The Buntline Special: A Weird West Tale by Mike Resnick (Pyr 2010)
Classifying The Buntline Special is something of a challenge. At first one might be inclined to file it under steampunk. It is set in the late nineteenth century (Tombstone, Arizona, 1881) and the internal combustion is no where insight. However, the reason that no such engines exist is because it would appear that it is going to be bypassed altogether in favor of electricity. Besides, in many ways the Tombstone of The Buntline Special is like the the Tombstone of the Old West. There are no pretensions of it being a dystopia, just a place that had but a nodding acquaintance with civil order. Perhaps the alternative history genre? After all, what can one say about a story set in Tombstone, where the United States ends at the Mississippi? Perhaps, but alternative history is normally based on some rather mundane event turning out differently. In this case, the United States does not extend further west because the Indian Nations have some very powerful medicine men who held the most powerful nation in the western hemisphere at bay by, well, magic, Geronimo being the most prominent practitioner, Resnick also introduces us to undead creatures (anachronistically called zombies to fit the current zeitgeist) and someone who is somewhere between a vampire and a werewolf. So maybe we are back to steampunk and specters spawned by the Victorian age.
What we don’t have here is a Western. Even though this is Tombstone, even if we Doc Holliday, the Earps, the Clantons, and the gunfight at the OK Corral, there isn’t a lot of actions or tension leading up to what action there is. There really isn’t that much science fiction either. Yes, it features Thomas Edison in Tombstone working feverishly on a technological way to counter the Indian magic. Yes, Tombstone has electric street lamps (which no other municipality can boast) and electric vehicles, but it provides no explanation of how Tombstone is generating all this electricity and it boasts something featured as super strong (bullet proof, in fact) super-light brass. Moreover, there is barely a clue as to how Edison is suppose to counter Geronimo and his ilk.
What there is, is dialog. Lots of it, wry, witty, understated, and just plain fun. As one might expect, Resnick gives Holliday the best lines, making almost everyone else a foil for his repartee. That all the living characters (and I dare say a fair number of readers) are clearly out of their depth without their even realizing it when confronting Holliday makes his wit all the more savory. The art nouvelleque illustrations by Seamas Gallagher also add a hint of mischief. For that reason, I am not even going to give a synopsis of the plot, because while the plot makes sense and is well woven together, what really matters the characters that history (for the most part) and Resnick brought together for what is an enjoyable and diversionary read.
The Problem of Evil, edited by Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams (Oxford 1990).
If God is almighty, all-knowing, and perfectly good, why do bad things happen? Depending on where one stands, such a question is puzzle, a mystery, or proof that the concept of a deity is unsubstantiated. The seeds of the problem can be seen with Epicurus in the 3rd century BCE and has been developed over the centuries. Although stated in many ways, the following argument should give one the gist of the issue at hand.1
- If God were all powerful, God could prevent any evil,
- If God were all knowing, God would know how to prevent any evil,
- If God were perfectly good, God would wish to prevent any evil,
- Evil is incompatible with an all powerful, all knowing, and perfectly good being,
- By definition, God is all powerful, all knowing, and perfectly good,
- Evil exists.
- God does not exist.
The argument took its modern form with David Hume and his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion but perhaps took on its most rigorous and pithy incarnation with J. L. Mackie and his 1955 article “Evil and Omnipotence.” The following forty years so since the publication of Mackie’s oft quoted and reproduced article has spawned a renewed philosophical interest in and creative investigation of the question of evil.
Adams and Adams have selected twelve previously published articles or chapters (starting with Mackie) to show how the problem has developed and how landscape has changed. Yes, these are all previously published and one could, if one wished, go to the effort of assembling these for yourself, but they are so well placed with each other and the introduction so instructive that the book itself is well worth reading, whether one is an upper-level undergraduate studying philosophy or religion, a professor of the same, or an amateur philosopher.
As previously stated, The Problem, starts with Mackie. For those, such as myself, who have seen Mackie and his argument invoked, summarized, and critiqued, it is good to have finally read the argument as a piece, if for no other reason but because the summaries not only abbreviate the main thrust of Mackie’s presentation but lop off most of his subsidiary critiques.
This in turn is followed by Nelson Pike’s “Hume on Evil,” which allows us to see the connection between Hume and Mackie. More than that, Pike’s argument, including his borrowing of Leibniz’s best possible world analysis paves the way the arguments that Alvin Plantinga would later refine in The Nature of Necessity and God, Freedom and Evil.
One pleasant surprise for me was Roderick Chisholm’s “The Defeat of Good and Evil.” Anyone who has read Marilyn McCord Adams’ numerous contributions to the question of evil will be aware of her distinction between balancing good against evil with good defeating evil. The technical distinction is found in this article dating from 1968, and Chisholm is know for nothing if not crafting every finer technical definitions.
The next two chapters, Alvin Plantinga’s “God, Evil and the Problem of Evil” and Robert Merrihew’s Adams’ “Middle Knowledge and the Problem of Evil,” are well paired. Mackie is credited with bringing new rigor to the problem of evil and setting the stage for subsequent discussion. Plantinga can take credit not only for answering Mackie but for taking the problem into a whole new direction. One simply cannot appreciate the various arguments regarding the problem of evil over the past twenty years without reference to this article. The key feature of Plantinga’s argument involves reviving (and recasting) an idea called middle knowledge. Adam’s critique of middle knowledge is important not in that overturns Plantinga’s argument but that it makes a atheologian’s task all the harder—though at the cost of jettisoning some long-held views of omniscience. This has created its own debated among believers.
The next three represent a debated between William Rowe and Stephen Wykstra. Rowe’s “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism” along with Wykstra’s “The Humean Obstacle to Evidential Arguments from Suffering,” reflect not only a response to Plantinga in weakening Makie’s argument from logical to evidential but the believer’s agnostic reply. Basically Rowe’s argument is that on the evidence, one would expect either less suffering than there is or that there would be no suffering of a particular sort (Rowe presses the second here). Wykstra’s reply is that such an analysis depends on (a) what we are in a position to know or expect and (b) within some specific varieties of theism we would expect goods beyond our ken to arise out of evils. Some variations of this argument have been called the agnostic defense. Rowe’s rejoinder is that Wykstra is relying on an enhanced version of theism that depends on the more generic version that he, Rowe, has criticized. Consequently the enhanced version falls with the generic. Both evidential problem of evil and the “agnostic” reply have been hotly debated in the literature. What is also interesting here is that Rowe’s rejoinder neatly sets up Marilyn McCord Adam’s final contribution to this anthology.
Unlike much The Problem, he next installment, a couple of chapters in John Hick’s Evil and the Love of God, is out of chronological sequence. Although Hick’s book might be consider something akin to basic reading on the problem of evil, it does approach things from a very different direction. If you have ever heard the phrase, “vale of soul-making,” you can thank Hick. Discussions, such as Plantinga or Pike’s, which focus on the amount or balance of good and evil in the world are seen by Hicks as essentially aesthetic and do not address the situation of the sufferer herself. Hick argues that what the universe is about is the making and perfecting of souls and that this task requires suffering.
Diogenes Allen at once expands upon Hick and turns his analysis on its head. Allen argues (against Hick’s anthropocentric view) that an aesthetic consideration, if taken teleologically for nature as a whole is a valuable perspective that should not be cast off. In doing so, however, he does make a point, similar to that of Hick’s, that suffering has the potential to open us up to the love of God and so at least has the potential to be of some use.
One of the editors had been setting herself up to have the last word in this anthology. As already noted, a number selections point to Marilyn McCord Adams’ “Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God.” Adams article to one extent or another takes on most of what has come before and arrives at a provocative synthesis. What most noteworthy of Adams’ work, however, is how she pushes the point with examining evils which would seem to provide doubt that one’s life could provide oneself any great good (what she terms horrendous evils) and the defense of the hope that such evils are defeated by God in that God participates in our suffering with us as made evident in Jesus Christ.
1There is a very separate, and under-appreciated problem that asks that if God is the source of all being, how evil can exist if God is essentially good. If God is good, whence came evil?
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, 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, 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, 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 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, 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: 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.
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, 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)