Friday, July 28, 2006

Another mind-tickler

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A common tactic of non-theists when denying the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is to lean on intrinsic probability, al la Hume, as all but defining miracles out of the picture. As Bart Ehrman recently argued with William Lane Craig, history deals in the probable; but miracles are by definition improbable (i.e., tremendous and exceptional irregularities), otherwise they just become infrequent natural reoccurrences; hence, history cannot in principle evidentially establish a miracle. The same line of reasoning goes for science: since miracles are intrinsically the least likely outcome, and since science deals only in the most easily verifiable (observable, repeatable) phenomena, so science in principle cannot establish a miracle. And, since miracles in general are so incredibly unlikely (improbable), there's no sufficient reason to believe one, such as the Resurrection, has actually happened. Given the regularity of nature (for understanding history, science, etc.), there's always a preponderant methodological "duty", as it were, to find a natural explanation for an alleged miracle, even the Resurrection.

But, if I may ask by analogy, what about the Big Bang?

I know, I know: there's lots of evidence for the Big Bang.[1] But this is a philosophical point -- and everyone knows we philosopher-types have no interest in facts! -- so indulge me. (Ooh, scaaarry, "e-vi-dence"! Meet my friend Derrida....)

Consider. Experience confirms time and again, without fail, that universes do not spring into being from singularities. No one's ever observed this phenomenon, nor even claimed to observe it. Worse, it can't be repeated empirically; it's completely outside our evidential ken. It's not subject to the scientific method, so, frankly, it's not science. At the envelope of the Big Bang, astronomy becomes cosmology becomes cosmogony becomes history. Absent repeatability and verifiability, the Big Bang cosmologist can only dig as deeply as an archeologist: to the very edge of time, but not back into it. This, of course, means a cosmologist is ultimately (or should I say radically?) bound by the same methodological strictures as the historian. As such, given the regularity of nature and the overwhelming bias in favor of naturalistic empirical probability, then all our testable, verifiable evidence actually refutes the idea that universes "bang" out. The number of empirically verifiable and actually perceived non-Big-Bang-like phenomena is virtually countless (say, 3409857349856324), while the observed and verifiable number of Big Bangs is, well, 0. The odds are so incalculably low that this universe came to be, that there is an incumbent methodological duty to conceive of a different explanation, one that at least lines up with consistent empirical evidence.[2] Or, if I may quote the indefatigable Richard "Alvin" Carrier, Infidel Extraordinaire, on the need of extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims:

Since there is no observable divine hand in nature as a causal process, it is reasonable to conclude that there is no divine hand. After all, that there are no blue monkeys flying out my butt is sufficient reason to believe that there are no such creatures, and so it is with anything else.

There you have it! No direct, repeatable evidence of blue butt monkeys means no blue butt monkeys! No direct, repeatable evidence of resurrections means no resurrections!

But, um, my point is, why can't I chant right along with it all: "No direct, repeatable evidence of Big Bangs means no Big Bangs!"? The Big Bang is an extrapolation from various pieces of evidence; and so is the Resurrection, at least as a topic of debate. (I leave the hunt for blue butt monkeys to my betters.) From a strict epistemological perspective, what compels a man to overcome his empiricism regarding singularity explosions, but does not compel him to overcome a similar empirical skepticism with regard to miracles? Regardless how much evidence there is for the Big Bang, or the Resurrection, there is on principle an intrinsic probability against such things ever happening. Yet, strangely, while both history and cosmogony can prove the truth of a totally unique and improbable occurrence (the Big Bang), no amount of evidence seems to budge the unbudgable atheist.

Now, let me just tighten the laces a little. Even if one were willing to suspend his empirical skepticism of Big Bangs, what does one do with the strictly natural basis for it? If common and verifiable experience weighs against Big Bangs as real phenomena on principle, how much more so does it weigh against uncaused effects! If the Big Bang happened, it happened as a natural phenomenon, and the number one rule of empirical savvy is that there is always a cause.

So, if you please, what natural entity caused the Big Bang? If the universe came to be, what effected that state of affairs?

"Prior" to the Big Bang there "was" a reality that we can call, if not incontestably "supernatural", at least "natural". If the cosmos is the sun total of natural reality, and if it had not yet come into being, then there was an "ontic phase" strictly distinct from nature. So, if this extra-natural "phase" caused the universe, then eo ipso we encounter a supernatural cause for nature! And if there was simply nothing--? Once again, the empiricist, against ALL known reality, must account for an uncaused effect of massive proportions.

[1] And I also know it's the sweetest irony to see, in a single ideological generation, nearly all atheists turn from once-vehement supporters of an eternal cosmos to now-vehement supporters of a naturally banged universe.

[2] And the ol' retort that, well shyoot, our just bein' here eo ipso makes the odds of the universe 1 to 1 is about as compellin' as th' arg'ment that th' existence o' claims fer Christ's Res'rection make that just as lahkely. After all, in both cases no one would claim t' exper'ence either phenomenon -- cosmic r'ality? absurd idear! divine resurrection? absurd idea! -- unless there were a substantial basis in r'ality t' gen'rate that ther conception.

Hell used to be so nice...

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...until they let their kind in!

[Background here. My ragged and too-large-for-a-comment-box thoughts below...]

This "Hell kerfuffle" seems to be as easily (or not, depending where you stand philosophically) resolved as Plantinga did for the once-famous "analytical argument from evil". See God, Freedom, and Evil. Just as there's no deductive proof God could create a world free from all free human sin, neither is there any such deductive basis for claiming God could craft a hell that would eliminate all human perdition. It hinges on so to speak temporalizing modality (whereby, any number of "redos" for people in purgatory are analogous to modal worlds for God to create). Honestly, the God of Daylight Atheism sounds just like the God most atheists loathe: controlling, paternalistic, mushy-gushy, etc.

In any case, I admit I do find the whole "What Dreams May Come" scenario tacky and naïve. For one thing, the whole point of conscience is that man can freely and consciously reject good for evil. Why there wouldn't be one single person (or many) who did the same, no matter how long purgatory lasted, seems perfectly reasonable and realistic to me. There are countless moments of life as we know it in which we do see the light but still snuff it out. This IS hell on a temporal scale; hell IS such snuffing of the light on an eternal scale; and both are free, human realities. Denying supernatural reality in general is the fastest (intellectual) way to deny, in our innermost lives, in our own personal stories, the real, palpable, unmistakable – and yet still refusable -- presence of divine grace in the soul, the very "energy" of God that enables us either to accept Him. If it is true that God speaks to every soul clearly, perhaps even if in a way only that soul can decipher (and I do believe that's true; cf John Paul II's Veritatis Splendor), then it's really academic whether rejecting His grace happens only once, like a once-for-all survey, or eternally in hell, since in either case it's just as radical and authentic and infinite rejection of God. Jesus said, in an exceptionally cryptic warning, "He who has, shall receive more; he who has not, shall lose what he already has." Heaven is the fulfillment of the grace we accept, by grace, now; hell is the opposite eternity. God "throws" no one to hell; he watches them go, "punishing" them with/"condemning" them to their own freedom. It's no mere cliché that GOD DESIRES ALL PEOPLE TO BE SAVED; it's divine revelation.

Life, unfortunately, is not like Nintendo. When you die, you can't just "reset" and play again. Why is this important? We all know the psychology of Nintendo: don't sweat it if you suck this time around, just die and reset. Imagine, though, if all humanity could have the same "reassurance". Would this really, honestly, induce wise stewardship of God's mercy and the grace to become holy (even if it were eternal)? No; if experience is any guide, humans being human, it would induce indolence and apathy. Paradoxically, the only way God could ensure conditioning "Hell: Population 0" would be by either erasing our purgatorial memories (so we don't get indolent), or retaining enough memory so we get sharper each time. But again, even under these conditions, there's just no guaranteeing everybody in the end gets a 100. Those who get memory wipes could, conceivably, fail every single time unto eternity. Those with memory retention could just as conceivably remain stubbornly prodigal with grace and thus fail every time, even just "for kicks" (since, hey, who knows if "hell" is REALLY all that bad, eh? – I'll try anything once!). Even those with memory retention AND the implanted motivating illusion that "This is my last time around – God's had enough!", could STILL drop the ball, for whatever reason, since, according to the whole doctrine of hell, it is possible that we freely reject God, even with the warning of hellfire all about us. It's called the MYSTERY of evil because, as Aristotle and Plato could never grasp, it DOES NOT MAKE SENSE, but people can and do choose the un-good.

Moving on. Second, for me as a Catholic (former Calvinist), there's simply no "washing of the hands" about death and hell. Not only is not just "their problem" – since I must answer to God as well! – but it is also positively my problem as one called to "love God by loving all mankind." Concretely, at every Mass we Catholics (and Orthodox) literally pray for the dead – all the dead souls, but especially dead Christians – so in a very real way, the Christian life is defined by so to speak "defying hell" in the hope of God's mercy. The same God who calls us to fear hell, then, is He who calls us to rescue any and all from it. Hell is a so to speak moral boundary condition – If you do this and do not repent, you will die forever (hell) – but it is not any mortal's place to put this or that specific person beyond that boundary (in hell). Hell is a moral and spiritual reality for all mankind; but for whom specifically, I cannot say other than myself. The Church, you'll recall, beatifies specific persons in heaven; she does not "anti-beatify" persons in hell.

Believe it or not, there are very humane and deeply Christian considerations about hell, human fate, and divine sovereignty. For example, I highly recommend 1) Fr. William Most's Grace Predestination & Salvific Will God; 2) von Balthasar's Dare We Hope; and, though it suffers an admittedly huge anti-Western bias, 3) Kalomiros's "River of Fire".

Here are brief intros,
1) http://www.ewtn.com/library/SCRIPTUR/1THOMIST.TXT and
2a) http://www.theuniversityconcourse.com/II,9,5-6-1997/Healy.htm, 2b) and the third itself,
3) http://www.orthodoxpress.org/parish/river_of_fire.htm.

(BTW, I do not go so far as to claim hell WILL BE empty, since the whole point, ex hypothesi, is that a just God infallibly and perfectly foresees and judges those who freely enter hell according to the sufficient truth they had, but I can't be stingy with the virtue of hope.)

Third, precisely because Christianity is rooted in a personal, and in fact, superpersonal, encounter – between "I and Thou", between "me, you, and God" – then there is something infinitely valuable about each person as such. Meaning, the enormity of hell is based (inversely, bizarrely but authentically) on the gravity of each soul in God's eyes. God is not Big Brother; he will not allow us to be "reprogrammed" over a series of interrogations, in which the final result is that our embrace of Big Brother is in fact our own suicide. Nor is God a scientist that reprograms us by a series of rehabilitative Clockwork Orange sessions ("You vill be guht!"). (As an aside, read that novel's last chapter to see what I mean about indefatigable wil to be evil.) Why does God not resort to such Pavlovian means? Because such "effective" reprogramming in itself obliterates who we in fact are. God could, I suppose, "rescue" every soul by relentlessly condition them to "choose right" eventually. (Incidentally, this is an Origenist heresy, rejected by the Church in the 6th century, known as the apokatastasis panton.) But would those souls ultimately really have chosen God? You would end up in heaven – but you would not end up yourself. But even then, to recall my first point, what if after all that effort, a soul still only said, "Thanks but no thanks, I don't need your 'charity'!"? Sounds familiar doesn't it…?

Certainly enough for one night. I don't know how well I can reply to any comments, busy with work and whatnot, but I am here … observing all, double good, heheh.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Probably against my better judgment...

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After months and months of rearranging it on this or that shelf, or under this or that pile of miscellanea, last night I began reading Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves. Why do I say this is probably against my better judgment? Mainly because right now I must focus on finishing the history of Providence University for their 50th anniversary gala this fall.

But even if I didn't have that on the front burner, I should at least try to develop the habit of finishing one book at a time, no? I mean, look at my sidebar: I'm reading the thousand-page Weigel biography of Pope John Paul II (and have been for a year now); I'm almost a month behind in Butler's Lives of the Saints (three weeks in China will do that to you); as of last weekend, I'm reading In Cold Blood (for the second time) with a friend before he goes to college; at the same time, I'm halfway through Süskind's Das Parfum (having received a new copy today from Amazon – having left my first copy on a bus at Hua Shan in China!); meanwhile, I'm waiting for my friend to finish a shared copy of Peter Hessler's River Town so I can finish the last two-thirds of it; also, perhaps just to scratch some compulsive bookworm itch ("That book's sat on the shelf long enough, damn it!"), for the last week, I have been chomping through William Lane Craig's Reasonable Faith (a pleasant return to straightforward apologetics after years away); and then, almost in the middle of the night last night, in fact, I picked up a bizarre seven-hundred page postmodern horror/love story!

Why? Because it was there. And so far, I must say, it's pretty good. No matter how "self-conscious" and "transparent" the book is qua fictional work, House of Leaves still somehow manages to draw you in. What's even stranger, as I flip between Johnny Truant's rambling annotations and Zampano's academic musings on The Navidson Record, I feel sudden scared chills rush over my skin, up my spine. Maybe it's because you're so consciously prepared not to be "taken in" by such a self-effacing fiction that, as it triggers subconscious associations and impulses, you are startled to find yourself engrossed in the steadily creepier web of the whole plot. I'm only on page 50, but I do intend to read it all; consciously having to put down this mysteriously "unputdownable" work promises that won't be too hard once I find the time.

In any case, reading as many books as I am right now, I had a philosophical thought.

Countless atheists and agnostics claim the pervasive order and beauty of both outer and inner space (i.e., cosmos and bios) don't probatively point to God. Such order, they argue, is perfectly accounted for on purely naturalistic grounds. The "design" we see is really just an athropocentric optical illusion.

Let me make a detour here to say I find such an argument specious, mainly because the orderliness within nature is recognizable only in contrast to the dominant, entropic tendency of nature to "decay" into random disorder. Further, you can't have your cake and eat it too. Arguing, in a sort of Darwinian-Kantian way, that the intelligibility and apparent design of the universe are merely functions of our anthropocentric impositions [categorizations] on the brute, well, naturalness of nature in fact erodes the whole basis for evolution.

A key premise of evolution is that the myriad of species and attributes emerged naturalistically from a prior biological base. But this premise can only be demonstrated by appealing to the apparent order and progression of species down the evolutionary tree. But how can we say these intelligible, orderly steps of evolution are not themselves but the result of our anthropocentric impositions on an otherwise undesigned, meaningless biological jumble? Being a nominalistic philosophy at root, Darwinism, on its own, can only say dolphins are dolphins and dolphins are not rhinoceroses, because we say organism A exhibits the traits we give to so-called "dolphins." From a purely, non-anthropomorphized perspective, dolphins are just clusters of matter are just rhinoceroses are just clusters of matter are just humans are just clusters of matter. And so forth. In short, using sensible human devices (statistics, physics, biology, etc.) to argue against the "sense" of the cosmos makes nonsense out of those very senses.

But forget these considerations for the time being. The thought I had about books goes like this:

Go to a bookstore. Buy a book, any book, preferably fiction. Read it. Enjoy it. Or don't. In any case, after you've read it, answer this question: "How do I know this book was written by a person?"

In other words, how do you know the story you just read was created intentionally by an intelligent being? How do you know a "supertextual" author wrote the book to convey a message, and that you are not simply imposing an anthropocentric meaning on actually meaningless, merely "textual" strings of inky "letters"? What in the book lets you know, and not merely assume, it was written purposefully? If all the order and beauty in nature can and should, be explained on purely natural terms, why not say the same for the novel, namely, that is is explicable in strictly natural terms? If the highly improbable fine-tuning of the universe is explained, with a shrug, as being a surprise only to us who are already here, by sheer random odds, to observe it, then why is it so absurd to claim said novel also came to be by sheer random, non-intelligent odds? In a word, "What more inherent 'proof of design' or 'evidence of a creator' is there in a paperback novel than there is in the universe?"

One simple answer is that you can identify the author; you can see her photo on the back cover; you can hear about her in the news; you can even go meet her at a book signing.

Alas, the problem with such a line of reply is that not only does that not prove deductively that the person signing your book really wrote the book (maybe it's a publishing conspiracy and the real author is an Indian boy scribbling away being stitching together Nike shoes in a sweatshop!), but it also doesn't get us "behind the scenes" into the author's presumed "cognitive theater." On naturalism, all events are naturally, and purely naturally, explicable. Even thought is a natural effect of purely natural (i.e., non-extra-physical) causes. But in that case, how can you really say the author wrote the book? On such a view, it's actually just a series of undesigned, random physical states of affairs that managed to "publish" the book.

The point is that, while I'm not an Intelligent Design man myself, I see a major point I think too many of that movement's critics too often elide. Namely, the issue is not order but information. The deeper and higher we look into nature, the more information we see. We do not merely see beautiful fractal spirals or enchanting flower buds dancing to the tune of Fibonacci's sequence. Rather, we are finding information, capable of conveying "plots" and "subplots" to the myriad of "characters" in the cosmos. DNA, for example, does not merely line up in a mathematically orderly fashion. Rather, it conveys highly specific information for highly specific messages and tasks. Not only that, but with every round of sexual reproduction, it reassembles into new arrays of information without ever assembling as sheer orderly sequences. Indeed, a string of DNA arranged in a Fibonacci sequence (or some other purely orderly sequence, like AAATTT AATTCG AAATTT AATT...etc.) would be useless as reproductive information! Order, then, is not what drives life; information is. Likewise, to recall the questions I posed leading into this discussion, novels are not simply orderly; they are manifestly works of personal information-sharing. Structures of order have their place in creation just like page numbers, the table of contents, glue, and the pulpy texture of paper do in novels: they provide the phenomenological framework upon which information stands (and against which it stands out) and holds together. A book is not just order -- and if it were (e.g., AAAAAAAAAAAB BBBBBBBBBBBBBBC CCCCCCCCCCCC, etc.), it would be that much less a novel! -- it is information. So much more so for the cosmos.

On two counts, then, we have reason to open our eyes to the Creator in the looking glass of creation. First, there is the matter of order. A jumble of pages, bits of glue, and a paperback cover strewn over the floor, no matter how legible the words may be on the paper, clearly suggest no sentient publisher assembled the book. Words may have been written, but their arrangement shows no intelligent order. Second, there is the matter of information. Even if we saw no overarching order into which the pages fit, we could still tell, if we examined individual pages out of order, someone intelligent had written the information. But in our cosmos we see both information and order. A book full of empty or unintelligible pages, even if in the right order and nicely glued together, does not point to much "supertextual" intelligence. A book full of intelligible words and sentences, but totally out of order and in a shambles, also points away from a supertextual author. The cosmos, by contrast, points beyond itself just like a book: by virtue of both its order and information.

Take note that the issue is not that this information has to "speak" to us. Rather, it informs behavior at numerous, non-anthropic biological levels. For the sake of argument, we can grant that "order" or "design" is just an arbitrary assemblage of data that, from our order-seeking perspective, comes into focus. If you look wide enough for long enough, at some point you can find all kinds of "order." Code breakers can, if they try, find an orderly sequence in the encryption string; all they have to do is define there pattern loosely enough, and, voila, a pattern emerges! But until they find a sequence that is informative, the order, no matter how visually obvious, actually keeps them totally in the dark about the meaning of the code. Indeed, a code comprised of purely orderly sequences would end up making no sense as information For example, if "AABB GHGH FIFI, etc." were extracted from an apparently random code simply because they display order, they immediately become new sub-codes -- and are still just as meaningless as the original random code. By contrast, once a code breaker extracts information from the code, even if it seems disorderly (e.g., B BN IVOHSZ [ = I AM HUNGRY]), then he's on the right path. The only truly unbreakable code is one that is not there. Unless the code breaker knows there is a code writer, he will look in vain at alleged sequences of order. Replace code breakers with humans (or readers), and the code writer (or novelist) with God, and you should see the thrust of this analogy.

Keep in mind that the issue is not one of anthropic intelligibility throughout nature (since obviously vast tracts of biological information are gibberish to us, and vice versa). The issue is that information is by definition not a purely natural phenomenon. Nature does not write anything simply because nature does not think anything. Nature, in other words, cannot inform anything, because it is not informed. Information, if it makes any sense, is inherently selective (think of the code breaker finding selected clusters of meaning amidst randomness). In turn, selective information is inherently communicative; picking this or that sequence of letters is the essence of conveying information. Finally, communication is inherently personal; rocks may exhibit molecular order, but they certainly don't pass that along as crib notes to neighboring boulders. So, even if dolphins aren't "literate" (i.e., conscious of reading information), they do at least "respond" (metaphysically dialectically, not to say psychologically dialogically) to information, all the while ignoring countless structures of non-informative order. Humans may be (and probably are) the only species that is self-aware as information readers, but all levels of biological life are sensitive to the "commands" of created information. And, once again, the pervasive informative nature of reality points to conscious, personal selection on a vast, supernatural scale.

But, for some reason, that's not good enough for non-theists. Silly Christian, none of that information really points to a creator. Much preferable, it seems, to the evidence of informative design throughout creation, is the illusion of information in the local Borders. Since, if the informational nature or creation is insufficient to indicate its supernatural Creator, then so is the informational (selective, personal, non-merely-orderly) nature of a Terry Pratchett novel insufficient to point to its supertextual author.

[BTW, once all the squabbling is done about how clear or unclear, how probative or non-probative, how informative or uninformative, creation is, there is a second, deeper philosophical issue to press, but one that I have chosen not to delve into at this time. Namely, assuming, on naturalism, that even if we did know a book proves there is an author, we still cannot claim the author's sentience and intentionality have any bearing on the production of the book as a transmission of information. This is because, on naturalism, mental states, as non-physical entities, have no causal effect; only physical states cause other physical states. So, since the author's mental states have no causal "power", we cannot claim any mental state of hers went into producing the information in the novel.]

Saturday, July 22, 2006

A hard won victory

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Massachusetts same-sex marriage pioneers split up (Reuters, Fri Jul 21, 2006 11:25am ET)

The lesbian couple whose landmark lawsuit helped Massachusetts become the only state in America where same-sex couples can marry legally have split up, a spokeswoman said on Friday.

Julie and Hillary Goodridge and six other gay and lesbian couples sued Massachusetts for the right to marry and won when the state's highest court ruled narrowly for them in 2003.

Martyrs to their own freedom, I suppose.

Reciprocity, even for Islam

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The Vatican Confronts Islam by DANIEL PIPES (Jerusalem Post, July 5, 2006)

"Enough now with this turning the other cheek! It's our duty to protect ourselves."

Ethics on a shoestring

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I once read Michael Shermer parse a debate he'd had with a Christian philosopher. Shermer took great delight in explaining how he'd "embarrassed" the philosopher on the issue of morality. The Christian had said that without God, there is no absolute basis for objective morality. And this was a line of argument pursued by other Christians in the audience: "Why or how can we be good without God?"

To his credit, Shermer clarified that the issue is not that people who reject or ignore God cannot or are not "good people." That, I think, is uncontroversial. It's obvious, both empirically and, in fact, biblically, that people can, by God's grace and by virtue of being made in His image, exhibit fine social behavior. (The issue, however, becomes more compelling once we look at the grand sweep of Christian and theistic well-doing over all known history.)

The crux of the issue is much deeper, of course, namely that theists argue that in the absence of God, there is simply and literally no basis, let alone motive, for being good. Without objective values, there is nothing but moral anarchy and harsh (Spencerian) ultra-Darwinism run amok. I was disappointed to see Shermer's response. Basically, he deflated this argument not by actually defending any sound basis for non-theistic morality, but by shaming the Christians with some finger wagging. To paraphrase:

"I would much prefer my wife telling me, 'I will love you because I care about you and because we have a commitment together,' rather than her saying, 'I will love you because God tells me to and because if I don't, I will go to hell!' Keep me well away from anyone, like my opponent tonight, who is good only because he thinks God tells him to! Imagine how dangerous he'd be if he lost faith in God!"

Come on, Shermer, get over yourself. First of all, the commands of God and personal human "civility" are not inherently opposed. In fact, speaking as a Catholic, the whole point of "natural law theory" is that the law of God is in fact written in the very heart of mankind, so that our own deepest civil impulses are but implanted tendencies toward God's will. So, it's not outside the rights of Catholic to claim Shermer's and his wife's "personal" commitment to each other is itself a fulfillment of God's will for marriage. Again, the fact that atheists can and do exhibit such behavior is not the point; rather, God is the only intelligible basis for that kind of commitment remaining as a positive good at the heart of marriage. Otherwise, the commitment to "make each other happy" could degenerate into the man abusing his wife for his own pleasure, without any basis outside their relationship to accuse him or defend her.

Second, along the same lines, social harmony as a "contract" and well-doing as a divine commission are not mutually exclusive. If the fundamental criterion for well-doing is a social contract (i.e., "I will love you because of our commitment"), then a fortiori the inclusion of God as a Person only deepens and widens such a commitment. Why could not Shermer's wife just as easily say – as countless Christian couples do –, "Because I care about God and about you, I will love you in conformity with my commitment to Him"?

Third, it's simply shameless of Shermer to wag his finger at people who, allegedly, behave morally only because they fear divine retribution when Shermer himself bases his whole morality on social retribution! Like all neo-Darwinians, Shermer is trying to have his cake and eat it too. On the one hand he attacks the traditional (religious) values of retribution and reward as "voluntaristic" and draconian. But on the other hand, he uses human social retribution (i.e., "Silly god-idiot, morality is for kids!") and reward (i.e., "Let's all just be happy as fellow homo sapiens, okay?") to attack the alternative. In essence, Shermer is trying to ostracize Christians from decent social discourse because they hold to a morality that rests on ostracizing non-Christians from holy social discourse. He argues people who rely on God to be good are not actually good in and of themselves. But in the next breath he says the standard for goodness in and of oneself is how well a person "plays along" with his wife and neighbors. To Shermer's histrionics I say, "Keep me well away from anyone, like him, who is good just because it's socially accepted! Imagine how dangerous he'd be is he lost regard for social harmony!"

Once upon a time...

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Once, while I was involved in some courtyard evangelism and apologetics in college, I began talking with a Hindu. He was a convert, a pale-faced junior who had the fabled "zeal of a convert." He was tired of listening to the apologist we (my campus ministry, InterVarsity) had asked to come evangelize. He decided to try turning the tables. Specifically, he wanted to refute the Christian notion of the contingency and created finitude of the human soul (as a consequence of the Hindu belief that souls are eternal and eternally inseparable from Brahmin, All-That-Truly-Is). Raising his finger into the air (I kid you not), he presented his argument like so:

Imagine a time you won't exist in the future. Try to imagine ceasing to be.

He waited for this to sink in. The apologist, Cliff Knechtle, said he could do so easily. The pale-faced Hindu would have none of it.

"No, you can only conceive of being able to imagine your non-existence. You can't actually imagine not existing. You can imagine yourself dying, yeah, but that's just another event that you witness from an eternal perspective as your eternal self."

"So what's your point?" Cliff asked.

"So, that means your existence is axiomatic; you are eternal. So, God could have never "created" your soul."

Palpable was his desire for a few awed sighs to rise from the crowd. But, instead, after a few volleys of "Yes, I can," "No, you can't", Cliff moved on to other issues and other interlocutors.

But I decided to drift over to the pale-faced Hindu.

"I heard your argument for the eternal existence of souls," I said.

"Yeah," he answered.

"Well, can I approach it from a different angle?" I asked.

He knew I was a Christian, so he answered a little defensively, "Okay, what do you mean?"

"Well, you say my inability to imagine not-existing proves I've always existed, right?"

"Right. You simply know you're eternal, otherwise you could imagine not existing," he insisted.

"Well, perhaps," I replied. "But isn't it problematic that I can't really, vividly, frame-by-frame imagine my perpetual existence?" I asked.

He seemed as resistant as ever. "Don't molest my pet argument," his increasingly sunburned face warned.

"I mean, if I am eternal, and therefore exist timelessly in an eternal 'Now', then why can't I conceive of all such 'points' of existence as vividly as I experience each immediate, present moment?" I asked, genuinely curious to hear his reply.

He didn't offer any more cogent reply than his usual insistence that you really, honestly cannot imagine ceasing to be, even if it's with a fuzzy lens. I decided to move away from that tedious approach.

"Okay, anyway," I continued, "what about my inability to imagine myself existing for all time prior to my birth?"

"Huh?" he sniffed.

"Well, I mean, if I'm eternal, and if always 'seeing myself' in the future proves that, why can't I see myself always in the past?"

"No-- what do you mean?" he sniffed again.

"Well, I can easily imagine a world prior to my being, so doesn't that go against the idea that I've always existed?"

"No," he retorted, "no, it just means you can only imagine events from your birth onward."

"But I simply know I didn't exist in 1865 Gainesville, Florida," I replied in 2003 Gainesville, Florida. "From my perspective, which seems to be the key for you in all this, the two states of affairs -- Gainesville and then and now -- are simply, almost by definition, distinct by virtue of my birth having happened or not. One is a world with me in and the other is a world without me in it," I continued.

"Yes, but..." he tried to interject.

"And even if I 'witness' my past non-existence from the standpoint of my supposedly eternal 'now' existence, still my range of conscious, immediate witnessing only extends from now till the future."

"But if you can imagine a world before your birth, it just shows you were eternal then, too, just because you were 'there' to witness the past," he answered.

"No, it doesn't," I said, "since the whole point of your argument is that I, being eternal, can have personal, 'immediate' experience of hypothetical events in the future -- since I'm eternally 'there' to witness them."

"Right," he added, brightening a little.

"But for things prior to my birth," I went on, "and especially for total areas of amnesia about my childhood, I simply have no way of inserting myself into a world I never existed in. I can imagine doing so, yes, but only from this present point of view -- not as a hovering eternal ghost of msyelf-past," I tried to conclude. now."

He was getting irritated. "No, but you can still see yourself 'over' those past events! You can put yourself in them in your imagination because you existed eternally! Don't you get it?"

"No," I answered, "I simply see myself at this point reflecting on imaginary past conditions. The experience is not of the past, but of myself right now imagining the past. The appearance that we 'go on' eternally in the future is just because we imagine the future must be pretty much like now. I may imagine myself enduring psychically into the perpetual future, but there's no way I can go backwards the same way, since every 'experience' I have of the pre-me past is actually just an experience of life right now as I imagine the past. So, my eternal awareness of the past is really just an awareness of the present. I may be eternal in the future," I conceded, "which is actually just a Christian belief, but I can't experience the past eternally."

"Man, you don't get my point," he retorted.

"No, I guess I don't," I admitted. We parted ways; until now, when I dredged him up from memory lane.

I didn't bring it up then, but one other approach I would have liked to take with him is that of my imagined perpetual self. Assuming I really can't imagine myself not-being in the future, what does it mean that I also cannot imagine myself being different then? Why can I only imagine myself having the (facial, bodily or "mental") appearance that I have now? Try as I might, the self I imagine enduring eternally always has the face I have right now, gotif and all; otherwise all I see is just photo cutouts tied to my head. This being the case, does it mean my eternal self always has the appearance I have right now? How could this be, though, since I can imagine myself in the past with different appearances (in the mirror, in pictures, etc.), and since my past eternal self is presumably identical to my future eternal self?

Just thought I'd air that out.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Raking leaves, page by page

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I finally got around to updating my "Books" spreadsheet, which I've maintained since I was 14 or 15. You'll notice FCA's sidebar is much squatter now that the "Recently Read" section has been trimmed down.

It wasn't until I saw the number next to each spreadsheet entry that it struck me: I've read a ton of books this year!

In case you were wondering, I group rows from one summer to another, so there is a cluster between, say, summer 2002 and summer 2003 (as well as, of course, a cluster within each summer). I divide the columns into seven categories: Title, Author, Page #, Rating [1-10], Publication Date, Comments, and, recently, Publisher. (Yes, I'm a total book dweeb.)

It's great finally to get these books offline and entered into the spreadsheet, but now I have a mountain of backtracking to do in order to enter all the info for those categories. For whatever reason, a few months ago I just stopped keeping on top of this spreadsheet, dear though it is to me, and now, like tending fallen leaves, I've got a lot of raking, bagging and tossing to do.

In any case, I figured I'd post my reading for this year (from summer 2005 till summer 2006), if for nothing else than to elicit some responses from those of you who have read the same stuff I have. The count for this year (about 9 months) comes to 96 books, which means I somehow averaged about 2.5 books a week. (I guess reading mutliple books at once over a longer stretch of time really pays off!) What's really bizarre is that, including this year's titles, and the four I've read so far this summer, the total count since I was 13 years old is only about 720 titles. Over fourteen years, this works out to approximately 51 books per year (ie., a book a week). At this rate, assuming I don't go blind or become "bibliolergic", if I live another 50 years, I can expect to read another 2,600 books in my life. So, at the most, I can look forward to having read about 3,500 books when I go to meet my Maker.

Somehow that sounds like an extremely low number; then again, I wonder what the average quantity is for book consumption over a longish human lifetime. Maybe if I go for a master's and a doctorate, I can reach multiple thousands.

And yet, lest I get too carried away with numbers, I repeat (mostly to myself) once more the words of Holy Scripture found in Ecclesiastes (my favorite Old Testament book), chapter 12, verses 11 and 12:

11 The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd. 12 Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

And as St. Paul says in I Corinthians 1:

25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. 26 Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, 28 and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, 29 so that no human being might boast before God. 30 It is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, "Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord."

May God give me holy wisdom, not merely "wordly wisdom", nor mere "worldly wisdom." May I never read another book if it draws me from His love, or shrouds His glory. Yet, may I never cease to read if it glorifies Him and propels me to Him.

So, God bless it, here they are for this year. (I would have liked to list the authors as well, but it was just too ungainly transferring more than one column from Excel to Blogger.) Feel free to comment.

Das Wesen des Katholizismus

The Little Prince

The Enormous Crocodile

Refuting the Attack on Mary

Finding God's Will for You

Priesthood Today: an appraisal

The Divine Conspiracy: rediscovering our hidden life in god

Upon This Rock: st. peter and the primacy of rome in scripture and the early church

Jesus, Peter & the Keys: a scriptural handbook on the papacy

Rich Dad, Poor Dad: what the rich teach their children that the poor and middle clas don't

Man and the Cosmos: the vision of st. maximus the confessor

The Real Jesus: the misguided quest for the historical jesus and the truth of the traditional gospels

And You Are Christ's: the charism of virginity and the celibate life

Biomimicry: innovation inspired by nature

The Person in the Orthodox Tradition

The Haunting Fetus: abortion, sexuality and the spirit world in taiwan

The Pattern of Atonement

Bible, Church, Tradition: an eastern orthodox view

Worthy is the Lamb: the biblical roots of the mass

Any Friend of God's Is a Friend of Mine

The Thought of Pope Benedict XVI

The Doctors of the Church

Zen Buddhism: Parables, Allegories and Koan Riddles as Told by Zen Masters

The Incorruptibles

The Gnostic Gospels

The Innocence of Father Brown [audio]

A Mind's Matter: An Intellectual Autobiography

Breaking the Da Vinci Code

The Art of War [audio]

Against All Odds: Sisters of Providence Mission in China, 1920-1990

The River at the Center of the World: A Journey up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time

Our Lady and the Church

Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church

Novelle & Das Märchen

The Iron Man

The Scarlet Letter [audio]

On Their Own Terms: Science in China, 1550-1900

Pope Fiction

Reaching Out: the Three Movements of the Spiritual Life

Leisure: the Basis of Culture

Saint Philip Neri

The Catholic Church at the End of an Age: What is the Holy Spirit Saying

In the Beginning...': A Catholic Understanding of Creation and Fall

The Bone Parade

Kinds of Minds

Surprised by Truth: 11 Converts Give the Biblical and Historical Reasons for Becoming Catholic

Ignatius of Loyola

Wir kommen, wohin wir schauen: Berufung leben heute

Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science -- from the Babylonians to the Maya

Why Do Catholics Do That?

Socrates Café: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy

The Wonder of Guadalupe: The Origin and Cult of the Miraculous Image of the Blessed Virgin in Mexico

Dancing Wu Li Masters: an Overview of the New Physics [audio]

Ecclesia in Asia

Guadalupe and Her Faithful: Latino Catholics in San Antonio, from Colonial Origins to the Present

Means to Message: A Treatise on Truth

A Historical Sketch of Christianity in China

Creation and Scientific Creativity: A Study in the Thought of S.L. Jaki

Benedict XVI: The Man Who Was Ratzinger

The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?

C.S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason

Newman's Challenge

Airframe

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why

Along Came a Spider

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The Men Who Stare at Goats

Angels & Demons

TBK Fitness Program

Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences

Eastern Orthodox Mission Theology Today

The War Against Population: The Economics and Ideology of World Population Control

True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture

The Da Vinci Deception

Church, Papacy and Schism

You Are Peter: An Orthodox Theologian's Reflection on the Exercise of Papal Primacy

Communio: Church and Papacy in Early Christianity

Dialektik der Säkularisierung: Über Vernunft und Religion

The Da Vinci Code: Fact or Fiction?

Fact and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code

Catholic Church in China

The Da Vinci Legacy

The Origin of Chinese Martial Arts

The Da Vinci Code

Jesus Among Other Gods

Crucifixion

Kerygma and Dogma

Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Conquest of Darkness

Why Do Men Have Nipples?

Angels (and Demons) - What Do We Really Know About Them?

The Rape of Nanking

Shopgirl

What Are They Saying About Papal Primacy?

Catholic & Christian: An Explanation of Commonly Misunderstood Catholic Beliefs

Taiwan: Nation-State or Province? (4th ed.)

Digital Fortress

Monday, July 17, 2006

I can't believe it's over

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But it's over. "The trip" -- my three-week journey to, in and back from mainland China reached its blessed and surreal end last night at 2 AM, when I finally found myself the guest once more of my own apartment. (Of course, finding my sunscreen had erupted inside my toiletries bag, and then that I had [and still have] no running water, made the homecoming a little rocky.)

They say twenty one days of something makes it a habit. Well, I can attest that as soon as my friend, Terri, stepped off the bus from Taipei to Taichung, leaving me alone for the first time in three weeks on my way to my stop -- everything seemed to come to a sudden, jarring halt. "What? No more trip?" I asked, plaintively. Granted, over the last day, in najing, and the final marathon trip home, via Hong Kong, I kept running into it all as The Trip That Would Not Die. But now it's dead; and yet it's alive and well in my memory.

It was a phenomenal experience -- both inspiring and draining -- and one that will assume its full existential stature only in time. I was so privileged: to remain healthy, to experience things that many Chinese, let alone humans, never gain to see, to have a cheerful and very prayerful travel companion the whole way.


Now it's time to get re-rooted in Taichung: commence in earnest at a new job; sift and compile over 600 photos and goodly sized gobs of video for personal recollection and other-consumption; to pay outstanding or standing bills; etc.

Stay tuned...

Friday, July 14, 2006

Funny thing about the universe... (Part 3 of 3)

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Part I, Part II


Imagine a simple universe:




Basically it’s a box with space for nine items that can be in one of two states, empty or full. Nine possible locations two possible states 2^9 = 512 possible combinations. Now, imagine that you could label this:




As state "A", and this:




As "B" and so on. Eventually you’d have labeled all the states with some combination of letters. If matter spontaneously recycles back into the universe then it stands to reason that given enough time (remember, you have infinite time) even very low probabilities will come to fruition. Given enough time the improbable becomes a certainty. So one can imagine that the evolution of this simple universe might occur from state “N” to state “E”, “V”, “E”, “R”, “O”, “D”, “D”. Or some such, and that’s all fine and good, but wait a bit longer and perhaps the states unfold in this order: NEVER ODD OR EVEN. You see that it’s palindrome. And just as a hundred monkeys banging away at keyboards will produce Shakespeare, so this simple universe will eventually make Shakespeare, perhaps King Lear, and then King Lear backwards, making one very long palindrome. Complete time symmetry. In which direction then can we say the “arrow of time” is pointing?



And though the real universe is much less simple than the one pictured (duh), the principle transfers. Max Tegmark in Scientific American (May ’03) says that there are roughly 2^10^118 possible states in our universe, and each state could be similarly labeled (whoa, tha’d be a TON of letters though). So the metaphor is still valid, and so is the time symmetry problem.



And just as Thomas Aquinas always gave Aristotelian steady-state philosophy the benefit of the doubt when discussing God because “if he were to start with the premise that the universe had a beginning, then his task would be too easy! Obviously, if there was a beginning, something had to bring the universe into existence,” (Lee Strobel, The Case for a Creator). However, Dobson admits that the symmetry problem in his steady-state theory doesn’t get away from what he smugly calls the “Interior Designer”. He says that in order to measure change, it must be compared to something that doesn’t change. Something unchanging can’t be part of an eternally changing universe, and therefore must be external to the universe. Hmm, an external unchanging timeless base by which we measure change… could not another name for this be God?



It's a funny thing about the universe: it requires a deposit of faith into something external to the universe in order to make sense. I’ve had debates about evidence for God in a big bang scenario, but this has recently come to my attention, steady-state models don’t quell the debate either.

Thursday, July 6, 2006

Funny thing about the universe... (Part 2 of 3)

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Part 1

Previously I addressed other steady state universes, however the next considered cosmological model is Dobson's.


The kind of universe Dobson suggests is what I call a spatially finite, infinitely recycling universe. I shall describe roughly and refine later. In this type of universe as matter approaches the "edge" it gets recycled back into the "interior" of the universe. The mechanism used to recycle the matter is described by basic tenets of quantum mechanics (QM). The uncertainty principle states that two conjugate observables (ignore the jargon for now, just try for the concept) can only be measured to within a certain ratio of each other. In this case we are speaking of momentum and position. Or mathematically


(change in momentum) * (change in position) ≥ (Planck's Constant) / 2.



Or a little more crudely (but more readably)


(uncertainty in momentum) * (uncertainty in position) ≥ (a very small number) / 2.


Therefore, if we measure the position of a particle with some arbitrary precision, that is, we reduce the uncertainty in the position, the uncertainty in the momentum must be great enough to make the quantity of the two numbers greater than or equal to Planck's constant (a very small number) divided by two. Furthermore, if we measure a particle's position with infinite precision, then its momentum would have to balloon to infinite proportions to keep the inequality.


The idea is complicated, but there is an apt analogy in music. Earlier I mentioned "conjugate observables", well it so happens that time and frequency are conjugate observables. Think of a single note. If we want to measure it's frequency, or pitch, we have to hear the note for at least as much time as it takes for one wavelength so we can accurately have a measurement of what note is being played, well then the longer the note is played the more accurately you can measure it's frequency, but the less you can confine its duration. The conjugate is more readily conceivably true. Think of a note confined to a very short time duration. Like a millisecond. What would it sound like? Well, it would probably sound like a tap, or a click, more percussive than like a note. And that's the point, the shorter time you confine a note to be played in, the less accurately you can know its frequency.


Dobsonian cosmology hinges on the uncertainty principle and on something called “red shift”. When Edwin Hubble (yes, THAT Hubble) discovered that everything in the universe was moving away from everything else, he based this discovery on something called a Doppler shift. One property of traveling waves is that when the source of the waves is traveling toward you the frequency of the waves is shifted up (waves hit you with a higher frequency) and when the move away they are shifted down (or they hit you less frequently). This phenomenon is commonly demonstrated by emergency response vehicles that pass you quickly with siren blaring. The pitch (frequency) of the siren shifts from high to low as it passes you, it’s Doppler shifted because the source of the wave is moving.


Similarly, light (an electromagnetic wave) can be shifted if the source is in motion. Recall that red light is low frequency, and blue light is higher frequency. Hence, we refer a retreating light source as emitting “red-shifted” light and an approaching source as “blue shifted”.


Hubble observed red-shifted light coming from almost every cosmological body he viewed, so he concluded that things were falling away from each other. We know that these other bodies are indeed falling away, and not just emitting “dimmer” light (lower frequency) because of a type of supernova called a type 1a supernova. Without going into the details, it basically acts like a “standard candle”, that is, it always emits the same amount of light whether it occur here in the Milky Way, or somewhere more distant. So by observing these objects we can judge its distance and red-shift (that is, its velocity away from us).


The strange part is that the further into space we look the more red-shifted things get. Or stated another way, the red-shift isn’t constant, it grows (linearly). Because of this growing redshift, then when matter gets very, very far away from us (observers on the Earth) then its light gets very, very redshifted. Which means that its velocity gets very high, but red light means low energy. So, Dobson believes, high velocity low energy implies low mass. This low mass has “very interesting consequences”. Low mass further implies low momentum, and therefore a low uncertainty in momentum. Whew… there’s a long line of deductions.


So, Dobson believes that this low uncertainty in momentum at the “edge” of the universe must be compensated for by a high uncertainty in position as dictated by the uncertainty principle under QM. Therefore, this huge uncertainty in position can recycle matter from the “edge” back to the “interior” of the universe indefinitely.


This cosmology has interesting implications.

Saturday, July 1, 2006