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The Religion and Science Debate: Why Does it Continue?

December 7th, 2010 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions
The Religion and Science Debate: Why Does it Continue? Edited by Harold W. Attridge

The Religion and Science Debate

The Religion and Science Debate: Why Does it Continue? edited by Harold W. Attridge (Yale 2009).

This volume, like the Gifford Lectures, is part of a series.  According, as found in the introduction of this volume, to the deed of Dwight Harrington Terry, the object of the the Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy is that,

a series of lectures be given by men eminent in their respective departments, on ethics, the history of civilization and religion, biblical research, all sciences and branches of knowledge which have an important bearing on the subject, all the great laws of nature, especially of evolution . . . to the end that the Christian spirit may be nurtured in the fullest light of the world’s knowledge and that mankind maly be helped to attain its highest possible welfare and happiness upon this earth.

A number of notable titles have come out of the Terry Lectures, including Pail Tillich’s The Courage to Be, John Dewey’s, A Common Faith, Erich Fromm’s Psychoanalysis and Religion, Paul Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy, and John Polkinghorne’s Belief in God in an Age of Science (among a number of others). The Religion and Science Debate is from the one-hundredth such lecture, which was structured not as a single speaker giving a series of lectures from which a tome might arise, but rather a series of panel discussions with a resulting anthology of articles.  Because it has taken the form of an anthology, this debate may not rise to the heights of the very best from the Terry Series, but it is a timely volume that may be with us all for some time.

When one brings up the topic of what is supposed to be a conflict between science and religion, one does not look first at method (although one might wish to look at Descartes Bones) but at the peculiar controversy over evolution. By in large, the contributors to this volume focus on the later to illustrate the former.  All the contributors are veterans of this debate, and a some (Ronald Numbers and Alvin Plantinga) have been highlighted in this blog before.  Let us simply look at each essay in its turn. Read the rest of this entry »


Imager’s Intrigue: The Third Book of the Imager Portfolio

November 29th, 2010 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

Imager's Intrigue

Imager’s Intrigue: The Third Book of the Imager Portfolio, by L. E. Modesitt, Jr. (TOR 2010).

Five years have past since Rhennthly found himself promoted to Third District Captain of the Civil Patrol in Imager’s Challenge. Rhennthyl and Seliora have since married and have a three year-old daughter. If none of this makes much sense, you are invited to read the reviews of Imager and Imager’s Challenge.

Over the five years, Rhennthyl is still a Maitre D’Structure (a middle-level imager) and has proven to be an effective Captain of what is in effect the police force of L’Excelsis. This has earned him respect among his patrolers and the residents of his district, and the envy and resentment of his superiors, the Commander and Sub-commander of the L’Excelsis Civil Patrol. To make matters sticker, The Sub-commander is angling to advance himself by way of innuendo and skulduggery. Part of that would seem to involve supporters of the Commander meeting with unfortunate accidents or untimely ends. Read the rest of this entry »


Galileo Goes to Jail: And Other Myths About Science and Religion

November 22nd, 2010 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions
Galileo Goes to Jail, edited by Ronald L. Numbers

Galileo Goes to Jail

Galileo Goes to Jail: And Other Myths About Science and Religion, edited by Ronald Numbers (Harvard University Press 2009).

Myth is a strong word that requires a certain amount of demystification before seeing how it applies to the subtitle of this commendable collection. As a literary form, a myth is a sort of cosmic story. To be much more specific than that simply indicates what sort of myth one would be talking about. So taken, what truth one might find in a myth lies behind the story, and that truth ought to be genuinely profound. Conventionally the idea of myth tends to weigh more on the aspect of something being a story or more broadly a fiction. In this sense myths are just dressed up falsehoods, with no deep meaning to be found. In Galileo Goes to Jail, myth finds a middle way. The myths dealt with here are stories that say more about story-teller than any relation the story may have to some truth, deep or otherwise. This subtle distinction is necessary because the in the various essays, the myths dealt with are not simply false. The stories may be true, but they don’t support the moral the stories lead to, or they are mostly true, or partly true, or we really don’t know the truth of the matter. Given the state of the debate on religion and science, a bit of subtly is a welcome thing.

The myth of myths in this case is Religion and Science are at war. If one is on the side of Science, every woe of humankind and every roadblock to progress can be laid at the feet of Religion. Those on the side of Religion counter either that Science is founded on Religion or that the general depravity found in society is caused by Science abandoning Religion. The essayists Numbers assembles, deal mostly with the stories Science tells. Unlike some myths, where the story teller is lost to us, Numbers is willing finger the original Religion-and-Science-at-War myth-makers: Andrew Dickson White and particularly John William Draper. Indeed, Draper comes up in at least seven of the twenty-five myths examined. This is not to say Galileo Goes to Jail is collection of religious polemicists. Most of the contributors are not believers and few that are, are actually conventional believers. However, most are either historians, historians of science, or philosophers of science who have entered this fray more than once. Read the rest of this entry »


Issac Asimov’s Caliban

November 17th, 2010 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

Issac Asimov's Caliban

Issac Asimov’s Caliban, by Roger MacBride Allen (Ace Books 1993).

In his later years Issac Asimov worked to merge his two great science fiction series, the Foundation and the Robot series. The problem he faced was that the events of the Foundation Series had to come after the Robot series, but robots were utterly unknown to the Foundation or the empire it replaced. That Asimov pulled this off was no mean feat, but not an incredible one for someone who figured out how Plutonium-186 could exist. In the process Asimov created an entirely new world with hundreds of thousands of years of history and countless stories to fill in Since Asimov’s death in 1992, his estate has granted a number of prominent science fiction writers to fill in those gaps. On reading a few of these stories (all dealing with the Foundation), I’ve come away disappointed. In some cases the plots are strong, the narratives plausible, but they don’t have Asimov’s muse. In other cases they take a single thesis or motif too doggedly—affecting Asimov’s style, but wearing it on the book-jacket. When my dear wife found Caliban at a used bookstore, I was prepared for disappointment.

To my surprise, Allen got it mostly right. Caliban reads like Asimov at his best but better. Allen even managed to turn one of the Asimov’s weaknesses as a writer into convincing story telling. There are times where the characters in an Asimov novel give themselves over to long lectures or the sort of Socratic “dialog” where the only point for more than one speaker is for the main character to catch her breath. These sequences tended to feel artificial, as if the characters are really talking to the reader and not each other. Many writers now trust the reader to figure out the science or quasi-science as story progresses. Such dialogs also felt misplaced for the pacing the same way an opera singer may go on with an extended aria after having been mortally wounded. Allen actually uses this technique in a couple of real lectures and a police integration, and does so in such a way as to move the plot and engage the reader, not just provided information that the action could not. Read the rest of this entry »


Imager’s Challege

November 5th, 2010 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

Imager's Challenge

Imager’s Challenge: The Second Book of the Imager Portfolio, by L. E. Modesitt, Jr. (TOR 2009).

L. E. Modesitt, Jr. has found his way into Reading EKScursions on a number occasions. Imager’s Challenge is the second in the Imager Portfolio series. There is also a review of Imager, the first book in this series.

The Imager Portfolio follows the career of one Rhennthyl. Rhennthyl is the son a middle-class manufacturer who (much to his father’s consternation) pursues a career as a portraiturist but whose career is interpreted when he discovers that he has the ability to mentally manipulate matter at its most basic level—imaging. This takes him into the world of the Imagers’ Collegium where he hones his craft (and is enlisted in the Collegium’s security service). Along the way he meets and falls in love with Seliora, a member of a distrusted ethnic minority called the Pharsi. Some members of the Pharsi possess something called farsight, the ability to see flashes of things yet to come. The first book, Imager, leaves off with with Rhennthyl foiling an assassination plot, though somewhat worse for wear.

Imager’s Challenge picks up after Rhennthyl has mostly recovered from is foray into daring do, only to discover that he has earned the everlasting enmity of Ryel d’Alte, a High Holder. High Holders are the landed aristocracy of Rhennthyl’s country, Solidar. Rhennthyl has also earned the displeasure of his superiors for being less than the covert operative that they would have expected, and so assign him to the city’s Civil Patrol, where there would be no question about what he is about. Rhennthyl immediately runs into trouble. There are a number of assassination attempts upon Rhennthyl and for reasons that are not immediately apparent is instantly disliked by the commanding officers of the Civic Patrol. As a reward, Rhennthyl is assigned to patrol the roughest quarters of the city.

Rhennthyl is inserted in a game of deadly intrigue, with all knives pointed toward him and his family and aid from no quarter, save one. His Collegium will not help because imagers as a whole are distrusted by the larger world, and so policy dictates that they not draw attention to themselves. The aristocracy has its own games to play, and commanders of the Civil Patrol would rather be rid of Rhennthyl. Where Rhennthyl finds aid (aside from his growing abilities as an imager) is from Seliora and her family’s connections. These more than make up for the expedient self-preservation found elsewhere, though it is touch-and-go at times.

Imager’s Challenge really does build on Imager. Fans of the first will not be disappointed with second and will anticipate the next in the Imager Portfolio series. The world Modesitt paints is rich and complex, and while someone coming into this world fresh will not be lost in it, getting a feel of it from the first book can only help. The world of the Imager grows only more sophisticated and nuanced. We also get to see more of Seliora and her extended family. The Pharsi, and Seliora in particular, are a force to be reckoned with. We also get glimpses that there is likely much more to Rhennthyl than even he can guess. Imager’s Challenge is not only a book of intrigue and triumph, growth and understanding. It contains a fair share of loss and sorrow, of unforeseen and terrible consequences, not only for what one has done—even if for the best—but simply being who one is within forces than not even an master imager can control.


The Marketplace of Ideas

October 25th, 2010 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

Marketplace of Ideas, by Louis Menand

The Marketplace of Ideas, by Louis Menand (W. W. Norton 2010).

Back in the dark ages when dinosaurs ruled the earth and I was in college my father wondered aloud about the value of a BA. He argued that the literature and philosophy classes did not contribute one iota to his career as a research chemist, and that he had not any reason to refer back to a single class that did not have to do with his major in chemistry. As a philosophy of religion major, this hurt. I muttered something about a liberal arts education being valuable because it inculcates a love of learning and trains people to think, and so the lessons learned apply across all disciplines. His reply amounted to “and studying chemistry doesn’t?” Either the study of humanities rubbed off on my father without his knowing it, or studying chemistry seems to work just fine for teaching people to think. Menand sets out to answer this question. Does a liberal arts education, as it is currently constructed, produce the general thinkers whose come love learning for its own sake and whose skills can readily transferred to new areas, or is a university best at reproducing university professors?

Menand investigates this question with four essays. Although these essays could stand independently, each has a way of drawing a circle around the question and tightening that circle with each turn. As on essay follows the next, the critique becomes more pointed. Read the rest of this entry »


A Realistic Theory of Categories

September 20th, 2010 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

A Realistic Theory of Categories

A Realistic Theory of Categories: An Essay on Ontology, by Roderick M. Chisholm (Cambridge University Press 1996).

Perhaps the philosopher Roderick Chisholm will be best know for such locutions as “being appeared to redly.” This would be unfortunate since he was backed into the phrase, abandoned the epistemological stance that spawned it, there was so much more that he did in his long career, and because many of his thought experiments continue to be used by philosophers (libertarians still have to deal with the Adam/Noah problem Chisholm brought up in the mid nineteen-sixties, and if you think you know what the center of your consciousness is, you may reconsider after meeting Smith and Jones and the split-brain transplants). It was a pleasure then to come across something of Chisholm’s that dealt with neither epistemology nor mereology but metaphysics.

Chisholm’s theory of categories is contained in a brief but tightly packed work. So what are categories? The started with Aristotle and was an attempt to describe any given thing. Aristotle’s drew up ten categories that included items such as place, state, time, quantity, etc. Over the centuries philosophers would make changes to the list, but generally agreed that the categories applied to the thing described. That is to say a thing was a certain size or shape or position and so on. That came to a screeching halt with Kant who not only drew up a completely different list but argued that categories did not apply to the object described but to mind describing the object insofar as that mind is experiencing the object. After Kant it has been fashionable to dispose of categories altogether. Chisholm not only presents a categorical ontology for the things themselves rather the mind, but this is a decidedly Platonic ontology. In the chart below one can see that unlike Aristotle, the categories do not exit as descriptions of common-sense physical objects but have an independent existence.

A Schema of Chisholm's Categories

What is also notable about Chisholm’s scheme is its hierarchical nature. Most schemes before Kant would put all categories on par with each other, simply being different aspects of a given subject. Kant has a semi-hierarchical scheme of twelve categories arranged under the headings quantity, quality, relation, and modality. Even today among those who treat categories as real there is a split between those who take a more linear approach and those of a more hierarchical frame of mind.

Chisholm does not actually argue for his realistic conception of categories, let alone its structure, in his Realistic Theory of Categories. That was done in his previous book On Metaphysics. What Chisholm does do is to argue for the contents of his scheme and why certain items (such as times and places) don’t appear. For instance, times are subsumed under events, which does provide for a more economical ontology. That he has presented an economical almost elegant ontology is not to be denied, but is it too parred back? The reader may wish to direct her attention to some of recent schemes as found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and see whether some of the more extensive schemes can be subsumed in Chisholm’s without inciting any Procrustean damage.

The last two sections of Chisholm’s book look at objects that seem to exist only in the mind (appearances, intentions, and fictions) which always have been a subject of philosophical debate and for the past few centuries have been outright contentious and Chisholm’s attempt to make sense of the notion of a necessary substance–or more plainly, God. Look again at the chart above. God makes an appearance in the lower right-hand corner. In six pages, Chisholm reviews atemporality (he doesn’t care for it) and the argument from design (he seems happy with at least some version of the argument). The speed of delivery is breath-taking, but this very last section has the feel of an outline of a work the author wanted to time to explore more thoroughly.


On Liberty

June 21st, 2010 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

On Liberty

On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill (originally published 1859, 3rd ed 1864).

I’ll bet the first thing that struck you when looking at this selection was the publication date: 1859. Well that’s over one-hundred and fifty years ago. How can anything that old be relevant, interesting, or even readable to a generation use to texting? As one about one-third that age, I would demure, but first, here was my introduction. A blogger of about half my age posted a lengthy discussion of why Mill was not being inconsistent when he held that the state had the right to regulate or ban prostitution. It was pretty close, the blogger almost sided with George Carlin against Mill. Interest piqued yet?

So just who is John Stuart Mill, anyway? Mill was, beside Jeremy Bentham perhaps the most prominent advocate of an ethical system called utilitarianism. If you don’t know what utilitarianism is, you ought to. Just as most modern people spout out the ideas of Rene Descartes—even if they have not the foggiest notion of who Descartes was—as if they were just obvious common sense, most of us are utilitarians to a certain extent without knowing it and would find it to the point of incredulity to learn that anyone ever had to argue for the position. Arguing against the position that one ought to act with a mind towards doing the most good for the most people would seem akin to arguing that breathing is bad for one’s health.

So, I’m advocating that you should pick up something that states the obvious, right? Well, no. For those of us who think we know what utilitarianism is, what is interesting about On Liberty is the extent that Mill refines, and to a certain extent strays from, utilitarianism. It is refreshing to have one’s conceits upset.

Besides, there is something in On Liberty for just about anyone who has more than two neurons to scrape together. Any attentive reader will alternatively cheer at his clear common sense or scorn is naivete. On the political spectrum Mill addresses everyone from Socialism, to Conservatism, to Free Market Capitalism. Are you a libertarian or Tea Party sympathizer? Mill has something for you. You think that Tea Partiers are nuts are at least obnoxious? On Liberty will provide some good talking points. How about arguments about the size of government, the New Atheists, the Religious Right? Yes, yes and yes. All sides will find something to warm up to. About the only people I can think of who would not find On Liberty thoroughly engaging would be members of PETA. Why PETA? Read the book and let me know—and whether you agree with my off-the-cuff remark.

Add to this that Mill is basically a conversational writer. Mill can start with defending free speech and you as the reader can ask about whether there should be any restraint on practicing what a person preaches? Mill gets to your question and will even insert your question into the essay. (Not that he is 100% on target. I don’t know the last time I asked about the 19th Century Maine Acts, but one could just substitute the PATRIOT Act to the same affect). Besides, who can resist a book that includes sex, drugs, and rock and roll (OK, may not rock and roll)


Persons: Human and Divine

June 9th, 2010 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

Persons: Human and Divine, edited by Peter van Inwagen and Dean Zimmerman (Oxford 2007).

Human beings are said to be persons, but just what is a person? What constitutes a person? Does it make any sense to ask of what a person is composed? Are human beings the only things that count as persons? Are there fundamentally different classes of persons? If so, what would they share for different classes to count as persons? Is God, assuming there is a divine being, a person? What do Christians mean that God is three persons with one nature but that Jesus Christ is one person with two natures?

Persons is an anthology of philosophical theology which grew out of a workshop sponsored by the Pew Christian Scholars Program in 2004. The essays—which are all original with this title—are individually engaging and, as such anthologies go, unusually coherent taken together. The essays themselves are neatly grouped together as Idealism, Dualism, Materialism, Embodiment and the Value of Persons, and Personhood and Christian Doctrine.

The essays in the first three groups (idealism, dualism, and materialism) provide a backdrop to a perennial philosophical problem and one that has been uniquely framed in Western intellectual life since Descartes. Two essays on idealism (the theory that at the end of the day, everything is mental in nature) lead off the discussion, perhaps because the editors knew that materialists (those who maintain that the ultimate constituents of this world are material) and dualists (those who hold that the world included two fundamental substances, mental and physical) would direct most of their criticism at each other and more or less allow the idealists to stand in some dark and forgotten corner.

Still, the two essays on idealism are well worth reading. Robert M. Adams leads off with a very cogent explanation of what idealism is, what its intuitive appeal might be and some of the varieties of idealism. Howard Robinson’s essay “The Self and Time” provides an intriguing picture of one’s self to time that seems to draw parallel’s to Aquinas’ notion of the soul’s extension to the body. Aquinas held that the soul in its entirety occupied each part of the body. Robinson takes a similar line toward the self and time (those interested in the difference between enduring and perduring objects or temporal parts might find this essay stimulating).

Dualism makes up a plurality of the essays in Persons. John Hawthorne leads off with detailing the challenges facing substance or Cartesian dualism. Interestingly no one in the anthology pays much attention to the idea of property dualism. Aside from a brief characterization by Peter van Inwagen that property dualism is a confusion, it receives no mention, let alone defense. Alvin Plantinga has an entry which is not so much of a defense of dualism (which he takes as prima facia good sense), but a critique of materialism. Unfortunately, a number of the critiques (for instance, Plantinga employs Leibniz’s Mill analogy) do not automatically support dualism and others serve mostly to illustrate the difficulty with any theory of interaction between mind and body. For instance, Plantinga notes that God is said to be immaterial and yet interacts with material objects, so dualism shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. However, how God might interact does not immediately seem to apply to human beings nor do such illustrations help show how a body and a mind interact. Finding a basis may come at the cost of radically redefining mind or body or both. Richard Swinburne takes on the issue of whether mental properties simply supervene on physical ones. As is typical, Swinburne begins with a boatload of fine distinctions that are not normally considered, which then brings together. The reader may wish to sketch these distinctions out and then see which to take issue with after seeing how they fit in. W. D. Hart and Takashi Yagisawa provide a very short essay on how to think of disembodied minds interacting, while Hong Yu Wong takes on the problem of mind/body interaction head on. Wong has a habit of proposing and disposing of just about every theory that has come down the pike.

Peter van Inwagen is not so much interested in defending materialism than his particular version of materialism. Along the way he would seem to take issue with most materialists. Van Inwagen would affirm that persons are material substances but deny buildings, lakes, roads, or any number of common objects are substances of any kind, material or otherwise. Other materialists in this anthology seem to reply with stares of utter incredulity. Hud Hudson address the question of whether a materialist can assert that human beings are essentially persons and not animals

Philip Quinn and Lynne Rudder Baker each turn to the question of the value of the embodied person. Quinn looks primarily at the integrity of what it is to be a person, while Baker is more interested in the person’s place in the natural order. Incidentally, Baker is one of those materialists who cannot help but throw one of those aforementioned stares in van Inwangen’s direction.

The last four essays deal with Christian doctrine. Trenton Merriks’ essay attempts to show how the various notions of mind/body relationships might bear upon the doctrine of the Incarnation. Merriks displays both a depth to the history of the doctrine and takes in a fair bit of the philosophical territory as well. This is an essay should disabuse both those who think the relationship between Christ human and divine natures is obvious that who would dismiss it out of hand. Peter Forrest tackles the question of personal survival after death. One should have a taste for both the more speculative works of physics and modal logic when diving into this essay. Michael C. Rea takes on the question of human responsibility and the doctrine of Original Sin. As with Merriks’ essay, Rea moves easily between theology and philosophy. Finally, Brian Leftow, who as written a number of defenses of the so-called Latin view of the Trinity (where each of the Persons is just God as opposed the the Social view where each Person is seen as an individual who is God) explores what it means to be a person given a Latin perspective.

Persons is not an easy read. It expects some background in both theology and contemporary analytic philosophy. However, the prose is lively, even conversational at times. There is something in Persons for everyone from the advanced undergraduate to the professional philosophers and theologians to interested amateur.


The Logic of Alice

February 8th, 2010 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

The Logic of Alice: Clear Thinking in Wonderland, by Bernard M. Patten (Prometheus 2009)

A man who doesn’t believe in Robinson Crusoe . . . is a man with a loose screw in his understanding. or a man lost in the mist of his own self-conceit! Argument is thrown away upon him; and pity is better reserved for some person with a livelier faith.

The Moonstone

Besides being near contemporaries, what does Betteredge in the Moonstone have in common with Alice and her adventures in Wonderland (Why is raven like a writing desk?)?  All in good time.

I grew up not with the book by Lewis Carroll, but the Disney cartoon.  I suppose my youngest child will grow up on the live action version.  Still even then, I knew many episodes quite well and was easily convinced as an undergraduate that Alice’s adventures, far from being examples of nonsense were indeed filled with logical arguments and fallacies. (at this point I should hasten to add that I did eventually read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for myself, and yes it is a logician’s paradise).  So then, imagine my delight at coming across a book that was reputed to outline all subtlety of reasoned argument in the mist of utter confusion.

Now imagine my utter disappointment.  The Logic of Alice is a sprawling work that says more about its author than about clear thinking itself.  We get his opinions of religion, politics,  science, sex, child-rearing, ethics and a host of other topics.  Yes logic and sound reasoning pervade, but often Alice’s encounters seem to be more of a launch-pad for what Patten deems to be clear thinking than the problems that actually confront Alice. Read the rest of this entry »


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