Monday, May 23, 2016

Summer Reading

I've been dissatisfied with the texts I've used for my introduction to philosophy class but have yet to find any better ones. It's not that the texts themselves are not good enough (for the most part), it's that what I want is so particular the only way I'm going to find a book that meets all my requirements is if I write it myself. Overall I prefer a topical approach rather than a historical introduction or an anthology, although I sometimes think about having the course be the reading of several complete historical texts rather than short readings: a couple of Plato's dialogues, BoethiusConsolation of Philosophy, Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy, Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, etc. I think reading a bunch of short excerpts is like taking a three-day tour of Europe. You need to settle in and live there for a while to get an appreciation of the place.

The text I've used the most is Donald Palmer, Does the Center Hold? An Introduction to Western Philosophy, 6th edition. Palmer's book is structured closest to my Platonic ideal of a philosophy text (which isn't saying much), it's well-suited for college freshmen, and it's cheap. But I'm unhappy with some elements of it, not least his treatment of philosophy of religion. So I've been collecting introductory texts and I plan to spend the summer going over them, or at least some of them, to potentially replace Palmer but probably just to integrate some of their contents into the course. Maybe I should say I hope to spend the summer reading them, since plans change, and I can already foresee several events that will take precedence. Anyway, the books I have are:

-- Malcolm Clark, The Need to Question: An Introduction to Philosophy. The only text I've seen that addresses philosophy of language. Looks like it's from a Kantian perspective.
-- Reuben Abel, Man Is the Measure: A Cordial Invitation to the Central Problems of Philosophy.
-- Clark Glymour, Thinking Things Through: An Introduction to Philosophical Issues and Achievements, 2nd edition. This one looks like it goes into much more detail but over fewer subjects than I want. So greater depth, smaller scope. Nevertheless, it looks very good, and I might consider switching to it if I think it's accessible to freshmen.
-- Daniel J. Sullivan, An Introduction to Philosophy: Perennial Principles of the Classical Realist Tradition. A Catholic introduction.
-- Phil Washburn, Philosophical Dilemmas: A Pro and Con Introduction to the Major Questions and Philosophers, 4th edition. The format of this book looks excellent, giving the strengths and weaknesses of numerous philosophical issues and conundrums. I might consider switching to it, although it's an expensive text (most of them are), and I want to use a cheap one if possible.
-- Andrew Pessin and S. Morris Engel, The Study of Philosophy: A Text with Readings, 7th edition. Mostly text with short readings at the end of each chapter.
-- Lewis Vaughn, Philosophy Here and Now: Powerful Ideas in Everyday Life, 2nd edition. I've used this, and it's really excellent. My only objections are that it doesn't address some of the subjects I want addressed and it's expensive. But I might consider switching to this one too.

Another book I'll look at that isn't technically an introduction to philosophy text is Alasdair MacIntyre's God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition.

I put these on the sidebar in my GoodReads widget which I have neglected for the past year. I also have several anthologies, which, as I say, is not my preference. However, I plan to take a close look at them to see if they can convert me:

-- Andrew Bailey and Robert M. Martin, First Philosophy: Fundamental Problems and Readings in Philosophy, 2nd edition.
-- Gideon Rosen, Alex Byrne, Joshua Cohen, and Seana Shiffrin, The Norton Introduction to Philosophy.
-- Steven M. Cahn, The World of Philosophy: An Introductory Reader.
-- John Perry, Michael Bratman, and John Martin Fischer, Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and Contemporary Readings, 7th edition.
-- William F. Lawhead, The Philosophical Journey: An Interactive Approach, 6th edition.
-- John Chaffee, The Philosopher's Way: Thinking Critically about Profound Ideas: A Text with Readings, 5th edition.

I'm also slated to teach an introduction to ethics course next fall. However, in this case, the university wants me to use a particular text, so this summer I'll also be reading Nina Rosenstand, The Moral of the Story: An Introduction to Ethics, 7th edition. It's on the sidebar too.

Update (15 June): Well, it didn't take very long. The day after I posted this my plans became more, shall we say, fluid, and now I don't know which courses I'll be teaching in the fall. It's not a bad thing at all, it's an opportunity, it's just an opportunity to teach different classes, and I don't know how it's going to end up. The closest thing to a constant is that I'll probably still teach ethics sometime next school year, so I'll still go through Rosenstand. On top of this, we're moving, and most of my books, including those mentioned in this post, are going into storage. The only ones I've kept out are Abel, Clark, Palmer, Vaughn, and Washburn. And MacIntyre. So I'm kind of in limbo now. Maybe I'll just read science-fiction.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Some comments on the flood, part 1

The account of Noah and the flood is one of those Bible passages held up as being inconsistent with contemporary science -- probably only the creation account receives more fire. In fact young-earth creationists use the flood accounts to justify their positions. According to them, all the geological strata, along with the fossils embedded in them, were laid down by the flood. Some even suggest that the earth was much smoother at the time of the flood and that the mountain ranges formed during it. This is why young-earth creationism is often called "flood geology". The anti-science impression is compounded by how the young-earth folk tie the flood account to the creation account: on the second day of creation, God separated the waters above from the waters below. The waters above, they contend, refers to a primeval water canopy that surrounded the earth which created a sort of tropical paradise where it never rained (as claimed in Genesis 2:5). The flood took place when this canopy collapsed and fell to the earth.

Now, as far as I can tell, the only part of this scenario that was widely accepted prior to the mid-19th century is the claim that the flood was global. I'll deal with that issue in part 2. For now I'll focus on the other issues.

The concept of a primeval water canopy comes from the visions of Ellen White which started in the 1840s and which formed the basis for Seventh-Day Adventism. Seventh-Day Adventism was originally a cult as they considered White's visions to be as authoritative as the Bible. They have since backed away from that stance and are generally considered to be an authentic Christian denomination today -- although I note that Walter Martin, in his magisterial The Kingdom of the Cults, had a 100-page appendix entitled "The Puzzle of Seventh-Day Adventism". Contemporary young-earth creationism is virtually identical to -- and historically derived from -- White's visions.

However, I'm going to ignore the dubious provenance of young-earth creationism in order to focus on some of the problems with how it uses the flood to create an alternative view of earth's history. With regards to the water canopy theory, they point out that the Bible states that the waters were separated to be above and below an expanse, which the text specifically defines as the sky or heavens (שָׁמָ֑יִם). This term had numerous meanings in ancient Hebrew: the Bible uses it to refer to the air or space around us (I owe this point to Dallas Willard's comments in The Divine Conspiracy, chapter 3), the air or space above us, the earth’s atmosphere, outer space, or the spiritual realm where God dwells. Thus one could correctly say that birds fly in the heavens, clouds float in the heavens, stars shine in the heavens, and angels dwell in the heavens. The spiritual heavens are themselves divided further into the seven heavens, not just in Jewish tradition, but in many ancient cosmologies.

In order to defend the canopy theory, one would have to say that the expanse (that is, the heavens) refers specifically to the earth's atmosphere. But I think it is more plausible that it refers to the air or space that is around and above us, and that the waters above them simply refers to clouds and precipitation. My reasoning for this is that, first, if the phrase "the waters above" does not refer to something common in our experience (like precipitation, water that falls from above), then it is completely obscure. Genesis 1 does not define what "the waters above" is, so if it is not meant to refer to an aspect of our common experience (just as "the waters below" refers to rivers, lakes, oceans, and their underground sources), it could be forced to mean nearly anything.

Second, there is biblical evidence against the canopy theory. The text says that when the flood abated, the waters returned (וַיָּשֻׁ֧בוּ) to where they had been prior to the flood (Genesis 8:3). Therefore, if the water had originated in a canopy, it would have returned to form another canopy after the flood. Since the water did not reform into a water canopy that surrounded the earth, the floodwaters did not originate in such a canopy.

In fact there are other Bible passages which show that the waters above refers to clouds and precipitation. Proverbs 3:19-20 states that "By wisdom the LORD laid the earth's foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the deeps were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew." Referring to God's laying of the earth's foundations and setting the heavens in place clearly hearkens back to the creation account in Genesis 1. "The deeps were divided" sounds exactly like the separation of the waters below from the waters above ("the deeps" and "the deep" are common references to oceans and water in the Bible, even in Genesis 1 -- "darkness was over the surface of the deep"), and "the clouds let drop the dew" obviously refers to precipitation. Similarly, Proverbs 8:27-29 states "I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep." Again, "when he set the heavens in place" clearly refers back to the creation account in Genesis 1, and "clouds above" and "fountains of the deep" immediately brings to mind the concept of the waters above and the waters below, which would entail that the waters above refer to clouds.

The claim that it didn't rain on the early earth (and therefore that "the waters above" couldn't have referred to clouds and precipitation) is based on two passages: the first is Genesis 2:5, which states that "the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth [בָאָ֔רֶץ] and there was no one to work the ground." However, this verse is a part of the story of God's creation of Adam and Eve; it does not refer to the entire planet and all of earth history, but to the garden of Eden on the sixth day of creation. The term אָ֔רֶץ means "land", and often refers to local areas like this. So on the sixth day of creation, after God had set aside Eden but before he had placed the first people there, it had not yet rained in Eden. (This is assuming the Genesis 2 account should be taken fairly literally which may not be necessary.)

The other passage offered is Genesis 9:13-17 which states that God set the rainbow in the sky to represent his promise to never destroy the earth's population by flood again. This supposedly implies that there had been no rainbows prior to this, and hence, it had never rained. However, whenever God makes a covenant with people in the Bible, he takes something they're already familiar with and says, in effect, "From now on this represents my covenant with you" (other examples being baptism, circumcision, animal blood, and bread and wine). So Genesis 9:13-17 shouldn't be understood as saying that there had never been any rainbows, but that they were to represent God's covenant from that point on. Therefore, I conclude there is no biblical reason to suggest that the flood was the first time it rained on the earth, and that the passages from Proverbs mentioned above show that there are biblical reasons to think it had rained before.

The claim that the earth's landmass was smoother before the flood is not based on the flood narrative itself, but on some translations of Psalm 104:6-8 (I'll discuss this psalm in more detail in part 2) which, in describing a separation of land from water, refer to the upheaval of the mountains rather than the recession of the waters. For example, the NASB translates vs. 8 as "The mountains rose; the valleys sank down To the place which You established for them"; and the ESV as "The mountains rose, the valleys sank down to the place that you appointed for them." In contrast, the KJV translates this verse as "They [the waters] go up by the mountains; they go down by the valleys unto the place which thou hast founded for them"; and the NIV as "they flowed over the mountains, they went down into the valleys, to the place you assigned for them." It is not clear whether the verbs refer to the waters or to the mountains and valleys.

There are several responses to this:

1) Psalm 104 is a poetic reiteration of Genesis 1. Thus, verses 6-8 are not describing the events of the flood, but the events of creation week when God first formed dry land. So even if we should take these verses as referring to the mountains rising and valleys sinking, it's doing so in the context of creation week, not the flood.

2) Genesis 8:1-3 specifically states that during the flood it was the waters that receded, not the land that was raised.

3) To claim that over eleven miles of tectonic uplift (the difference between the deepest ocean chasm and the tallest mountain) could have taken place in a year's time (the duration of the flood) poses insurmountable problems. A magnitude six earthquake only creates two inches of uplift. Multiply this by 180 million. In such a situation, the passengers on board the ark could not have survived. Moreover, there would have been aftershocks which would have been powerful enough to completely wipe out the survivors.

At this point, some will no doubt object that to say these things couldn't happen is simply to disbelieve in a God who performs miracles. Surely God could have uplifted the mountains supernaturally rather than through tectonic uplift so that the lives of those on board the ark were not threatened. Or surely he could have supernaturally preserved their lives, and supernaturally prevented the aftershocks from destroying the postdiluvian population.

But the problem with these suggestions is not that they are miraculous; the problem with them is that they are ad hoc. That is, they are made in the absence of any biblical evidence in their favor, in order to salvage the young-earth creationist / flood geology model. The more a theory goes beyond the given facts, the more ad hoc, or contrived, it is.

In fact, Henry Morris , the founder of young-earth creationism, makes this point fairly well. In The Genesis Record he writes:

It would be helpful to keep in mind Occam's Razor (the simplest hypothesis which explains all the data is the most likely to be correct), the Principle of Least Action (nature normally operates in such a way as to expend the minimum effort to accomplish a given result), and the theological principle of the Economy of Miracles (God has, in His omnipotence and omniscience, created a universe of high efficiency of operation and will not interfere in this operation supernaturally unless the natural principles are incapable of accomplishing His purpose in a specific situation), in attempting to explain the cause and results of the great Flood.

Unfortunately, Morris violates these principles themselves, not least in The Genesis Flood, the book that launched the young-earth creationist movement in 1960 by introducing the Seventh-Day Adventist interpretation of Genesis (based on Ellen White's visions) to a broader Protestant audience. In it, Morris and his co-author John Whitcomb attempt to respond to the argument that the eight people on board the ark could not have fed, cared for, and cleaned up after more than a few thousand animals at most, by suggesting that many of the animals may have gone into hibernation. However, most of the animals taken on board wouldn’t normally hibernate, those that do would only do so for a season and not for the year that they were on the ark, and hibernating for such a significantly longer time would create severe health problems for the animals. Morris and Whitcomb then state that God could certainly have performed such an act, and that anyone who questions this doesn’t really have faith in a God of miracles. But of course, the objection to this is not that it is miraculous but that there is no biblical evidence that any of it happened. That is what makes it so implausible, that is what makes us groan and put our heads in our hands when we hear such contrived attempts to salvage a bad explanation, not the fact that it espouses a miraculous explanation.

Update (10 July): A commenter at Quodlibeta argues that the flood geology model is not used by contemporary young-earth theorists. If so, I apologize. This post is actually based on some things I wrote about twenty years ago, so it's more than likely out of date. On one hand I could say that I know plenty of young-earth folk and they all accept the flood geology model, so it's still a relevant issue -- but on the other hand I absolutely loathe it when atheists critique the concept of God they insist is held by the average Christian rather than the official doctrines as worked out by theologians, philosophers, and logicians over the centuries. If you want to rebut a position, you address it in its strongest form.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Friday, May 13, 2016

Almost gone

The world's oldest person just passed away. Which, I guess, means that she's not the world's oldest person anymore. What gets me though is that she was born in the 1800s, specifically on July 6, 1899. In fact, her death means that there is only one person now alive in the entire world who was born in the 1800s (at least if this list is accurate), and she just barely made it in, being born on November 29, 1899. Yes, I know that the year 1900 was the last year of the 19th century, so when this current oldest person passes away there will still be people who were alive during the 19th century (assuming they don't die sooner). But there's something about the odometer rolling over that makes it more significant for me. I've written about this before here and here, but when the last person of a certain era dies (the last World War I veteran, the last survivor of the Titanic, etc.), a direct connection to the past has been permanently broken. It seems so heartbreaking, but it's just a natural part of life.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

OK, this is kinda freaking me out

Iran just tested a missile with a reported range of 1,250 miles. That would put most of the Middle East within range, including all of Israel -- the latter being significant since Iran tested a missile a couple months ago with "Israel must be wiped off the face of the earth" written on it in Hebrew. In fact, when you put a radius of 1,250 miles on a map centered on the two most northwesterly and southeasterly points in Iran (or close to it: I used the towns Maku and Saravan as my two foci), it's pretty disturbing:


Theoretically, these missiles could reach anywhere within the green. In the southeast that includes over half of India including New Delhi, Mumbai, and Hyderabad. In the west and northwest it includes all of Bulgaria, all of Turkey, most of Romania and the Ukraine, about half of Greece (including Athens), half of Egypt, a large swath of southwestern Russia . . . I mean, holy crap. We could even expand the green by putting foci in the northeasterly and southwesterly most points of Iran as well. I mean, just from the map above, parts of China are within range. I really hope we're not heading for World War 3 but I'm losing confidence daily.

Update (14 May): Speaking of China, it looks like they're raring for a fight too. See here and here.

* I'm not sure why the circles are elongated towards the top. I would guess it's taking the bulge of the equator into account, but they didn't look like that on the website. Type in the two towns and see for yourself.

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Rage against Identity

I've mentioned before that one of the books Dallas Willard was writing at the time of his death was The Rage Against Identity: Philosophical Roots of Deconstructionism. It's still listed on his website as one of three ongoing projects today, three years after his death. He uses this phrase in his book Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ in the following passage:

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.

According to Willard, this shows that, among other things, the confusion surrounding what human beings are is characterized by deep, knee-jerk prejudices that (it is thought) do not need to be defended, nor can they be challenged.

We especially have in mind opinions to the effect that a human being is purely physical, just an animal -- basically, just the human brain. Or the opinion that human beings are, as such, good, or not to be forced to do anything they don't want to do. Or the opinion that human beings do not actually have a nature and that all classifications of them -- male/female, black/white, and so on -- are "social constructions" with no reality apart from the judgments and motivations of social groups or cultures. At present, governmental and social institutions are heavily invested in such opinions favoring the social construction of the human being. 
This current state of affairs may prevent otherwise thoughtful people from seeing the value of what has traditionally been regarded as the best of "common sense" about life and of what has been preserved in the wisdom traditions of most cultures -- especially in two of the greatest world sources of wisdom about the human self, the Judeo-Christian and the Greek, the biblical and the classical.

This wisdom saw expression in the cardinal virtues. Another book by Steve Wilkens and Mark Sanford entitled Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives briefly mentions this in their chapter on individualism.

In classical thought, the four cardinal (or basic) virtues were identified as prudence, courage, moderation and justice. The idea was that a person became free when she lived according to such virtues. In other words, the limitations to our freedom were viewed as internal, moral obstacles that could be overcome by developing and internalizing these virtuous characteristics.

This brings us back to Willard. His point in discussing this "rage against identity" is its relevance to spiritual growth, and spiritual growth -- as he repeatedly points out -- is an internal affair.

Often what human beings do is so horrible that we can be excused, perhaps, for thinking that all that matters is stopping it. But this is an evasion of the real horror: the heart from which the terrible actions come. In both cases, it is who we are in our thoughts, feelings, dispositions, and choices -- in the inner life -- that counts. Profound transformation there is the only thing that can definitively conquer outward evil.

The cardinal virtues are there to liberate us from the inner restrictions to our freedom. By mastering them, we become free. But contemporary culture focuses on external restrictions to our freedom, which, being external, cannot be treated by internal transformation. They can only be treated by changing the external conditions. But since a great deal of the external conditions involve other people, this means that changing other people takes priority over changing ourselves. That is, changing what we do not have direct control over takes priority over changing what we do have direct control over. This is bound to fail.

One conclusion to derive from all this is that the "rage against identity" -- the refusal to accept that there is a specifically human nature and that our inner lives can be more or less in consonance with it, with the implication that we should try to make our inner selves more consonant with this nature -- can easily become the attempt to bypass having to change the self in favor of trying to change (that is, manipulate or force) others to do what we want them to do instead of what they want to do. Note that I do not say that the rage against identity just is such an attempt to control others, although perhaps that case can be made.

And before you ask, I am no better than anyone else in this regard. I often see my problems as primarily about external conditions. I often want to solve problems by trying to control the things I do not have control over instead of trying to control what I do have control over. This inevitably leads to deep frustration and hopelessness. I'll even give you a poignant example: part of my motivation for writing this post is the social/political situation in the United States where ethnicity and gender are treated as if they were completely fungible concepts. We are told that if a white person decides she's black, or a man decides he's a woman, well then that's what they are, and any reticence on our part to acknowledge this is immoral prejudice. But this attitude only makes sense if there is no internal reality that dictates their identity. If there is such an internal reality, then they have to acknowledge it in order to achieve genuine freedom by pursuing the cardinal virtues. But insofar as making this point is part of my motivation, I'm more concerned about addressing this external (social/political) issue than the internal issues that are the real causes of my frustrations. I'm focusing outward rather than inward. Yes, focusing inward does not preclude addressing external issues, but in this case I'm trying to tell other people that they should accept the inner reality of human nature. I'm trying to control them, to get them to do what I want them to do, although in this case it's through genuine argumentation rather than through manipulation or force. Regardless, my focus has not been on changing myself but on changing others. So, if you'll excuse me, I have some work to do.