Thursday, December 09, 2010

Island of the Hobbits

Those of you who pay attention to all matters evolutionary will be familiar with Homo Floreseinsis, the so called ‘Hobbit’.

This is now widely believed to have been a separate species of human which lived at the time of Homo Sapiens on the island of Flores in Indonesia. Despite having a much smaller brain than Homo Sapiens the species was capable of advanced behaviours including the development of stone tools (similar to those of the advanced Upper Palaeolithic tradition) and the use of fire for cooking. This has been attributed to Homo Flores’s dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain relating to self awareness) which is roughly the same size of modern humans.

Making things even more bizarre, Homo Flores appears to have hunted a small dwarf elephant called Stegodon whose bones have been discovered with cut marks. Now the latest research shows that the island was also populated by six foot tall Storks. These are speculated to have fed on fishes, lizards and birds, but also may have hunted juvenile hobbits – though they may just have been there to deliver babies. At the top of this post is an artist’s impression of what this motley crew might have looked like together.

"From the size of its bones, we initially were expecting a giant raptor, which are commonly found on islands, not a stork," said Hanneke Meijer, a vertebrate paleontologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. “We're not certain as yet precisely why they all went extinct,"

My best guess – going on past performance – is that the culprit is a yet to be discovered species, Hamster Giganticus, which polished off the islands inhabitants in a violent feeding frenzy and died of starvation shortly afterwards. The evidence will arrive any day now, you’ll see.

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Wednesday, December 08, 2010

C. S. Lewis's Fiction for Adults

[This is a repost from a few years ago when the second Chronicles of Narnia movie came out. Since the third movie, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, opens up this week, I thought it would be appropriate to post it again. A few points are dated -- I mention Madeleine L’Engle’s death "last year" -- and I would add several more science-fiction authors who write on Christian themes to my list that I have since discovered (most notably Michael Flynn), but that’s about it.]

Since The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe film came out a few years ago, a lot of attention has been focused on C. S. Lewis and his children’s fiction, namely, the seven Chronicles of Narnia. With the second Narnia movie, Prince Caspian, opening up in the States this week (it won’t get to Belgium until July), I thought it would be a good idea to draw attention to his fictional works written for adults, which I appreciate much more. So below is a short summary of his adult fiction. Not included is his short story collection The Dark Tower and Other Stories, partially because there is a pretty silly looking controversy over whether it was really written by C. S. Lewis, but mostly because I’ve never read it.

The Pilgrim’s Regress
This was the first book about Christianity that C. S. Lewis wrote, not long after his he became a Christian. It takes its title and premise from Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegorical story about the Christian life. The Pilgrim’s Regress deals largely with C. S. Lewis’s experiences as a non-Christian, traveling through various worldviews. It represents his journey from Christianity to atheism, from atheism to idealism, from idealism to pantheism, from pantheism to theism, and from theism back to Christianity (hence, a regress). It’s much harder to decipher than Bunyan’s, but every edition I’ve ever seen alleviates this by having a short blurb at the top of each page translating the imagery. The story is extremely rich, so I’ll just describe a few of the many characters and situations in it.

Lewis was raised a Christian, but abandoned it as a very young man. Similarly, the main character of The Pilgrim’s Regress, named John, is brought up in the land of Puritania, where he is brought to a Steward (a priest) and told about the Landlord (God). Here, Lewis brilliantly represents a child’s impression of Christianity, by having everyone put on a mask whenever they talk about the Landlord, and has John given a list of rules to obey -- "but half the rules seemed to forbid things he had never heard of, and the other half forbade things he was doing every day and could not imagine not doing". The Steward tells him that if he breaks any of the rules, the Landlord will put him in a black hole (hell). When John asks if there is any way to avoid the black hole if he’d already broken a rule, the Steward "sat down and talked for a long time, but John could not understand a single syllable. However, it all ended with pointing out that the Landlord was quite extraordinarily kind and good to his tenants, and would certainly torture most of them to death the moment he had the slightest pretext." I love this.

John has a vision of an island in the West, and so leaves home to pursue it. The island represents longing or sehnsucht, what Lewis later refers to as "joy" in his autobiography. The first person he encounters on his journey is Mr. Enlightenment, who greatly comforts John by telling him that there is no such person as the Landlord. When John asks him how he knows this for sure, Mr. Enlightenment exclaims, "Christopher Columbus, Galileo, the earth is round, invention of printing, gunpowder!!" I'm a big fan of science, so I really appreciate the way Lewis represents the alleged conflict between science and religion as pure bluster. In his nonfiction book, The Discarded Image, he goes into detail about some of the particular points of "conflict". Nevertheless, John believes (although does not follow) Mr. Enlightenment.

At one point, John is captured by the Spirit of the Age (Freudianism), and is thrown into a prison in the side of a hill. A nearby mountain turns out to be a giant who looks into the prison. The giant’s eyes have a property that whatever they look upon becomes transparent -- so when John looks at his fellow prisoners, he sees their brains and lungs and intestines, and basically, as just bundles of complexes. This is how Freudianism explains everything. When he looks down at himself, he sees his own organs. When John tries to argue, the jailer asks the other prisoners what argument is. One responds, it "is the attempted rationalization of the arguer’s desires". The jailer asks him how to respond to any argument proving the existence of the Landlord. The prisoner responds, "You say that because you are a Steward". Finally, the jailer asks him how to respond to any argument that two plus two equals four. The prisoner responds, "You say that because you are a mathematician".

John is rescued from the prison by a woman in armor, named Reason. She asks the giant three riddles, and when the giant can’t answer, she kills it. John leaves with her, but the other prisoners huddle together in a corner of the prison cell, wailing, "It is one more wish-fulfillment dream: it is one more wish-fulfillment dream". John quickly leaves Reason, though, when she points out to him that for many people disbelief in the Landlord is a wish-fulfillment dream.

John acquires a traveling companion named Vertue, but their journey is quickly halted by an unbridgeable canyon. The journey then becomes an attempt to try to find some way of crossing the canyon. They travel north, where they meet nihilism, and south, where they meet philosophy. Mother Kirk (Christianity) tells them that she can carry them across, but John doesn’t want anything to do with her.

Again, this is just a small selection of the imagery of this book. Towards the end of it, John travels through the land of Luxuria which represents sexual promiscuity. A beautiful witch offers him wine from a cup, and when he refuses, tries to convince him to drink. I do not know whether this will be true of women as well, but every man who has ever struggled with sexual temptation (as opposed to those who simply give in to it) will recognize their struggle in this passage.

The Space Trilogy
I love science-fiction, but many stories in this genre that mention Christianity at all are explicitly hostile to it; at any rate, there is considerably less written from a Christian perspective than from non-Christian (and even anti-Christian) perspectives. I suspect this is nothing intrinsic to the genre itself, but is merely a reflection of the perception mentioned above that science and Christianity conflict with each other, and so we allegedly have to choose one or the other. It never ceases to amaze me that some people can have such amazing imaginations as SF authors demonstrate, but when it comes to Christianity they substitute bogus slogans, clichés, and knee-jerk reactions for rationality.

Nevertheless, there are some Christian SF authors. Madeleine L’Engle (who died last year) wrote A Wrinkle in Time, the first of her Time Quintet series, although they’re really juvenile SF. Another is Jerry Pournelle, a C. S. Lewis fan, who wrote (with Larry Niven) an update of Inferno, Dante’s classic work of a journey through hell, with the added twist of the main character being a SF author -- in fact, he "lifted a good part of the philosophical stuffing" in this book from Lewis. Pournelle’s SF isn’t religious in nature, although you can sometimes see traces. He even mentions Lewis a couple of times in Footfall. Orson Scott Card is something of a theologically-liberal Mormon (I think), and he treats religion very respectfully in his books. In Xenocide, the third book of the original Ender series, Card has a Catholic missionary who essentially converts an entire alien race to Christianity. One of the main characters in the second Ender series is a Catholic nun who holds her own against skeptics. Christian authors I haven’t read (yet) include Gene Wolfe, Connie Willis, Elizabeth Moon, John C. Wright, Susan Palwick, and several others. If you want to read more about Christianity in SF, I strongly recommend skipping over to Claw of the Conciliator, and reading his important posts listed on his sidebar, starting with this one. I also began to read two books called The Sparrow and Children of God, by Mary Doria Russell (who converted from Catholicism to Judaism) which together make up a SF story about some Jesuits who encounter an alien race. I’ve decided not to go through them yet, because they deal with God leading people into abject failure and horror, and how such a person can ever trust God afterwards. My wife and I took a step of faith a few years ago, and until it’s resolved, I don’t think it would be good for my psychological health to read a fictional account of God leading people into abject failure and horror.

This is a rather long introduction into Lewis’s three SF books, which I think are his weakest writings (not so weak that they’re not worth reading though). They strike me as being "old-fashioned" SF, more in the vein of H. G. Wells than of Card or Pournelle. The main character is named Ransom, and I read somewhere that he’s modeled after one of C. S. Lewis’s best friends, J. R. R. Tolkien (I’ve also read somewhere that Treebeard in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is modeled after Lewis). All three books address an issue that Lewis explores more fully in his non-fiction book The Abolition of Man: namely, that the reduction of humanity to mere matter, and the desire to conquer nature both lead to the destruction of humanity itself.

The first book is Out of the Silent Planet. Ransom is kidnapped by some men who have built a spaceship, and is taken to Mars, or Malacandra. They kidnap him because they think some of the natives want a human sacrifice. Once on Malacandra, Ransom escapes and lives for several months among some different natives. He discovers that the intelligent races on Malacandra are not fallen and sinful like human beings. Earth is the silent planet because the endil (roughly, angel) in charge of it has rebelled against God, and so none of the other endil know anything about the earth. Ransom is eventually discovered by the first set of natives, who didn’t want him for a sacrifice after all. One of the kidnappers, named Weston, is later hauled before a kind of "court" where he extols the glory of humanity and how it will conquer the universe. The setting makes this speech sound very silly.

The second is Perelandra. A friendly endil transports Ransom to Venus, which is covered in water with many floating islands of vegetation. Ransom encounters a "woman" who is, essentially, the Eve of that planet. She and the Adam have been separated and are trying to find each other. However, they aren’t too stressed about it, since they are unfallen and trust God to take care of them. But then Weston takes his spaceship to Perelandra, where he reveals himself to be possessed. Weston -- now a rebellious spiritual entity -- tries to convince Eve why it would be best for her to break the laws that God has set for her, while Ransom tries to convince her otherwise. The tension here is overwhelming; when I read through this part of the book, I want to just step into the story and physically stop Weston from trying to tempt the woman. I’m also struck by the amazing contrast between the intelligence behind Weston’s attempts to convince the woman to rebel against God, and the sheer vacuity of his tauntings of Ransom when the woman’s not around. He just says, "Ransom, Ransom, Ransom, Ransom..." etc. until Ransom says, "What?" to which Weston replies "Nothing", then after a pause starts up again: "Ransom, Ransom, Ransom..."

The third book is That Hideous Strength. This is generally considered the best of the three, but I like it the least. Ransom is not the main character in it, but still plays a significant role. The two main characters are a young married couple who aren’t as enamored of each other as they used to be. The man is a low-level professor who is offered a job at an institute, but he’s not sure exactly what they expect of him. This part of the book is long and -- to me -- tedious, and deals with the man’s desire to be a part of the right crowd. Unfortunately, the crowd in this instance intends to overthrow society and replace it with machines. To this end, they have made a horrific attempt at immortality, and intend to dig up Merlin the magician of English folklore to help them. Meanwhile, the man’s wife has begun having visions, and is eventually taken in by Ransom and his people (including, interestingly, an atheist), who are planning to do battle with the institute. Merlin shows up and things get funky. Towards the end, one of the antagonists illustrates the main theme behind the whole Trilogy:

Frost had left the dining room a few minutes after Wither. He did not know where he was going or what he was about to do. For many years he had theoretically believed that all which appears in the mind as motive or intention is merely a by-product of what the body is doing. But for the last year or so -- since he had been initiated -- he had begun to taste as fact what he had long held as theory. Increasingly, his actions had been without motive. He did this and that, he said thus and thus, and did not know why. His mind was a mere spectator. He could not understand why that spectator should exist at all. He resented its existence, even while assuring himself that resentment also was merely a chemical phenomenon. The nearest thing to a human passion which still existed in him was a sort of cold fury against all who believed in the mind. There was no tolerating such an illusion. There were not, and must not be, such things as men.

(I transcribed a larger part of this quote in this post, near the bottom).

The Screwtape Letters
This book is difficult to classify: it’s fiction, but not really a story. It purports to be a series of letters written by a senior demon in hell, named Screwtape, to his nephew demon, Wormwood, who is in charge of corrupting an individual human being. The letters consist of advice on how to best go about this.

Since it’s not really a story, it can’t really be summarized. Suffice it to say that it’s incredibly clever, hilarious, and painful. I, at least, recognize myself on every page. There’s an audio version of John Cleese reading excerpts from them which is, as my fellow Python fans can imagine, spectacular. I was going to avoid quoting from them, because I was afraid if I started, I wouldn’t be able to find a stopping point. But here’s one of my favorite passages from the first letter, before Wormwood’s "patient" becomes a Christian:

The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground. He can argue too; whereas in really practical propaganda of the kind I am suggesting He has been shown for centuries to be greatly the inferior of Our Father Below. By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result? Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favour, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences. Your business is to fix his attention on the stream. Teach him to call it "real life" and don’t let him ask what he means by "real".

Here’s a passage from the second letter, which describes Wormwood’s "patient" going to a church. After this, I’ll close my book and put it back on the shelf:

When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like "the body of Christ" and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father Below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous. ... Never let it come to the surface; never let him ask what he expected them to look like. Keep everything hazy in his mind now, and you will have all eternity wherein to amuse yourself by producing in him the peculiar kind of clarity which Hell affords.

Lewis later appended the Letters with an essay entitled "Screwtape Proposes a Toast", in which Screwtape addresses a group of young tempters upon their graduation from training college. Most recent editions of the Letters will include it at the end, and it can also be found in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays and Screwtape Proposes a Toast and Other Pieces.

The Great Divorce.
The title is a response to Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The theme is that some people in hell take a bus trip to heaven. The twist is that they don’t like it. It’s too real. When they disembark, they find that they are translucent -- "ghosts" -- and they don’t even have enough substantiality to bend the grass that they walk on, since it’s more solid than they are. Lewis uses this theme to explore deep theological questions about heaven and hell. How could God allow people to go to hell? How can anyone be happy in heaven if there is a hell?

The story is told in the first person. Each of the travelers is met by someone they know who tries to convince them to go deeper into heaven. C. S. Lewis is met by George MacDonald, the 19th century author whose writings played a large role in Lewis’s life. One man is met by a former employee who committed murder. This shocks him, and he refuses to take part in any heaven that would accept a murderer, while keeping a "decent chap" like himself outside. Another man is met by a former student. The man was apparently a theologian who denied the central tenets of Christianity, and insists that "God" would never "punish" him for his "honest opinions". He refuses to go further into heaven, because he has a paper to read next week at a theological society that they’ve organized in hell.

A woman refuses to go into heaven because her husband is in there, and she doesn’t want anything to do with him. But as she talks about it, she says she’d be willing to come if she was allowed to have full control over him. Another woman only wants to see her son who died in his youth. She’s told she will be able to see him (not allowed to, but able to) as soon as she learns to want God more than her son. She responds by saying she will have no part in a God who keeps a mother and son apart. Her son is hers, not God’s. "I hate your religion and I hate and despise your God. I believe in a God of Love". She says this when she’s within walking distance of Love himself.

One man has a lizard on his shoulder who whispers things to him (representing lust). He is met by someone who offers to kill the lizard.

"Get back! You’re burning me. How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did."
"It is not so."
"Why, you’re hurting me now."
"I never said it wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you."

The meeting that just devastates me though, is two ghosts who are met by one of the most glorious beings in heaven. The glorious being was a nobody on earth, just a poor woman. The two ghosts are the remains of a single person who used to be her husband. They are a thin man, and a hunched dwarf on a chain. Upon closer examination, however, we discover that the dwarf ghost is actually holding the chain, and the thin one is shackled. The thin ghost is a seedy actor, a tragedian, who answers whenever the woman speaks to the dwarf. Basically, the man is a phony; he responds to every situation by acting, by striking a pose. He has been doing it so long that he has separated into two entities, which are dependent on each other. The reason this devastates me is that it hits a little too close to home.

The dwarf ghost spent his entire life making himself suffer in order to manipulate people into doing what he wanted out of pity. The glorious being who was his wife tells him that he can let go of the chain. He doesn’t have to continue manipulating people anymore, for the simple reason that it’s impossible to do so in heaven. No matter what he does, he won’t make anyone feel bad. He can be free of his self-imposed misery, because his reason for so imposing himself no longer exists: he can’t affect (or perhaps infect) others with his misery. But the ghost has been doing this for so long, he doesn’t know what it would mean to let go of the chain. "I do not know that I ever saw anything more terrible than the struggle of that Dwarf Ghost against joy".

Again, I think this book is brilliant. I highly recommend it.

Till We Have Faces
This is C. S. Lewis’s masterpiece. He thought it was the best thing he ever wrote. It’s basically the myth of Cupid and Psyche, told from the perspective of one of Psyche’s sisters. If you don’t know that story, there are spoilers ahead, so consider yourself warned. As The Pilgrim’s Regress, this book is extremely rich, so there will be, by necessity, much of significance that I’ll have to leave out in this summary. Orual, or Maia, is the sister in question; she is the oldest daughter of the king of Glome. She says she is writing the book as an accusation against the gods.

Orual discovers early in life that she is extremely ugly. Her father, a tyrant, buys a Greek slave (named the Fox, who represents rationality) to teach her and her sister. Eventually, the king remarries, and fathers another daughter, Psyche. Orual loves Psyche and her life becomes meaningful because of it. Psyche grows up and the people of the kingdom think she is a goddess because she is so beautiful. But then the kingdom falls on very hard times, and the people say she must be sacrificed for daring to present herself as a goddess. The priest of the kingdom’s pagan temple confronts the king with this, and he -- once he realizes that the people don’t want to sacrifice him -- agrees. They will take Psyche up to the mountain where the god, or Shadowbrute, lives and chain her to a pole. The god (they believe) will then consume her, but this is simultaneously thought of as a kind of marriage as well. Psyche is not depressed by her state, and considers it an honorable thing to die for a god; and who knows? Maybe she will be married to him. Orual, however, is devastated. There is very little love in her life, either to give or receive, and the large portion of it is to and from Psyche. She tries to stop it, but collapses, and is delirious for several days.

After Orual has recovered, she begins to train at sword fighting with Bardia, the captain of the guard. But just in case you think there might have been some sexual tension here, remember, Orual is ugly. After their first lesson, "one of the other soldiers (I suppose he had had a sight of what we were doing) came into the passage and said something to Bardia. Bardia replied, I couldn’t hear what. Then he spoke louder: ‘Why, yes, it’s a pity about her face. But she’s a brave girl and honest. If a man was blind and she weren’t the King’s daughter, she’d make him a good wife.’ And that is the nearest thing to a love-speech that was ever made me."

Eventually, she and Bardia decide to go up to the mountain to retrieve Psyche’s bones and give them a proper burial. But there is nothing at the pole where the priest had chained her, and it’s forbidden to go beyond it. She decides to go beyond it anyway, and immediately finds herself in a kind of hidden valley with a little stream, and on the other side of the stream is Psyche staring back at her with a surprised look on her face. They embrace and weep. Psyche tells Orual that she is indeed married to the god of the mountain, and that she lives in a beautiful palace with invisible servants who give her everything she wants. But when Orual asks to see the palace, Psyche looks at her in shock: they are already in it. Orual can’t see it. The wine is just water, the bountiful food is just berries, the marble pillars are just trees. When Orual asks about her husband, Psyche explains that he only comes to her at night, in the dark, and so she has never seen him; in fact, she’s forbidden from seeing him. Orual takes all of this to mean that Psyche has lost her mind.

When she talks to the Fox about all of this, he also believes that Psyche has lost her mind, and thinks that her "husband" is a mountain man, a vagabond, an outlaw, who "rescued" her and is now taking advantage of her insanity. This so infuriates Orual that she decides, without the Fox’s counsel, to go back to the mountain and prove to Psyche that her husband is not who she thinks he is.

Her plan is to use Psyche’s love for her, by telling her that she’ll kill herself unless she agrees to look at her husband once he’s asleep. She stabs herself through the arm to prove to Psyche that she’s serious about it, and then gives Psyche a lamp and an urn to cover the light. Psyche very reluctantly agrees to do this. Orual goes back across the stream and waits to see what happens. Late at night, she sees the light from the lamp appear and move a little, then stay in one place for a long time. Then suddenly there is a great roar -- "It was no ugly sound; even in its implacable sternness it was golden. My terror was the salute that mortal flesh gives to immortal things." -- and the sound of weeping. A huge storm immediately broke out, and a bolt of lightning flashed right in front of Orual. But it didn’t go away: the lightning bolt stayed in front of her: and "in the center of the light was something like a man". The god of the mountain was real, and he was beautiful, and she had just compelled Psyche to betray him.

Though this light stood motionless, my glimpse of the face was as swift as a true flash of lightning. I could not bear it for longer. Not my eyes only, but my heart and blood and very brain were too weak for that. A monster -- the Shadowbrute that I and all Glome had imagined -- would have subdued me less than the beauty this face wore. And I think anger (what men call anger) would have been more supportable than the passionless and measureless rejection with which it looked upon me. Though my body crouched where I could almost have touched his feet, his eyes seemed to send me from him to an endless distance. He rejected, denied, answered, and (worst of all) he knew, all I had thought, done or been. A Greek verse says that even the gods cannot change the past. But is this true? He made it to be as if, from the beginning, I had known that Psyche’s lover was a god, and as if all my doubtings, fears, guessings, debatings, questionings of Bardia, questionings of the Fox, all the rummage and business of it, had been trumped-up foolery, dust blown in my own eyes by myself. You, who read my book, judge. Was it so? Or, at least, had it been so in the very past, before this god changed the past? And if they can indeed change the past, why do they never do so in mercy?

The thunder had ceased, I think, the moment the still light came. There was great silence when the god spoke to me. And as there was no anger (what men call anger) in his face, so there was none in his voice. It was unmoved and sweet; like a bird singing on the branch above a hanged man.

"Now Psyche goes out in exile. Now she must hunger and thirst and tread hard roads. Those against whom I cannot fight must do their will upon her. You, woman, shall know yourself and your work. You also shall be Psyche."

The voice and the light both ended together as if one knife had cut them short. Then, in the silence, I heard again the noise of the weeping.

I never heard weeping like that before or after, not from a child, nor a man wounded in the palm, nor a tortured man, nor a girl dragged off to slavery from a taken city. If you heard the woman you most hate in the world weep so, you would go to comfort her. You would fight your way through fire and spears to reach her. And I knew who wept, and what had been done to her, and who had done it.

This breaks my heart every time I read it.

This isn’t the end of the story at all, but this is all of it that I’ll relate here. Again, this book is rich. The title refers to a common theme in Lewis’s writings, that the earth and our lives are just shadows of reality (this is the imagery behind the title of the movie Shadowlands, about Lewis). In this book, the idea is that we demand to see God face to face; but how can we till we have faces? I’ve read through it a few times, and I’m not at all confident that I’m understanding the imagery; but despite this, I still recognize that I’ve come into contact with something deeply profound. Orual and Psyche clearly represent two different parts of the human being, but I’m not sure exactly what: perhaps Orual is the physical side and Psyche is the spiritual; perhaps Orual is the mortal side and Psyche the immortal; perhaps Orual is the person we are and Psyche is the person we want to be. The point being that the Orual side betrays the Psyche side, but will eventually be redeemed, glorified, and transformed into the Psyche side. More than that, I don’t know. Read it for yourself.

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Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Minding God

Many cosmological arguments, though not all, argue that the universe began to exist; and since everything that began to exist was caused by something else, the universe was caused by something else. With Big Bang cosmology this point has received empirical confirmation: according to the Big Bang, the universe -- that is, matter, energy, space, and time -- began to exist. Thus, something that exists independently of matter, energy, space, and time brought them into existence.

One objection to such arguments is that, even if the Big Bang has a cause, there's no reason to think this cause is God, much less the God of the Bible. I have to admit, I've never felt the force of this objection. I mean, is there any other issue where if you don't prove everything about it with a single argument, you prove nothing about it? The Big Bang only proves that there is an immaterial, spaceless (hence omnipresent and transcendent), timeless, and unimaginably powerful cause of the universe, and the response is, "Yeah, so?" Really? Of course the Big Bang doesn't prove that the cause of the universe is the ground of morality, of course it doesn't prove that Jesus rose from the dead, etc. But has anyone ever claimed it does? Why can't it function as part of a cumulative case argument?

What this objection is really focusing on, I think, is whether the cause of the universe is a mind -- or at least, as C. S. Lewis puts it, "more like a mind than it is like anything else we know". A cause that was not a mind would be mechanistic, since a mechanistic cause is one which produces its effect automatically. That is, if the cause is present, the necessary and sufficient conditions for the effect to take place are met; and since the necessary and sufficient conditions for the effect to take place are met, the effect takes place.

But since the scientific evidence proves that we are dealing with the beginning of time itself, the cause of the universe must be timeless. So is it possible to have a timeless mechanistic cause that produces a temporal effect (in this case, the universe)? It is difficult to see how this would be possible. A timeless mechanistic cause would produce its effect timelessly, since the necessary and sufficient conditions for its effect's occurrence are timelessly present. But in the case under discussion, the effect (the universe) is not timelessly present, and yet must have a timeless cause, since time is part of the effect. Therefore, the cause of the universe cannot be mechanistic or automatic; it must be non-mechanistic. It must be an entity with the capacity of choosing to create the universe as a finite, temporal effect. And the ability to choose is an inherently mental act. Therefore, the entity responsible for creating the universe must be a mind, a personal agent with free will. As William Lane Craig puts it in The Kalām Cosmological Argument, "For while a mechanically operating set of necessary and sufficient conditions would either produce the effect from eternity or not at all, a personal being may freely choose to create at any time wholly apart from any distinguishing conditions of one moment from another. For it is the very function of will to distinguish like from like."

So it seems that cosmological arguments based on Big Bang cosmology prove, among other things, that the cause of the universe is an incredibly powerful Mind. This obviously matches up with the Judeo-Christian concept of God. One could still object that the Judeo-Christian God has other traits that these cosmological arguments don't prove, but I'm afraid I'm too overawed by what they do prove to think this objection amounts to much.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Friday, November 26, 2010

Debate on Science and Religion

Here's an interesting debate on the nature of science and its relation to religion, with Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig on one side, and Quentin Smith and Richard Gale on the other.

Update (1 Dec.): The four philosophers continue the debate in a more open forum format here.

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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Update on Climategate

It's been about a year since Climategate, where several events negatively impacted the credibility of the claims made by climate scientists regarding the causes of and solutions to global warming. I compiled a linkfest a year ago here. To my mind the two most damning points were: 1) The original data that had been used to make estimates on warming trends had been lost. 2) The computer programs used to extrapolate future trends were "complete and utter train wrecks". The first point severed the link between the actual measurements and the estimates of them that were used, while the second point severed the link between the estimates used and the theory that is supposed to explain them. Moreover, the first point prevented any kind of scientific verification of the estimates, effectively exempting the climate scientists from having their claims peer-reviewed. The second point simply amplifies the fact that scientific software does not undergo peer-review itself. Both points, therefore, seriously challenge the scientific credibility of climate science, or at least the more extreme claims.

Recently, another point has surfaced that I also find disturbing. An IPCC official said,

First of all, developed countries have basically expropriated the atmosphere of the world community. But one must say clearly that we redistribute de facto the world’s wealth by climate policy. Obviously, the owners of coal and oil will not be enthusiastic about this. One has to free oneself from the illusion that international climate policy is environmental policy. This has almost nothing to do with environmental policy anymore, with problems such as deforestation or the ozone hole. (emphasis mine)

I don't have a problem with wealth distribution per se: I think there is a moral obligation to redistribute one's wealth, that is, to use one's finances to help those less well off. However, I also think that the only wealth I have a right to redistribute is my own. I have absolutely no right to attempt to redistribute someone else's wealth.

I'm disturbed by the above quote because it shows a potential motive for advocating the doomsday global warming scenarios other than the actual consequences of a quickly warming planet. In light of the inability of having the extreme claims of global warming subjected to peer review, to have a potential political agenda underlying the global warming industry is more than a little unnerving.

My conclusions from a year ago haven't changed:

1. On global warming: I'm perfectly willing to accept the pronouncements of the consensus of scientists.
2. On anthropogenic global warming: Prior to all of this I was perfectly willing to accept the pronouncements of the consensus of scientists. Now I'm suspicious.
3. On catastrophic anthropogenic global warming: Like Glenn Reynolds says, "I'll believe it's a crisis when the people who keep telling me it's a crisis start acting like it's a crisis."

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Self-promotion of the day

For anyone who's interested, I compiled a list of my favorite blogposts, i.e. posts I've written, here. A lot of them were cross-posted at Quodlibeta, so they'll look familiar.

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Monday, November 15, 2010

An Overlooked Middle Eastern Religion

Druze is an interesting religion, partially because they don't accept converts, and haven't for centuries, and partially because they have remained for so long in an area dominated by the major Abrahamic religions. A month ago, Michael Totten had an outstanding post on the Druze and their situation today in the Middle East. In fact, you should just check out everything on Michael Totten's blog.

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Friday, November 05, 2010

A Spherical Argument

One way that is still used to denigrate and mock Christianity, as well as the ancients and medievals, is the suggestion that, prior to Columbus, everyone thought the Earth was flat. This belief was rooted in religious dogma and was therefore unchallengeable until it was demonstrated empirically to be false; and even then many people continued to affirm it. It is held up as a primary example of the folly of religion in contrast to the wisdom of science.

I fortunately grew up knowing that this story line was bogus. People did not think that the Earth was flat before Columbus. Every educated person from about the third century BC onward knew the Earth was round. Columbus was trying to discover an alternate passage to the East Indies by sailing west. He had to convince people that such a route would be superior to the common one of going south, around Africa, and then east; but he didn't have to convince anyone that the Earth is round. Besides, how exactly did Columbus's voyage prove the sphericity of the Earth? He didn't circumnavigate the globe; he didn't reach some place traveling west that had already been reached by traveling east. Isn't it obvious that this narrative is false?

I thought that these things were fairly well-known. I suspected that anyone who seriously thought otherwise essentially got their knowledge on the subject from Bugs Bunny cartoons.

(Update, 30 March 2012: Here's another proof via Bugs Bunny that the earth is round.)

It just amazes me that people take this urban legend seriously. I think, for example, of the globus cruciger, that ball with a cross on top of it that kings would hold. The ball was supposed to represent the earth, with the cross on top representing Christ's dominion over it, and the sovereign would hold it to show that "he's got the whole world in his hands." The earliest of these dates to the fifth century, before the fall of Rome, and they were used throughout the Middle Ages. In fact, orbs without the cross were common for centuries beforehand. Thus, any claim that the ancients or medievals thought the earth was flat can't even get started. You can see plenty of pictures of them online, and you can watch a short documentary on the globus cruciger here.

Unfortunately, there are still people, including historians (so I can't lay the blame on the side of popular culture), who believe that Columbus was trying to prove the Earth is round. The go-to book to refute such claims is Jeffrey Burton Russell's Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians. There are also some excellent resources online: see here, here, here, here, and here, for example. James has pointed to a recent book promulgating this claim which may indicate a new trend: using the "flat earth myth" to impugn Christianity and make Islam look better by comparison.

Regarding the Bible, there are passages which refer to "the ends of the earth" and "the four corners of the earth." However, they do not amount to an assertion that the earth is flat anymore than our use of terms such as "sunset" and "sunrise" amount to assertions that the sun revolves around the earth. "The ends of the earth" merely refers to the most distant places, and "the four corners of the earth" refers to the most distant places in the four directions in which one can go (north, south, east, and west).

Regarding Christian history, there are a few historical figures who went against the flow, but this does not negate the consensus view. The extent to which a flat earth was accepted in ancient and medieval Christianity is sometimes exaggerated based on criticisms of the theory of "antipodes." But this seems to be a misunderstanding: "antipodes" referred to people who were alleged to live on the other side of the earth. The Christian authors who rejected this (not all did) pointed to the almost universally-held belief that it was impossible to travel from one side to the other, "either because the sea was too wide to sail across or because the equatorial zones were too hot to sail through" (Russell). Therefore, no one from one side of the earth could have gotten to the other side, so that if there were people on the other side of the earth they could not share a common origin with us. Some have unfortunately taken these statements to mean that they were denying there was an "other side" of the world at all. But these authors were making anthropological statements, not geographical ones.

The only individuals who clearly affirmed a flat earth were Lactantius (third and fourth centuries), whose "views eventually led to his works being condemned as heretical after his death" (Russell); Severian (fourth century); and Cosmas Indicopleustes (sixth century) who exerted virtually zero influence on his contemporaries or the Middle Ages: "The first translation of Cosmas into Latin, his very first introduction into western Europe, was not until 1706. He had absolutely no influence on medieval western thought" (Russell). By way of contrast, Copernicus translated some short writings of Theophylactus Simocatta from Greek to Latin in 1509. While this was the first such translation published in Poland, and thus had some importance in that regard, the text he chose was not. The reason he chose Theophylactus is because all the good stuff had already been translated, so he had to settle for the dregs. Cosmas wasn't translated for another two centuries. To suggest he was even taken seriously by the handful of people who read him is just absurd.

Additionally, Diodore of Tarsus (fourth century) and Theodore of Mopsuestia (fourth and fifth centuries) are referenced by other Christians as affirming a flat earth in order to refute them, but the actual writings in question are lost. Isidore of Seville (sixth and seventh centuries) is often given as an example of a flat-earther, because some of his writings seem to affirm corollaries of a flat earth. But since he also gives a figure for the earth's circumference (80,000 stadia) and affirms that the sky is spherical and equidistant from the earth on all sides, it is difficult to attribute a belief in a flat earth to him.

So Lactantius, Severian, Cosmas Indicopleustes, Diodore, and Theodore of Mopsuestia make a grand total of five Christian writers who affirmed, or apparently affirmed, a flat earth, all of whom lived in late Antiquity at the very latest, and none of whom were taken seriously.

So how did such a silly idea become so popular? According to Russell, it goes back to about 1830 when Washington Irving published his story of Columbus, and took some license with the historical account. In Irving's story, Columbus wasn't trying to discover an alternate route to the East Indies by sailing west around the world: he was trying to prove more basically that the Earth is round in the first place. Before this time, everyone thought the Earth was flat because that's what the Bible teaches. Columbus's detractors were the priests and inquisitors who didn't want anyone challenging their authority to proclaim what reality was or wasn't.

Despite the absurdity of these claims, by about 1870, western society had pretty much uncritically accepted the idea that everyone thought the world was flat prior to Columbus's voyages (including, ironically, some Christians who took it upon themselves to defend flat-earthism). There were two primary reasons for this naïve acceptance that the ancients and medievals thought the earth was flat: First, the 19th century was a time of great optimism for the human race. People thought that we were quickly advancing towards a manmade utopia, and for many this implied the superiority of modern man over his predecessors. Thus, it was very conducive to this worldview to portray those who lived prior to the Enlightenment as a bunch of uneducated half-wits who didn’t even know the earth is round. World War I pretty much eradicated the optimism, but much of the disrespect for and contempt of our predecessors remained and remains still.

Second, at this time, some people were very confident that scientific discoveries would eventually explain everything without any recourse to God (naturalism). However, many scientists did not accept naturalism, so a cultural campaign was initiated which sought to identify it with science itself, and to this end represented any denial of naturalism as part and parcel of ignorant religious believers getting in the way of truth and progress. Examples were found, twisted, and sometimes completely invented in order to illustrate the point. The flat earth was a perfect candidate for one of these "examples": in Irving's story, he had made Columbus's opponents the priests and inquisitors who didn’t want anyone challenging their authority to make pronouncements about what constituted reality. Indeed, a lot of naturalism's credibility comes from the degree of absurdity in examples of what religious people believe or have believed about the physical world. When this degree of absurdity turns out to be misinformed -- either totally invented or significantly misrepresented -- naturalism no longer appears as obvious.

So the flat earth myth isn't just an urban legend; it's propaganda, deliberate misinformation that is presented in order to prop up a position without going through the tedium of finding actual evidence for it. It doesn't bode well for your worldview if you have to change reality in order to make it fit.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Monday, October 25, 2010

The Red Tent

A few years ago, I read The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, and was very disappointed in it. It tells the story of Dinah who was the sister of the twelve brothers who formed the twelve tribes of Israel. Her primary mention in the Bible is that she was raped, and two of her brothers killed the entire village of the man who raped her.

I thought it was a wonderful idea to tell the story from Dinah's point of view, the story of a rape victim living in a patriarchal society. I thought the author would narrate some of the same events as the Bible, but have some of them seem less important to the women as they did to the men, and insert new events that were important to the women, but not to the men, and so didn't get mentioned in the Bible.

I was a little disappointed right off the bat for two reasons: first, she didn't just add stories to the biblical narrative, she changed them. Of course she has the prerogative of doing so, it just seemed like she took a great idea and didn't take it to its full potential. Second, this book was saturated with sex. It seems that everything turned on it. Again, that's her prerogative, but at some point, you just say, "All right, I get it, you can write about something else now."

But I almost threw the book away when it came to the story of Dinah's rape. Here, this author (a woman) had the opportunity to give a voice to all the women who have been raped in cultures which had little to no sympathy for their suffering, and how does she portray it? Dinah really wanted it. It's just an affair she has with a man, and her brothers kill the village because she has shamed the family.

So I don't recommend this book. It had enormous potential, and squandered it. If you're looking for an author who writes stories for and about women from a biblical perspective, I recommend Francine Rivers.

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Monday, October 18, 2010

Quote of the Day

Here is a story. Once upon a time, there was a woman who lived on the edge of a village. She lived alone, in her own house surrounded by her garden, in which she grew all manner of herbs and other healing plants. Though she was alone, she was never lonely; she had her garden and her animals for company, she took lovers when she wished, and she was always busy. The woman was a healer and midwife; she had practical knowledge taught her by her mother, and mystical knowledge derived from her closeness to nature, or from a half-submerged pagan religion. She helped women give birth, and she had healing hands; she used her knowledge of herbs and her common sense to help the sick. However, her peaceful existence was disrupted. Even though this woman was harmless, she posed a threat to the fearful. Her medical knowledge threatened the doctor. Her simple, true spiritual values threatened the superstitious nonsense of the Catholic church, as did her affirmation of the sensuous body. Her independence and freedom threatened men. So the Inquisition descended on her, and cruelly tortured her into confessing to lies about the devil. She was burned alive by men who hated women, along with millions of other just like her.

Do you believe this story? Thousands of women do. It is still being retold, in full or in part, by women who are academics, but also by poets, novelists, popular historians, theologians, dramatists. It is compelling, even horrifying. However, in all essentials it is not true, or only partly true, as a history of what happened to the women called witches in the early modern period. Thousands of women were executed as witches, and in some parts of Europe torture was used to extract a confession from them; certainly, their gender often had a great deal to do with it; certainly, their accusers and judges were sometimes misogynists; certainly, by our standards they were innocent, in that to a post-Enlightenment society their "crime" does not exist. However, the women who died were not quite like the woman of the story, and they were not killed for quite the same reason. There is no evidence that the majority of those accused were healers and midwives; in England and also in some parts of the Continent, midwives were more likely to be found helping witch-hunters. Most women used herbal medicines as part of their household skills, some of which were quasi-magical, without arousing any anxiety. There is little evidence that convicted witches were invariably unmarried or sexually "liberated" or lesbian; many (though not most) of those accused were married women with young families. Men were not responsible for all accusations: many, perhaps even most, witches were accused by women, and most cases depend at least partly on the evidence given by women witnesses. Persecution was as severe in Protestant as in Catholic areas. The Inquisition, except in a few areas where the local inquisitor was especially zealous, was more lenient about witchcraft cases than the secular courts; in Spain, for example, where the Inquisition was very strong, there were few deaths. Many inquisitors and secular courts disdained the Malleus Malificarum, still the main source for the view that witch-hunting was women-hunting; still others thought it ridiculously paranoid about male sexuality. In some countries, torture was not used at all, and in England, witches were hanged rather than burned.

All this has been known for some time. Yet in the teeth of the evidence, some women continue to find this story believable, continue to circulate it. Some women are still so attached to the story that they resist efforts to disprove it. The myth has become important, not because of its historical truth, but because of its mythic significance. What is that significance? It is a story with clear oppositions. Everyone can tell who is innocent and who guilty, who is good and who bad, who is oppressed and the oppressor. It offers to identify oppression, to make it noticeable. It legitimates identification of oppression with powerful institutions, and above all with Christianity. This is, above all, a narrative of the Fall, of paradise lost. It is a story about how perfect our lives would be -- how perfect we women would be, patient, kind, self-sufficient -- if it were not for patriarchy and its violence. It is often linked with another lapsarian myth, the myth of an originary matriarchy, through the themes of mother-daughter learning and of matriarchal religions as sources of witchcraft. This witch-story explains the origins and nature of good and evil.

Diane Purkiss
The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations

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Monday, October 11, 2010

When Were the Middle Ages?

When were the Middle Ages?

I always thought I knew the answer to this question. They were the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the modern era. The first half of this period, up to 1066, were the early Middle Ages (previously called the Dark Ages). The second half were just the Middle Ages. So when my book, God's Philosophers, purports to show how the medieval world laid the foundations of modern science, I meant in the time between the Norman Conquest and the discovery of America. In general, the Middle Ages are held to end in about 1500, although dates between 1453 (the fall of Constantinople) and 1517 (when Luther nailed his theses to the door) have been suggested. The year 1492 always seemed to me the best one because, not only did Columbus set sail, but back home, the final Islamic kingdom in Spain was conquered.

But at least two reviewers have complained that the Middle Ages actually ended rather earlier than I had thought. They said that this meant the fourteenth-century achievements that I had labelled as medieval actually belonged to the Renaissance. I have to admit that this objection did occur to me. I noted in my book that there is a habit of calling something good which happens around 1400 (say, in painting) early Renaissance. Meanwhile something bad that happened at the same time (say, the Hundred Years War) would be called medieval. In fact, anything bad that happened at any time has been called 'medieval', so perhaps we should not be so surprised. Since the scientific advances that I documented were 'good', they had to be products of the Renaissance and not the Middle Ages.

In reply, I would note the following. Firstly, among historians, it is universally accepted that the first half of the fifteenth century forms a part of the Middle Ages. By definition, they end when the modern era begins and you cannot push this date back before 1453. Few would try to push it back to before 1492. Secondly, the Renaissance is not a historical period (and no one can agree on when it begins and when it ends). It is really just a category invented by art historians in the nineteenth century. You can describe architecture as Renaissance (as opposed to Gothic or Romanesque). But you can't really describe a time period this way.

Finally, the Renaissance happened in Italy rather earlier than it happened in Northern Europe. So even if you can push the Renaissance back to before 1400 in the context of Florence, you cannot do this when talking about France or the Netherlands (let alone England). Much of the foueteenth-century science I discuss in my book takes place in Oxford and Paris. There is no way that the period before the Black Death in either of these cities could possibly be called the Renaissance, early or otherwise.

But in the end, none of this matters. I did not write the book to rehabilitate a time period (whatever the shorthand of the title might imply), but the people who lived during it. The achievements of Jean Buridan, Nicole Oresme and the Merton Calculators are not lessened because some reviewers chose to claim that they didn't actually live during the Middle Ages.

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Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Doubting Darwin's Doubt

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

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

Down, July 3rd, 1881.
Dear Sir,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Saturday, October 02, 2010

Islam and the invention of the University

From time to time, it is alleged that the invention of the University, one of the crowning achievements of Medieval Christendom, was copied, or at least strongly influenced by Islam. A typical example is Diarmaid MacCulloch in his History of Christianity (Penguin, 2009). In a similar vein, it is claimed that the world's first university was not Bologna but the the Al-Azhar University in Cairo. It's date of foundation is about 970AD. Bologna was founded between 1088 and 1158 when it was recognised by the Holy Roman Emperor.

But in fact, Al-Azhar was founded as a madrasa, a charitable school of religion and law. It was not an independent corporation and could not award degrees until 1961. In contrast, the Western universities are corporations with separate legal personality. They set their own statutes and are not restricted in the subjects they could teach or how they organised themselves. For this reason, science and medicine found a home in the University but never in the madrasa.

The standard authority on the connection between Islam and western universities is George Makdisi, whose book Rise of Colleges: Instituions of Learning in Islam and the West (Edinburgh,1981) is cited by MacCulloch in his own misleading comments on this subject. Makdisi is worth quoting (pages 224-5):

The university as a form of organisation owes nothing to Islam. Indeed, Islam could have nothing to do with the university as a corporation. Based on the concept of juristic personality, the corporation is an abstraction endowed with legal rights and responsibilities. Islamic law recognises the physical person alone as endowed with legal personality.

The university was a new product, completely separate from the Greek academies of Athens and Alexandria, and from the Christian cathedral and monastic schools; and it was utterly foreign to the Islamic experience.

Makdisi goes on to claim that the college, a charitable residence for students, may have had Islamic antecedents. It is colleges that MacCulloch is thinking of when he says in his History of Christianity western schools "copied in a remarkably detailed fashion the institutions of higher education which Muslims had created for their own universal culture of intellectual enquiry." But MacCulloch misleads by missing the most important elements of western higher education which had no Islamic antecedent at all.

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

How to Support Galileo and Get Away with it

As I note last week, Lucio Russo’s The Forgotten Revolution posits that there was a scientific revolution in around 300BC which, for one reason or another, never took root. Classicists have not really been convinced by this thesis, but his book is interesting nonetheless. One minor mistake that Russo makes is to imagine that natural philosophers in the early seventeenth century associated the heliocentric hypothesis more with the ancient Greek Aristarchus of Samos than with Copernicus. To support this claim he notes a book called The System of the World by Aristarchus of Samos, edited by Gilles de Roberval, which appeared in Paris in 1644. Since I was in the Cambridge University Library while reading Russo, I popped down to the Rare Books Room to have a look at this intriguingly entitled volume.

In the aftermath of Galileo’s trial, stating that the heliocentric hypothesis was true was forbidden in Catholic countries, including France. Although the ban ceased to be policed long before it was actually rescinded, for a few years natural philosophers needed to find more creative ways to get around it. Gilles de Roberval produced one of the more entertaining ones.

Gilles de Roberval was a commoner born near Beauvais who rose to a professorship at the College de France and became one of the country’s leading mathematicians. Although highly competent, he appears to have been a bit of timeserver compared to his illustrious contemporary Rene Descartes. Still, in 1644, he obtained a royal licence for his book espousing heliocentricism at the same time that Descartes decided it was wiser to keep mum on the subject.

Gilles realised that, as a salaried professor in the employ of the king, he could not be openly disloyal to the church. So he used the old trick of pretending that he was saying the opposite of what he actually meant. The System of the World by Aristarchus of Samos purports to be a translation of the Arabic version of a lost treatise of Aristarchus describing his heliocentric hypothesis. But in reality it is all from the pen of Gilles himself, as everyone seems to have known. Gilles appended a forward under his own name where he pretended to be highly sceptical about the thesis he was presenting, even though it was all his own work. He also added some annotation to the text by “Aristarchus” where he praises the author (that is, himself). One note reads “To this we should add the satellites of Jupiter of which the author of this work was unaware.” Yeah right.

Still, the ruse worked. Anyone who was anyone could see through the hoax. But to the general public, Gilles was just bringing to light a lost Greek text, which was perfectly acceptable behaviour for a seventeenth-century scholar. That said, it was all rather undignified and that counts as another reason to regret the stupidity of the Church hierarchy for bringing in the ban on asserting the truth of heliocentric theory in the first place.

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Two essays on religion

1. Environmentalism as religion. It's interesting how much it parallels Christianity.

2. A book review of The Closing of the Muslim Mind. It makes the common point that after the Mu'tazalite theology was discarded, Islam embraced the view that God is completely transcendent, meaning he transcends even our moral and rational categories. The latter is disastrous for science and technology.

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Saturday, September 18, 2010

Some Comments on Neurophilosophy

I was just re-reading some sections of Neurophilosohy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain by Patricia Smith Churchland, in which she advocates eliminative materialism. This is the view that our common ways of thinking about or conceptualizing our cognitive processes -- including "beliefs", "reasoning," and even "thinking" and "conceptualizing" -- are radically mistaken and so must be entirely replaced with neurophysiological processes and terms. The old wine, which they call "folk psychology" to put it on a par with folk religion, cannot fit in the new wineskins of neurological science, and so should be discarded. I encountered some interesting statements at the end of chapter 9 of Neurophilosophy, and so reproduce it here in red font with my comments interspersed. It's kind of like a fisking from days of yore, except I don't intend any disrespect for my subject.

The prospect of transforming folk psychology as we know and love it has prompted objections, some of which I have already covered, but others of which I must consider separately here. One popular objection is that eliminative materialism is self-refuting. In order to state his position, the argument goes, the eliminativist must believe what he says, but what he says is "There really are no such states as beliefs." However, if there are no beliefs, then the eliminativist cannot believe what he says. Or if he believes what he says, then there really are beliefs. The eliminativist can expect to be taken seriously only if his claim cannot, and he thereby refutes himself.

This argument has had multiple expression through the years. C. S. Lewis's Argument from Reason; J. R. Lucas's Gödelian Argument against strong AI; Alvin Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism; etc.

What the eliminativist is fumbling to say is that folk psychology is seriously inadequate as a theory.

As we'll see shortly, claiming that folk psychology is a theory is the linchpin to the eliminativist project; you remove that and the whole structure collapses. For now I'll just point out that it's highly contentious to suggest that folk psychology constitutes a theory. Theories explain data. What the eliminativist calls folk psychology is the data itself: beliefs, concepts, chains of reasoning, etc. We directly experience these things, they are simply given. Any theory, therefore, must explain them. A theory which denied their existence, as eliminativism does, would be completely inadequate. Worse than that, it couldn't even get off the ground, since the data it would purport to explain would be much less secure as data than what the eliminativist denies. In fact, the data it seeks to explain could very well be derived from what the eliminativist denies.

Now within the confines of that very theoretical framework we are bound to describe the eliminativist as believing there are no beliefs; however, this is not because folk psychology is bound to be true, but only because we are confined within the framework the eliminativist wishes to criticize and no alternative framework is available. If the eliminativist is correct in his criticisms,

But how could he be correct in his criticisms if they are expressed in a system that is entirely corrupt? If folk psychology falls, then the specific elements of folk psychology that were used in the formulation of eliminative materialism will fall with it. Isn't this obvious?

and if the old framework is revised and replaced, then by using the new vocabulary the eliminativist's criticisms could be restated with greater sophistication and with no danger of pragmatic contradiction. (For example, the new eliminativist might declare, "I gronkify beliefs," where gronkification is a neuropsychological state defined within the mature new theory.)

This is pretty speculative on her part, but leaving that aside, translation from one system to another can only be done if both are coherent. If one of them is not, then translation would be impossible, there being either nothing to translate from or nothing to translate to. Since the eliminativist's claim is that the old system is entirely corrupt, to talk about translating it into another superior system is simply incoherent.

Churchland suggests we can have a placeholder ("gronkify") to stand for what we usually term "belief." This, allegedly, avoids the problem of saying she believes there are no beliefs without having to go through all the rigamarole of showing exactly what is happening when we say "belief." But "placeholder" is a concept within the system she's denying. I can only make sense of what she's saying if I presuppose the basic validity of folk psychology. This is true regardless of what you think the fundamental unit is: the word, the phrase, the sentence, the concept, whatever. I only know that any unit is valid if the underlying system is valid; and the eliminativist uses these units -- thus presupposes their validity -- in order to deny their validity. This is self-defeating.

The eliminativist may argue that while they're denying that there are beliefs, thoughts, chains of reasoning, etc., they're not denying that something is happening; only that the way we conceive or perceive what's happening is completely invalid. This reminds me of Cratylus who eventually became so convinced that language could not communicate information that he renounced it entirely and stopped speaking. However, when people got in his face and screamed at him, he would wiggle his finger, as if to say, "Something's happening." Yet the eliminative materialist is even less rational than this, since they want to communicate their claim to others, after denying the possibility of communication. It's as if Cratylus wrote books to communicate why he rejected the possibility of communicating.

In response, an eliminativist might provide a parallel, such as how what used to be thought was demonic possession is now recognized as mental illness. The description "demonic possession" was wholly incorrect, but it did pick out an actual feature of the world. Ignoring everything else about this (if it picks out an actual feature, how can it be wholly incorrect?), the problem is that it treats "belief" as if it were an interpretation of what is actually going on. This assumes, again, that folk psychology is a theory. But belief is part of the data; it is not an interpretation of something else, it's the ground level.

At any rate, the eliminativist's claim is not one of translation but of elimination; hence the name. If someone were an eliminativist about language and argued that all languages are completely invalid and must be rejected in favor of a potential future language that we might produce someday, how could he tell this to anyone? Any attempt to describe it could only be done in the very languages he said were wholly corrupt and invalid. Again: if the languages are completely invalid, then those parts of the languages used to express his claims are invalid. In other words, by making this claim about language, the person makes it impossible to tell someone who uses those languages about his theories.

Even so, I think we can just barely comprehend the claim that our language is untrustworthy and a future language will replace it because a) we know there are other languages, and so have a context in which we can put this claim; and b) while any expression of this language-eliminativism would be self-defeating, since it would be in language, it's not immediately evident that we can't think about it. Language and thought have a close and complex relationship, but there are plenty of philosophers who argue that language does not completely circumscribe our thought; we can think beyond the box of whatever language we speak (supposedly). But with the eliminative materialist this option is not available: he can't even think about, contemplate, or get any idea of what eliminative materialism means because he can only do so within the old framework that he pretends to reject.

It would be foolish to suppose folk psychology must be true because at this stage of science to criticize it implies using it. All this shows is that folk psychology is the only theory available now.

If the only available language were completely corrupt, and if people could only think in language, then they could never formulate a new and better language, because they would have no way of doing so. Any attempt could only get underway by presupposing the validity of the language in which they think and speak.

By way of analogy, consider a biologist in the early nineteenth century who wishes to criticize vitalist theory as misconceived. He suggests that there is no such thing as vital spirit and that other accounts must be found to distinguish living things from nonliving things. Consider the following fanciful defense of vitalism:

The anti-vitalist says that there is no such thing as vital spirit. This claim is self-refuting; the speaker can be expected to be taken seriously only if his claim cannot. For if the claim is true, then the speaker does not have vital spirit and must be dead. His claim is meaningful only if it is false. (Patricia S. Churchland 1981d)

The vitalist makes exactly the same mistake here as is made in the foray against the eliminativist.

The reference is to Churchland's short article "Is Determinism Self-Refuting?" in Mind 90 (new series, 1981), a response to Karl Popper's version of the argument that determinism is self-defeating (Popper responded in a short article of his own with the same title in Mind 92, 1983). Churchland's counter-argument that such arguments beg the question has been repeated many times in the literature. Basically, the claim is that the vitalist implicitly presupposes that vitalism is a necessary condition of asserting anything, and then applies this presupposition of vitalism to the anti-vitalist position, discovering unsurprisingly that it renders it self-defeating. Thus he begs the question: he presupposes the truth of his position in order to argue against a contrary position. Essentially, the vitalist ignores the very claim that the anti-vitalist is making, and applies a standard that the anti-vitalist would obviously reject. All the anti-vitalist has to do is deny the implicit presupposition that vitalism is a necessary condition of assertion.

There are several things one could say in response to this, but I'll just focus on three: first, the anti-eliminativist argument and the anti-vitalist argument do not seem parallel. The vitalist is not claiming to directly perceive vital spirits, he perceives that he is alive and posits a vital spirit as an explanation of this datum. The anti-vitalist does not deny the datum, only the interpretation. The eliminativist, however, is claiming that beliefs, concepts, ideas, thoughts, chains of reasoning, etc., are all bogus. Since we directly perceive beliefs, ideas, thoughts, et al., he is therefore not challenging an interpretation but denying the given data. The parallel would be (as Lynne Rudder Baker argued in Saving Belief: A Critique of Physicalism) an anti-vitalist who denied that he is alive. So, contrary to Churchland's claim here, these arguments do not commit "exactly the same mistake."

Now I think the eliminativist would respond by pointing to Quine and arguing that the distinction between data and theory has been shown to be artificial. I would respond that while the border country may be difficult to define clearly, to suggest that there simply is no raw data -- ever -- is absurd. We do directly experience some things, and if your worldview cannot account for that, your worldview is deficient. The point of worldviews, after all, is to account for varying facts. If the only way you can make your worldview work is to deny the most basic and universal facts, it doesn't merely fail: it's unworthy of being taken seriously by anyone.

Eliminativists see folk psychology as being on a par with geocentrism, and their radical-new-conception-that-consists-almost-entirely-of-placeholders as on a par with heliocentrism. But their position is much more extreme than this. A sidereal-eliminativist would deny that the stars exist; more basically, would deny that there are lights in the sky. If people pointed up to the night sky and said, "But I see lights right there," our sidereal-eliminativist would respond, "No, you don't. Once we complete a full stellar theory, we will see that these lights do not exist. It seems strange, but trust me: I'm a philosopher."

Second, question-begging is only a fallacy within the framework of the folk psychology that the eliminativist is claiming to reject. If the whole framework is bogus, why would this particular element be valid? In order for this objection to take hold, the eliminativist has to grant to his opponent the validity of folk psychology; but this obviates his entire claim, that folk psychology is not valid.

Third, it seems to me that Churchland's counter-argument would apply to any claim that something is self-defeating. For example, suppose I scream at the top of my lungs, "I ALWAYS SPEAK SOFTLY!" Someone tells me that my claim is self-defeating, since I did not say it softly. I then respond, "That begs the question. My whole claim, after all, is that I always speak softly. You're ignoring what I'm actually saying and applying a standard to my statement that I reject, namely, the standard that I don't always speak softly. I simply reject that claim, as my statement should make clear." Isn't it obvious that such a response doesn't work? Isn't it obvious that my claim is self-defeating? The person who tells me my claim is self-defeating is not assuming that my asserted claim is false, he's taking it as an actual statement, applying what it says to itself, and then pointing out that it undercuts its own presentation. That's how any claim that something is self-defeating works.

What this shows is that the anti-eliminativist's argument that eliminativism is self-defeating is logically prior to the eliminativist's counter-argument that the anti-eliminativist is begging the question. In order to say that the eliminativist's claim is self-defeating, he has to take what the eliminativist says, apply it to the eliminativist's claim itself, and then show that, if we assume the eliminativist's claims are true or valid or whatever, then the eliminativist's claims are not true or valid or whatever. The counter-response (that he is assuming the eliminativist's claim is false by applying standards to it that it denies) ignores the fact the eliminativist is presupposing the standards he claims to reject. That's the point: his position could only be valid if he hasn't really rejected the framework he says he has rejected. It's built upon the foundation of what he's dismissed as bogus.

He misidentifies the unique availability of a theory with the truth of the theory. I suspect that any grand-scale criticism of a deeply entrenched, broadly encompassing theory will seem to have a self-refuting flavor so long as no replacement theory is available.

Even if there were an available replacement theory, the grand-scale criticism could never be stated within the theory being criticized, since it would necessarily presuppose the categories of the theory being rejected as fallacious.

The reason is this: the available theory specifies not only what counts as an explanation but also the explananda themselves. That is, the phenomena that need explaining are specified in the vocabulary of the available theory (for example, the turning of the crystal spheres, the possession by demons, the transfer of caloric, the nature of consciousness).

Again, we are told that the explananda are not given but are "in the vocabulary of the available theory." That is, they are interpretations, part of an overarching theory which can therefore be dismissed. But if they're actually raw data, the ground level, that needs to be explained, eliminative materialism falls to the ground, since it doesn't explain them; it explains them away.

To tender sweeping criticisms of the entire old theory while still within its framework will therefore typically sound odd. But odd or not, such criticism nonetheless serves an essential role in steering a theory into readiness for revision.

Look, odd claims can be true. Reality is odd. But my conception of what it means to be "odd" is a part of the folk psychology framework that Churchland says she rejects. Outside of that, I can't make any sense of what she's saying; and that's the crux of the issue. If I'm in the throes of a false universal system, I can never get out of it to a better system, because any reason or ground for getting out of it would form a part of the system that I want to reject. Any chain of argument away from it would only be valid within that system; and once that system is rejected, the argument no longer holds, and I no longer have a reason for leaving the system. Moreover, this applies to everyone, including Patricia Churchland. How could evidence, reason, and argument have persuaded her to abandon folk psychology if evidence, reason, and argument are only valid within the confines of folk psychology? She's borrowing folk psychology's tools and mortar in order to construct an edifice that denies the existence of its own foundation and materiel.

Finally, it may be objected that the sentential paradigm will survive, whatever the theoretical revolutions and however thorough our understanding of the brain, because it is useful and natural and forms the nexus of our moral conceptions concerning responsibility, praise, and blame. By way of reply, it should first be mentioned that the issue now concerns a prediction about what will in fact be the social outcome of a theoretical revolution, and my inclination is to back off from making predictions about such matters.

I read this, and then my wife called from the other room, "What's so funny?" because, yes, I was laughing out loud. Churchland doesn't make predictions about such matters? Seriously? I don't mean any disrespect to her, but her whole position is a radical, gratuitous prediction of what science might discover someday, given a very particular (and implausible) set of preconditions. Eliminative materialism assumes a naïve scientific realism and extends into the future (i.e. predicts) what it might lead to. The fact that it would lead us to reject any kind of scientific realism is a small price to pay for ... what exactly? Truth? Logical consistency? Reason? These are all a part of the system she says she rejects.

Nevertheless, it may be useful to consider that objections cut from the same cloth were made on behalf of the geocentric theory of the universe and the creationist theory of man's origins. These theories were defended on grounds that they were useful and natural and were crucial elements in Christian doctrine. If the geocentric theory was wrong, if the creationist story was wrong, then crucial sections of the Bible could not be literally true and man's conception of himself and his place in the universe would be changed.

There's a partial truth here, but as usual, it's being distorted. The geocentric theory of the universe was a crucial element in Aristotelian and Ptolemaic astronomy -- that is, the science of the day -- and Christians looked for passages in the Bible to accommodate it, such as "The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved" (1 Chronicles 16:30; Psalm 93:1; 96:10; cf. Psalm 104:5). But, I'm sorry, these aren't "crucial sections of the Bible"; no doctrine is dependent on them, no theology is called into question by recognizing that their perspective is the surface of the earth rather than somewhere out in space looking down at the earth. As for the geocentric model in general, the center of the universe was considered the least prestigious, the least honorable, location therein; this is why hell was thought to be at the center of the earth, and Satan at the center of hell. Anyone who has studied ancient and medieval cosmology knows this. I wrote about this recently here, and you can read an excellent essay on it by Dennis Danielson, a literary historian, here.

The doctrine of creation, however, is crucial, and modern scientific discoveries have ruled out certain interpretations of Genesis 1 and 2. However, Churchland has erred if she thinks those interpretations exhaust traditional Christian thought on the issue. Historically, Christians have often understood the creation narratives metaphorically. Origen, one of the most important Church Fathers from the second and third centuries, went so far as to ridicule people who thought they referred to actual events (De Principiis 4:1:16). The point being that Christian doctrine has always left plenty of room for such interpretations, and modern scientific discoveries don't touch them. Regarding evolution in particular, I would just point out that many Church Fathers and medieval theologians (such as Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Bonaventure, etc.) held the doctrine of rationes seminales according to which God created everything in "seed" form which then developed accordingly. Since such views were widely accepted within Christianity a millennium and a half before Darwin, I just don't see much difficulty here.

At any rate, I think Churchland's reference to these issues reveals something more about her presuppositions and motivations, and those of eliminative materialists in general. She's not just assuming a naïve scientific realism, she's presupposing the conflict thesis, the view that science and religion (or at least science and Christianity) are at war, and science is winning. She's extending into the future (predicting) what the end result of this war will be. The biggest problem with this is that the conflict thesis is almost completely rejected by historians of science. It is a wildly inaccurate view of how science and Christianity have interacted in history. So not only is her position self-defeating, not only is it implausible in the extreme, it's actually based on a discarded theory about the historical interaction between science and Christianity.

The new physics and the new biology each did, in some degree, undermine the power of the Christian church and naturalize man's understanding of himself and the universe.

Well, again, I think there's a partial truth here. The rejection of geocentrism did certainly undermine the power of the Catholic church to some extent. I would reiterate, though, that it failed to undermine any serious doctrinal issue. Traditionally, Christians had accommodated Ptolemy's geocentric model into their hamartiology or doctrine of sin: what was sinful was heavy and fell towards the center; what was light was holy and moved up into the heavens. This is also why they thought the earth didn't move and the heavens did: what was heavy/sinful didn't move and what was light/holy did. When the heliocentric system was presented it was seen as upgrading the earth to the status of a heavenly object and as downgrading the sun (in many ways the source of life, so it could have been perceived as an affront) to the center. Now if this link between geocentrism and the Christian doctrine of sin was thought to be an inextricable link, even mistakenly so, rather than borne out of an attempt to accommodate the science of the day, heliocentrism could have been perceived as contradicting something important to man's self-conception. But as far as I can tell this was not the case. I could certainly be wrong, but what I've read about this focused on the idea that heliocentrism challenged the Catholic church's authority by questioning something it had made a pronouncement on; not to mention the fact that the staunch defenses of geocentrism were made by the scientists on scientific grounds rather than theologians on theological grounds.

But perhaps that was not a bad thing. At a minimum it is worth considering whether transformations in our moral conceptions to adhere more closely to the discovered facts of brain function might be no bad thing as well. Whether this is so will be a complex matter about which I feel ignorant, but it is certainly not a closed matter. It is at least conceivable that our moral and legal institutions will be seen by future generations to be as backward, superstitious, and primitive as we now see the Christian church's doctrine of past centuries concerning the moral significance of disease and the moral property of anesthesia, immunization, and contraception (White 1896).

Yes, she's actually referencing Andrew Dickson White's A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, a work so thoroughly rejected by historians of science that anyone should be embarassed to base any argument on it at all. It has repeatedly been shown to be nothing more than a work of propaganda. "The moral property of anesthesia" refers to the claim that using anesthesia to relieve the pains of childbirth nullified the curse of Eve which was God's punishment on humanity because of the Fall, and therefore set man up against God. Except no such objection was raised; Andrew Dickson White just made it up. Similarly, the moral significance of disease and immunization refers to the claim that Pope Leo XII condemned vaccinations because disease was a righteous punishment from God. Of course, Leo never said or wrote any such thing, nor has any other pope, it's a complete fabrication.

The only claim Churchland refers to that has any validity is contraception, since some Christians reject birth control. However, only the Catholic church does this; Protestant and Orthodox churches generally do not. And the Catholic church's stance is not some knee-jerk reaction, it is a well thought-out position, as exemplified by the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. This doesn't mean we have to agree with it (I don't), but we should at least be thoughtful about it.

Once again we see that the eliminative materialist program is motivated by a demonstrably false theory of the historical relationship between science and Christianity. That Churchland would be so uncritical about Andrew Dickson White, that she would have such blind faith in a discarded theory about the history of science, while simultaneously being hyper-critical of the most basic and obvious things about ourselves and the world, shows that she and her fellow eliminativists are not applying the same standards to their own position that they apply to those they dislike. And how could they? The standards they apply to other positions are basically to completely reject them, turn away, and never look back. It doesn't really matter what the truth is, they'll try to make reality conform to their theory rather than the other way around. Except "truth," "reality," "theory," and everything else are just parts of the washed-up theory of folk psychology. They only have to accept them when they want to.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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