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.