Thursday, December 30, 2010

Unbroken and the problem of evil

I recently finished Laura Hillenbrand’s terrific new book Unbroken, the story of Louis Zamperini, 1936 Olympian and prisoner of war under the Japanese during WWII. I was compelled to buy a copy after reading an absolutely gripping excerpt in Vanity Fair, which described the harrowing 46 days Zamperini and his fellow airman Russell Phillips spent adrift at sea after their plane went down in the Pacific and before they were picked up by the Japanese. You can read it yourself here. After doing so you might think that a human being could endure no greater suffering than Zamperini and Phillips did as castaways. You would be wrong, as the rest of the book makes clear.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Hume, cosmological arguments, and the fallacy of composition

Both critics and defenders of arguments for the existence of God as an Uncaused Cause often assume that such arguments are essentially concerned to explain the universe considered as a whole. That is true of some versions, but not all. For instance, it is not true of Aquinas’s arguments, at least as many Thomists understand them. For the Thomist, you don’t need to start with something grand like the universe in order to show that God exists. Any old thing will do – a stone, a jar of peanut butter, your left shoe, whatever. The existence of any one of these things even for an instant involves the actualization of potencies here and now, which in turn presupposes the activity of a purely actual actualizer here and now. It involves the conjoining of an essence to an act of existence here and now, which presupposes a sustaining cause whose essence and existence are identical. It involves a union of parts in something composite, which presupposes that which is absolutely simple or incomposite. And so forth. (As always, for the details see Aquinas, especially chapter 3.)

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Putting the Cross back into Christmas

It is difficult to be a human being. Illness, injury, death, bereavement, depression, frustrated hopes, unfulfilled dreams, unrequited love, despair, humiliation, hunger, nakedness, want of every kind – the usual illustrations of the problem of evil provide ample evidence of this. The point applies no less to those relatively untouched by such misfortunes. For they are more prone than their fellows to become complacent, superficial, ungrateful, and selfish – an even graver misfortune, and one that tends to lead us into the lesser ones after all. But every human being has his own distinctive moral weaknesses. It is difficult to be a human being because it is difficult to be a good human being – a human being who flourishes, who fulfills the various ends nature has set for us, whether they be our animal ends or our higher, rational and moral ends.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Long Rain

It’s been raining for days and days here in L.A., and I can’t stop thinking of Ray Bradbury’s classic short story “The Long Rain.” Bradbury no doubt gets the physics, geology, and biology of a world of endless rain quite wrong – I don't think he ever claimed to be a hard SF writer – but it’s a terrific story all the same. It’s been filmed a couple of times, once as a segment of the movie version of The Illustrated Man, and once as an episode of The Ray Bradbury Theater. Both versions are well done, but the only one I can find online is the former. (You’ll have to follow the link to “The Illustrated Man (1969) Part 8” at the end for the conclusion. What you see below starts abruptly, but it’s only a couple of minutes into the segment, which begins at the tail end of “Part 6.”)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Haldane on Hawking

John Haldane responds to The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, in the latest issue of First Things.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Heil and Mumford on contemporary academic philosophy

John Heil, from the preface to From an Ontological Point of View (Oxford University Press, 2003):

Philosophy today is often described as a profession. Philosophers have specialized interests and address one another in specialized journals. On the whole, what we do in philosophy is of little interest to anyone without a Ph.D. in the subject. Indeed, subdisciplines within philosophy are often intellectually isolated from one another…

The professionalization of philosophy, together with a depressed academic job market, has led to the interesting idea that success in philosophy should be measured by appropriate professional standards. In practice, this has too often meant that cleverness and technical savvy trump depth. Positions and ideas are dismissed or left unconsidered because they are not comme il faut. Journals are filled with papers exhibiting an impressive level of professional competence, but little in the way of insight, originality, or abiding interest. Non-mainstream, even wildly non-mainstream, conclusions are allowed, even encouraged, provided they come with appropriate technical credentials.

Stephen Mumford, in his contribution to Metaphysics: 5 Questions, edited by Asbjørn Steglich-Petersen (Automatic Press, 2010):

Since philosophy has become professionalized, I think few stones have been left unturned. Rather than subjects being neglected, I think there are more topics that have received too much attention. Most of the journals are filled with material that but a few people will ever read and which I think will not stand the test of time. The problem is that in various ways professional philosophers are obliged to publish, whether they have anything new and substantial to say or not. I would really like to see the journal editors take a lead in this respect and stop publishing papers on the negative basis of them making the fewest errors or fewest controversial claims and start publishing on the positive criterion of them having something important or interesting to say…

I like papers that offer bold new insights but it is all too rare that one finds them. The system of edited, peer-reviewed journals is an inherently conservative one where paradigm-challenging work is very unlikely to be accepted because it threatens the interests of the editor and referees…

I think contemporary philosophy has become too self-congratulatory, with an arrogant self-assurance that the work we are producing is vastly superior to that of the interested amateurs of the past. But has anyone of late produced as fine and appealing a work as Hume’s Treatise or Locke’s Essay? On the contrary, I fear that in future centuries, the current era will be looked upon as a philosophical dark age where very little of interest was authored.

No comment, except to invite comparison with what one might gather about the careerist mentality that prevails in much of “the profession” from Michael Huemer’s sobering advice to aspiring grad students in philosophy. (Here’s your homework assignment: Compare “advancing in the profession,” as that is understood today, and “the love of wisdom,” with reference to the dispute between Socrates and the Sophists.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Even I don’t think it’s THAT good…

I see that a dealer at Amazon is selling the (currently out-of-stock) hardback of The Last Superstition for – wait for it – $999.99. Ridiculous, no? Especially given that several other dealers are pricing it in the bargain basement $150 range (!)

Seriously, what’s the deal? I’ve seen weird prices like this before at Amazon, and I assume that second-hand dealers have some automatic, computerized system for jacking up the price on out-of-stock books. But who’s going to buy a copy of any recent book for a thousand bucks, let alone my little tome? What’s the point of leaving a book listed online at such a ridiculous price? Anyone out there know how this works?

Just to play it safe, though, you might want to have that hardback copy of TLS CGC graded, stick it in a Mylar bag, and store it in a humidity controlled safe deposit box between your copies of Vault of Horror #12 and Amazing Fantasy #15. Meanwhile, the paperback is available for a sane $12.92.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Causal loops, infinite regresses, and information

On a reader’s recommendation, the wife and I took in the 2007 Spanish science fiction movie Timecrimes last weekend. Great flick. It’s a time travel story similar in structure to Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps” (which I discussed in a recent post), though the plot is very different. Hector, the movie’s protagonist, spies through his binoculars a woman removing her shirt in the woods beyond his house. After going out to investigate, he comes upon the woman lying naked and motionless, and is then suddenly stabbed in the arm by an attacker whose head is wrapped in bloody bandages. (Since this is a family blog of sorts, I suppose I should alert the unwary viewer lest he be temporarily blinded by the rather bright pair of headlights that appears onscreen a couple of times, and I don’t mean the ones on Hector’s car. Good thing my wife was there to shield my eyes!)

The latest on ID and Thomism

Frank Beckwith kindly reviews my book Aquinas in a lengthy essay in the latest Philosophia Christi. He focuses on the dispute between Thomism and Intelligent Design theory (though those who haven’t read the book should know that it deals with this subject only briefly). In other recent discussion, over at The Huffington Post, John Farrell comments on the conflict between ID theory and Thomism, kindly linking to yours truly. Over at Touchstone, Logan Paul Gage takes issue with the claim that there is any conflict between ID and Thomism, politely disagreeing with yours truly. Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse, though critical of ID, seems completely baffled by yours truly. I’ve got zero interest in getting into another ID vs. Thomism blog war at the moment, so I’ll refrain from commenting. For now.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Kaczor on abortion

Christopher Kaczor’s The Ethics of Abortion is just out from Routledge. David Boonin, author of A Defense of Abortion, calls it “one of the very best book-length defenses of the claim that abortion is morally impermissible.” Natural law theorist J. Budziszewski says that the book “replies to the most difficult objections to the pro-life position, many of which have not been adequately addressed by previous authors.” Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews calls it “the most complete, the most penetrating and the most up-to-date set of critiques of the arguments for abortion choice presently available.” Don Marquis, author of the widely anthologized article “Why Abortion is Immoral,” calls it “essential reading.” Check it out.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A is A

The Advaita Vedānta school within Hindu philosophy holds that the self is identical with God. A student of mine recently lamented that too many Westerners who claim to follow this doctrine draw precisely the wrong lesson from it. Instead of freeing themselves from the limitations of their selfish egos and looking at the world from the divine point of view, they deify their selfishness. They bring God down to their level rather than rising up to His level.

Well, that is annoying. The trouble is that startling identity claims have a way of boomeranging. The Vedantist says “You are God!” hoping to shock his listener out of his egotism. The shallow listener thinks “Wow, I am God!” and his egotism is only reinforced. He puts the accent on the “I” rather than on “God.” And why not, if he and God really are identical?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The dreaded causa sui

There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible.

Summa Theologiae I.2.3

If, then, something were its own cause of being, it would be understood to be before it had being – which is impossible…

Summa Contra Gentiles I.22.6

Was Aquinas mistaken? Could something be its own cause? Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow seem to think so. In their recent book The Grand Design, they tell us that “we create [the universe’s] history by our observation, rather than history creating us” and that since we are part of the universe, it follows that “the universe… create[d] itself from nothing.”

I examine their position (and the many things that are wrong with it) in my review of the book for National Review. What is of interest for present purposes is their suggestion that future events can bring about past ones. Could this be a way of making plausible “the dreaded causa sui” (as I seem to recall John Searle once referring to the idea in a lecture)? That is to say, might a thing A possibly cause itself as long as it does so indirectly, by causing some other thing B to exist or occur in the past which in turn causes A?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Plantinga’s ontological argument

Alvin Plantinga famously defends a version of the ontological argument that makes use of the notion of possible worlds. As is typically done, we might think of a “possible world” as a complete way that things might have been. In the actual world I am writing up this blog post, but I could have decided instead to go pour myself a Scotch. (Since it’s still morning, I won’t – I can wait an hour.) So, we might say that there is a possible world more or less like the actual world – Obama is still president, I still teach and write philosophy, and so forth – except that instead of writing up this blog post at this particular moment, I am pouring myself a Scotch. (Naturally there will be some other differences that follow from this one.) We can imagine possible worlds that are even more different or less different in various ways – a possible world where the Allies lost World War II, a possible world in which human beings never existed, a possible world exactly like the actual one except that the book next to me sits a millimeter farther to the right than it actually does, and so forth. Not everything is a possible world, though. There is no possible world where 2 + 2 = 5 or in which squares are round.