Thursday, November 16, 2017

On prayer, again

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Quote of the Day

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

C.S. Lewis
The Problem of Pain

Thursday, November 9, 2017


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

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

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

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

-- I'm sorry, but this is hilarious.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

"Tu sei morta"

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

Sunday, November 5, 2017

SF authors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Happy Reformation Day

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

Sunday, October 29, 2017


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

Monday, October 23, 2017

Quote of the Day

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


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

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

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

It is a necessary truth that

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 9, 2017

Counting heads; or, The eyes have it

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


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


Oh. Sorry.

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

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

Sunday, October 8, 2017


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


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

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

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

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Thought of the Day

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

Monday, October 2, 2017

Please pray

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 29, 2017

Pleyel it again Sam

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 26, 2017


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

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Quote of the Day

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

C.S. Lewis
The Problem of Pain