someone with experience living in confined quarters with others will very probably also have experience living in an isolated community. The crew of a submarine has experience with both automatically. Someone living in a village or station with an extreme climate (like Antarctic research stations, or villages in Qaasuitsup Greenland) would also spend a great deal of time indoors, which would be moderately similar.

Again, this is what I'd look for in a potential astronaut, not what the actual people actually recruiting actual astronauts will be looking for. It makes sense though.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

July 1, 1867 to July 1, 2017

Happy sesquicentennial Canada!

Friday, June 30, 2017

Friday, June 23, 2017


The latest volume of Faith and Philosophy is out and it has what looks to be a very interesting article: "How to Tell Whether Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God" by Tomas Bogardus and Mallorie Urban. I haven't read it yet. Here's the abstract:

Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? We answer: it depends. To begin, we clear away some specious arguments surrounding this issue, to make room for the central question: What determines the reference of a name, and under what conditions do names shift reference? We’ll introduce Gareth Evans’s theory of reference, on which a name refers to the dominant source of information in that name’s “dossier,” and we then develop the theory’s notion of dominance . We conclude that whether Muslims’ use of “Allah” co-refers with Christians’ use of “God” depends on how much weight is given to what type of information in the dossiers of these two names, and we offer a two-part test by which the reader can determine whether Muslim and Christian uses of the divine names co-refer: If Christianity were true and Islam false, might “Allah” still refer to God? And: If Islam were true and Christianity false, might “God” still refer to Allah? We explain the implications of your answers to those questions, and we close with a few reflections about what, in addition to reference, might be required for worship, and whether, from a Christian perspective, salvation turns on this issue.

This is relevant to a recent kerfuffle when a professor at Wheaton was fired for saying Christians and Muslims worship the same God, which in turn prompted this essay by Christian philosopher Kelly James Clark in defense of the claim that the professor was right. The Prosblogion has already posted on the Bogardus-Urban article. I have some thoughts on the matter which I might express at some point, but I'm open to correction by my betters.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017


I recently glanced through Saturnalia by Grant Callin, a great book that I've written about before. The plot is that an alien artifact is discovered on one of the moons of Saturn, and it becomes clear that the aliens have set it up as a treasure hunt for other artifacts in the Saturn system. Constant throughout is the number six: everything is a function of this number, not least in the fact that the artifacts are all hexagons. You can even see hexagons drawn lightly on the book's cover:


Another interesting point is that the book has a scene when they travel over the north pole of Saturn (which they call "The Old Man") and are overwhelmed by it:

The Giant filled everything -- the viewports, my senses, all of space -- so that I had to press my nose to the glass even to see the edge of the rings against the black. The northern cloudbands, with their delicate colors, formed beautiful pale rings around the pole, cut in half by the black knife of the shadow's edge. sworls, spots, eddies, all were displayed in lovely, exquisite detail. For time unmeasured I stared. . . . 
I was struck dumb with fear and awe, my heart pounding so hard it seemed ready to burst at every beat. My throat was dry and my tongue clove to the roof of my mouth. My bowels were all but moving of their own accord. I was certain that we were going to be sucked into that pattern -- to become a part of it. At the time, somehow, it seemed right; as if it were unfair to behold such beauty and still be allowed to live. 
I have no idea how long I gazed before Junior, his voice uncharacteristically husky, finally broke the silence: 
"You are now one of only eight members of the human race who have seen this sight. It has changed every one of us." 
I nodded, unable to reply, as he continued softly: "When I know I'm dying, I'm going to suit up and have the boat throw me straight down at the Old Man's heart." 
My voice returned in a whisper: "I'm coming with you."

OK, so why am I bringing this up? Because in re-reading this book for the umpteenth time something clicked. There is a hexagon at the north pole of Saturn. Yes really.

Now I never heard of Saturn's hexagon until the Cassini mission arrived at Saturn in 2004, so I thought it was a recent discovery. However, it was apparently observed by the two Voyager spacecraft in 1980 and 1981. I can't find any Voyager photographs of it, but here's an abstract for a 1993 article that refers to "Saturn's polar hexagon". At any rate, according to NASA, 2006 was the first time a clear shot of the north pole was taken.

Grant Callin published Saturnalia in 1986. I guess it's possible that he knew about what was assumed to be a temporary storm at the north pole of Saturn from the Voyager spacecraft and worked it into his book as a call-out to the six other people who knew about it, none of whom would actually read it. Or else he's a magician. Either way I'm pretty impressed.