Jeremy Pierce: May 2008 Archives

Consider the following passage:

He then said to me: "Son of man, go now to the house of Israel and speak my words to them. You are not being sent to a people of obscure speech and difficult language, but to the house of Israel -- not to many peoples of obscure speech and difficult language, whose words you cannot understand. Surely if I had sent you to them, they would have listened to you. But the house of Israel is not willing to listen to you because they are not willing to listen to me, for the whole house of Israel is hardened and obstinate. But I will make you as unyielding and hardened as they are. I will make your forehead like the hardest stone, harder than flint. Do not be afraid of them or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious house." [Ezekiel 2:4-9, NIV]

When I read through the book of Ezekiel a little while back, several things struck me about this passage:

1. God seems to indicate that Ezekiel's message would have received a better response if he'd been preaching it to people who didn't even understand the words he was saying. That's a pretty serious hardening of the heart, if anyone who doesn't even understand the message being said will give a better response than Israel would.

2. It seems like an interesting example of God's knowledge of what people would do in some non-actual scenario. Jesus says something similar about how Sodom and Gomorrah would have responded had they seen the miracles Jesus performed. In both cases it's a strong statement against God's people's unwillingness to believe. In both cases, if it's meant literally (rather than sarcastic exaggeration), it's an example of God knowing how people would respond if things had been different, indeed of something pretty unexpected that God seems to be saying would have happened if things were otherwise.

3. There's such a clear statement of Israel's unwillingness to listen to God. It doesn't say afterward that they didn't believe. It doesn't say simultaneously that they aren't believing but might. It says before he's preached anything that they are not willing to listen. The kind of hardening that's true of them is not the sort where it's unclear what will result. God is telling Ezekiel now that they're not going to respond favorably and not to fear. This does seem to suggest a pretty strong view of God's understanding of how people will respond to something.

4. There's still an acknowledgment that some will listen. Earlier in 2:7, and later in 3:11, God tells Ezekiel that his task is the same whether they listen or not. It doesn't say that some will nonetheless listen, even if most don't. It doesn't say that there's a chance they might listen, and God doesn't know for sure. This would have been a perfect opportunity to say either. What is says is to preach the message regardless of their response. Their response is irrelevant to whether Ezekiel preaches. I have a feeling open theists would want to read this statement as leaving the wiggle room they need for there being no guarantee of God's prediction being true. But I don't see that. I see God saying that they won't believe and that Ezekiel should preach no matter how they respond, not saying that anyone might or will respond favorably.

A Recent Conversation

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Sophia holds up her bunny, sans the usual bow tied around its neck: "See, I took off his bow. Now he's a boy."
Me: "The bunny's a boy now?"
Sophia: "Yes, she is."

We recently finished listening to Harlan Ellison's reading of Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea. This novel is often thought of as one of the great fantasy novels of our time (well, the time of the people saying it; I wasn't around yet). It was difficult going to such a sparse story, with very little character development and hardly any dialogue (and Ellison, while very expressive in prose narrative, reads dialogue like it's the phone book). My sense is that Le Guin is appreciated for the world she created rather than for her storytelling, which simply didn't impress me, not after coming off of listening to the whole Harry Potter series. Rowling is a much more entertaining writer. Her characters are much more fully developed. The world is much more developed, even in the first book. It's much more imaginative. There's a richer, more complex plot. There's nothing to latch onto in Le Guin's book. It's like a short story extended over a whole novel.

So it surprised me to see Le Guin's derisive comments about J.K. Rowling:

Her credit to JK Rowling for giving the "whole fantasy field a boost" is tinged with regret. "I didn't feel she ripped me off, as some people did," she says quietly, "though she could have been more gracious about her predecessors. My incredulity was at the critics who found the first book wonderfully original. She has many virtues, but originality isn't one of them. That hurt."

She doesn't think Rowling ripped her off. Yet she is hurt that people think Rowling was original. I'm guessing she thinks there's a level of borrowing between ripping her off and being original and that the Harry Potter books are in that area. I don't see it. The way magic works is very different in the two worlds. The general storyline is very different. I don't see much similarity at all, actually. Wikipedia's reference to the above quote offers some explanation, however:

The basic premise of Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), in which a boy with unusual aptitude for magic is recognised, and sent to a special school for wizards, resembles that of Harry Potter. The hero encounters Jasper, a typically unpleasant Draco-like rival, in the Flashman tradition.

The way Harry Potter's unusual aptitude for magic is recognized is nothing like Ged's. It's a completely different kind of magic that gets discovered in a different way, and the way he ends up at the school isn't remotely similar. The school itself is nothing like Hogwarts and occupies only a fairly brief section of the book. The rival Jasper appears for maybe one chapter. If that's the best they can do, then I think they're grasping at straws. If that's what Le Guin really had in mind, then it doesn't reflect well on her to have said this.

This isn't the only time I've seen Le Guin overreacting to something and taking it way out of proportion, to the point of almost ignoring more important things. Her response to the by-all-accounts awful pseudo-adaptation of her novels has an introductory paragraph mentioning that the story of the miniseries doesn't resemble the novels at all, four paragraphs on her role, or lack thereof, in the process of producing the miniseries, nine paragraphs on the issue of race, and one final condemnation those who produced the miniseries. She says the miniseries changes her story almost entirely, using some scenes from her books but putting them together in a very different overall plot and removing the important context. That's a significant claim. Yet she doesn't substantiate it, at all.

The one thing she does complain about in detail really is worth complaining about. I would have been very upset if I'd written something like what she wrote, and they had done this to it. She explicitly made most of her characters something like darker natives of the Americas in look. There's a small minority of brown-skinned characters (with straight hair, so more like Indians than Africans) and a small minority of Viking-like pale, blond, blue-eyed barbarians. Most of Earthsea is dominated by people she describes as reddish. She's deliberately playing with people's sense of race and the assumption of whiteness as a norm. She doesn't make a big deal of it in the books, but it's noticeable just because she mentions it offhand as if it's normal.

So it would have been nice if the miniseries had gotten that aspect of her world. But it's far from being central to the storyline itself, as she says it is, and it's certainly not worth nine significant paragraphs when absolutely nothing in her complaint surfaces about any specific things they changed about the storyline. I have no sense, since I haven't seen it, of what specifically they did to change the plot, and I couldn't evaluate it other than the racial issue, which again is relatively minor to the plot of the book, without actually seeing the thing. The way she deals with race in her books is very important for her world and for one of the points she wanted to get across with her novel. But it's simply not central to the novel itself, which is a story that race hardly enters into in the course of the events that take place in it. She deliberately made it non-central, so it's strange that she sees it as so central that she can spend all her time complaining about it without even a quick mention of what they got wrong on more significant matters.


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The 226th Christian Carnival is up at Bounded Irrationality.

The One

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I'm teaching Parmenides, Zeno, and Gorgias tomorrow, and their arguments are so fun that I thought I might post them for discussion. Parmenides is generally seen as the founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy. Elea was a city on the Italic peninsula during the classical Greek period, and it was one of a few centers of philosophical thought in the pre-Socratic period. He argued that there really can't be multiple things but just one unchanging, eternal thing. What we perceive to be many, changing things is but illusion. He has a kind of dualism, because he speaks of what is (the unchanging one) and what is not (illusion, what we perceive). But since the second doesn't exist, there's really only one thing.

His student Zeno (not the same Zeno who founded the Stoic school a few centuries later) is famous for his paradoxes against motion, which served the purpose of supporting the overall Parmenidean thesis that there's no change. Gorgias the Sophist presented a parady of Parmenidean arguments, concluding that there isn't even one thing. There's just nothing. It's not clear if he does it to show that he thinks the whole discussion is stupid or if he thinks he's showing by parody what's wrong with Parmenides' arguments, but given that he was a Sophist who was famous for his claim that he could argue for any thesis, it's generally accepted that he wasn't endorsing his argument. I'll post a reconstruction of Parmenides' primary argument here. I may or may not post some Zeno stuff at some point, but I definitely want to do Gorgias' parody in a later post. So here's one way to capture Parmenides' argument.

Anything has to be in one of the four categories:
A. It is and it cannot not be.
B. It is not and it cannot be.
C. It is but can fail to be.
D. It is not but could have been in the past or could be in the future.

C and D are not options:

Against D: How could it possibly be that something exists but doesn't exist? If it exists, it exists. That's a necessary truth. It couldn't fail to be true. If it exists, it necessarily exists.

Against C: If something doesn't exist, then necessarily it doesn't exist. How could it not exist and exist? So it's got to be a necessary truth. That rules out C in a similar way.

That means that anything that doesn't exist cannot exist, and anything that does exist must exist. So the only possibilities are A and B.

He then argues that you can't think or speak about the non-existent, because something has to be possible to be thought of or spoken of. There's no possible thing to speak of or think of unless it's possible, and if it's possible then it's actual. So all there is is what does and must exist.

Now what does exist is what must exist, and that means it can't change. Change involves being one way and then no longer being that way. But if it exists, then it exists as it must be, because nothing is possible that isn't actual. So every way of being already is, and there's no room for change. Also, there can't be more than one thing, because two things mean there's a way to distinguish between them. If you can distinguish between Thing 1 and Thing 2, then that means Thing 1 is not Thing 2. But that can't be, because nothing can not be. Not being Thing 2 is a way of not being, and it's impossible to speak of something that's not Thing 2 if the thing you speak of (Thing 1) isn't Thing 2. So what he's already said leaves no room for multiplicity or change.

Therefore, there's only one unchanging thing, and all else that seems to be true is just illusion.

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The 226th Christian Carnival will be taking place this coming Wednesday at Bounded Irrationality. The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the not-recently-updated Matt Jones's list of previous Christian Carnivals or the up-to-date but less-informative christiancarnival.com list.
 
To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:

John McCain has ditched the support of John Hagee. Hagee has some pretty wacky views. I'll be the first to say that. They don't compare in offensiveness with those of Jeremiah Wright, but they are weird. The fact that Hagee supported him also doesn't compare with Obama's 20-year commitment (with lots of money given), since McCain didn't invite anything from Hagee, never mind attend his church or announce him as his spiritual adviser (before pretending the media had invented that term when it came back to haunt him).

But one complaint did seem to get a foothold. Hagee has a reputation for being anti-Semitic, and McCain finally gave in when a particular statement (from about a decade ago) surfaced. This statement, which can be found here, basically amounts to saying that God had a purpose for allowing the Holocaust, and that purpose was to bring his people Israel back to the Holy Land. This statement was labeled anti-Semitic, and because of it McCain ended up withdrawing his acceptance of Hagee's support of it.

This completely baffles me. Hagee's statement is unfounded biblically. It's a stupid inference to draw given that we're not in a position to know much about what purposes God might have had for allowing Hitler to do what he did. Nevertheless, it's neither innovative nor anti-Jewish to think God had purposes for Jews through what happened in the Holocaust. It's parallel to many things said throughout the Hebrew Bible, including the way the Bible speaks of Jacob's ordeals with Laban, Joseph's trials with his brothers and in Egypt, all Israel's captivity in Egypt, and their much later captivity in Babylon.

Certainly anyone who accepts Christian teaching will find it hard to deny that the Holocaust is part of all things, since it did happen, and Christian teaching includes Paul's statements about all things working together for good. But you don't need the New Testament to see that the basic thesis that the Holocaust must have served some ultimate purpose in God's plans is perfectly representative of the theology of the Hebrew Bible, i.e. what contemporary Jews recognize as the Bible. There's plenty of criticism of Jews among their own prophets, though it's not criticism of Jews as Jews but of particular Jews or the majority of particular generations of Jews at a time. Hagee would surely agree with all that as part of the Christian Bible. But the main claim here is simply that it's anti-Semitic to think that God had a purpose for the Holocaust. That's completely and totally crazy.

Senator McCain should not have given in on this for the reason he seems to have given in on it. Hagee has weird views, and proposing the particular purpose he did goes way beyond anything a Christian should conclude from the theology the biblical authors assume. But the element that's being called anti-Semitic simply is not. The idea that a basic premise of Hebrew theology is anti-Semitic would be funny if large numbers of people didn't somehow get themselves to believe it and to smear public figures for believing it (or accepting support from those who believe it). McCain's description of this as deeply offensive should be seriously alienating to any Jews or Christians who hold to the traditional theology of both religions. This probably won't backfire for him politically, because most voters are as ignorant of the Bible as McCain apparently is, but evangelicals don't need another excuse to feel alienated by McCain.



The hosting schedule for the Christian Carnival has dropped off my front page, so it's time to post a new one. You can find more information about the Christian Carnival here. The schedule as it stands is below, and I will add to it as I schedule new hosts.

Several people have volunteered who do not appear below, because some people I've asked about specific dates have not responded. If you've emailed me already asking for a date to host, don't be worried that you're not on the list yet. If you'd like to host a future edition of the Christian Carnival and have not contacted me about doing so, please let me know at the email address at the top of the page. If you have particular preferences as to when you would like to host, please include that in your message. When possible, I will try to give the earliest spots to new hosts and hosts who have hosted less recently.

225 May 21 Parableman
226 May 28 Bounded Irrationality
227 June 4 Ancient Hebrew Poetry
228 June 11 Chasing the Wind
229 June 18 RodneyOlsen.net
230 June 25 Thinking Christian
231 July 2 Fish and Cans
232 July 9 Crossroads: Where Faith and Inquiry Meet
233 July 16 Diary of 1
234 July 23 A True Believer's Weblog
235 July 30 Everyday Liturgy
236 Aug 6 Brain Cramps for God

Eugene Volokh points out a problem in the way some people are arguing for brute parental control rather than looking at serious studies to determine whether abstinence-only sex education has the effects it's supposed to have. He's right about that.

I do have a quibble, though, and I wonder if it shows a deep disagreement between many of the people on the two sides of this issue. The way he frames his criticism seems to me to assume something that many on the abstinence-only side will not grant. He says:

But if you're going to talk about what's actually "best for ... children" -- which is to say what's actually effective in preventing harmful behavior -- then don't claim that parents have some sort of innate insight into a process that they've never systematically studied, and as to which they have at best a couple of observations (and far from perfect ones, since they may not know that much about their children's sex lives). It's not that parents are less inherently "elite" than public health Ph.D.s. It's just that, on the question of what sorts of educational programs work in this area, only people who have indeed studied the subject in a systematic way are likely to have a trustworthy opinion on what will actually work.

That's probably right if we can all agree on what counts as what's best for children and then figure out how to measure that. But he's given a very explicit account of what's best for children, and it's not one that I think many people on the abstinence-only side would accept. He equates what's best for them (i.e. well-being) with preventing harmful behavior. Doesn't that assume that the only thing that can make their lives worse is their own and others' harmful behavior rather than simply not living up to high standards?

I wonder if this reveals a key difference in assumptions lying behind disputes about this issue. People who favor more comprehensive sex education are simply trying to prevent teen pregnancy and the spread of STDs. People who favor abstinence-only education are trying to promote a much broader kind of excellence than merely not running into those two very narrow problems compared to all the other ways people can fall short of the ideal sexually. (They have other differences too, including differences in what counts as the sexual ideal, but I think this issue is an important part of the puzzle.)

Now some people do agree with the Volokh view of self-interest, thinking of well-being just as lack of harm. But some people have a higher notion of excellence, and I wonder if that assumption leads many people to avoid the studies he wants them to pay attention to. If the studies assume something about what's best for kids, and it's not the most important thing about what's best for them in the minds of these parents, then it's no surprise that they don't care what the study shows. The study relies on assumptions they disagree with. It's thus irrelevant to them. Most of the people I'm talking about probably don't think explicitly in these terms, but I think it's part of what's going on. If I'm right, then they're not being quite as anti-intellectual as Volokh thinks.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Welcome to the 225th Christian Carnival. For more on what the Christian Carnival is, please see this post.

I'm hosting this week because it was the only week between mid-January and the end of June that I have no teaching responsibilities. (Even in Spring Break I have a huge pile of grading to get through, and this year I wasn't even able to do that due to illness in the family, so I'm glad I didn't try to host that week.) Nevertheless, things often come up, and this time around it was a computer issue. I dropped my computer late Sunday night and heard the familiar sound of the hard drive not working properly, I just happened to have burned a CD of SpinRite, one of the best hard drive diagnosis and repair programs around, so I put it in and set it up to run. I'd just run it on my wife's machine, and it took a few hours at most. Well, the problems on my hard drive were more serious, and it didn't finish until late afternoon yesterday, totaling 40 hours of me and my wife sharing an old computer because both of ours were down.

So I'm just getting to looking at Christian Carnival submissions this morning, and at this point I'm just going to put up the posts without much fanfare. I usually like to edit the default text so the BlogCarnival submissions don't sound too repetitive, but I'd rather just get the Carnival posted.

I want to emphasize the rules for when posts have to be written before I go on, since there were a lot of posts this week that were outside the proper range. In one case, the submitter was able to provide a more recent post. With some others, they're recent enough that I've included them as late submissions for last week in a separate section. But please remember that submissions are supposed to have been posted since the previous Wednesday to be in the current edition of the Christian Carnival. Some hosts aren't sticklers about this, but the Christian Carnival is supposed to be a reflection of the best posts from the Christian blogosphere of the past week, a week running Wednesday to Tuesday.

Because some people limit their submissions to the last week and end up passing up on good posts in favor of ones they're less happy with (I have done this myself when I had two very good posts one week and one less good the next), it's not fair to them if we too often let in posts by others that are outside the proper range. So even if you submit a post on a Wednesday, if the post was posted the previous day it's out of range. Once the turnover to Wednesday occurs, the week resets, and all old posts are no longer current. So if you have a great post written at the beginning of the week, please try to refrain from posting it until Wednesday (I have often done this myself), or try to make sure you submit it by Tuesday night. I've tried to extend a lot of grace this week, but there's an important principle of fairness at issue here.

Well, enough of business. On to the 225th Christian Carnival!

The Final Cylon

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One of the big secrets to be discovered in the last season of the new Battlestar Galactica show is who the final Cylon is. We knew in the original miniseries that there were twelve models, and seven of those were gradually revealed over the course of the first two seasons. Then we saw no other models, and it became a mystery who the other five models were. Even the seven models didn't seem to know. Eventually one found out and got put in cold storage, and one of them really surprised her. She even apologized when she found out. But at the end of season three, four characters we had assumed to have been human all along turne out to be Cylons. The way they discovered it is that they had all been hearing the same music that no one else was hearing, and it had led them all to the same room. The producers have said these four really are Cylons, and yet they're different from the rest. The prophetic hybrid has said that they've been to earth, which must be how they all have within them the tune to a Bob Dylan song.

But what about the last model? We now know the model numbers of the first seven models we knew of. First we learned 2, 5, 6, and 8. In a recent episode this season we found out the others are 1, 3, and 4. That means the final five are 7 and 9-12. Wouldn't it make sense that the four we know about are 9-12 (as a set), and the still-missing one happens to be the symbolic number 7? It's unclear to me why Sharon would be higher than one of the five but lower than the rest, but perhaps that will be revealed, and perhaps her greater connection with the humans has something to do with it.

Here's my theory. Models 9-12 are a set. We now have seen models 1, 4, and 5 become a set separate from models 2, 6, and 8. I suspect something will happen with 3 and 7. But who might 7 be? I'm sure it's someone we've seen before, and I think it's likely that whoever it is was not on board the Galactica when the others began hearing the music, or we would have seen all five. That means it's probably someone on another ship or someone whose model we have encountered before is dead. It's probably a major enough character that it will be significant when we discover who it is, but it doesn't have to be a primary character. It could just be someone who wasn't on board the ship. Only one character stands out as important enough to be the final Cylon who wasn't on board. That's Tom Zarek. Wouldn't it be funny if the original Apollo turned out to have been a Cylon all along? The only other one not on board is Starbuck. The hints for it to be her would be overkill if she really is one, though, and these writers aren't that obvious. It's got to be deliberate misdirection.

But it might be someone who we've seen die. It could be Billy. I don't think he was on the show long enough for him to be likely, though. There's always the chance that it could be Admiral Cain. I don't think so, though, because I think they wanted her brutality to be oh-so-human. I doubt the other Pegasus characters would be important enough to get such a role, especially if it's the final one who number 3 was apologizing to when she discovered who they were. (Of course, they said things like that about Tigh and Tyrol, too, so this isn't a sure argument.) My guess is Ellen Tigh if it's someone dead, because we know she's still available for filming. She's already been in her husband's dream sequences this season, and he sees her when he sees a Cylon. So my guess is either Tom Zarek or Ellen Tigh, probably Ellen.

Of course, this is all undermined if the last five aren't a set and only the four we've seen. If that's so, then the fifth would be unrelated and thus might not have heard the music but have been there. Then it could be almost anyone.


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The 225th Christian Carnival will be taking place this coming Wednesday right here at Parableman. The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the not-recently-updated Matt Jones's list of previous Christian Carnivals or the up-to-date but less-informative christiancarnival.com list.
 
To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:

Regret in Heaven

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Jollyblogger weighs in on an interesting debate between John Piper and Phil Gons over whether there's regret over sin in heaven. David sides with Gons. I'm going to have to go with Piper on this one. As I said in my comment there,

So does God literally forget our sin? I know the verse that says he'll forget our sins, but is that literally true? Does God cease to be omniscient in the new creation? I doubt it. So if God can remember our sin and still be in perfect restoration of all good, then why can't the same be true of us?

I remember loving Miroslav Volf's Exclusion and Embrace for most of the first few chapters. The first thing that really threw me was his suggestion that we wouldn't remember anything bad from our earthly lives in the new creation. Why would God deceive us? Isn't only the truth in God and not lies? Even people like me who think lying can be ok in extreme circumstances in a fallen world don't think lying is ok in a perfect, restored community, and yet this is a suggestion of exactly that. I think I'm with Piper on this. [Links added]

The Bible speaks of God regretting certain things he does. One way to take this is in the open theistic way, wherein God couldn't manage to figure out what was going to happen once he did something, and then when it happened he wished he'd done otherwise than the bone-headed move he'd made, but it was too late to turn back. Another is to take all talk of regret as anthropomorphisms, and since God has no emotions at all it's just describing the way God behaves. God does things that seem to us as if God has regret. It's consistent with the way the Bible speaks of God's plans just to say that God does regret but not in a way that involves wishing he'd done otherwise.

It's actually quite easy to find cases where that's true. If there really are only two options, and each one involves something bad, then I might choose one simply because the combination of goods and bads in that option is better than the combination in the other option. That's too simplistic to compare to the decision-making that goes on in selecting which world to create, but most plausible answers to the problem of evil involve something like this. There are bad things in the universe. If you think about them in isolation from everything else, they are bad, and they deserve regret. There's something unfortunate about them. Yet when seen in the light of the whole, they occupy a place in tGod's overall plan of providence that means they're contributing toward the perfection of God's work in overseeing how creation has developed and is moving toward its culmination. At the micro-level, they are unfortunate and deserve regret. At the macro-level, they are perfect and deserve joy.

My suggestion is that this is how God sees evil. If God is temporal, this is how God sees evil now, but it's also how he'll see it once everything is restored. If he's atemporal, how he sees things is always how he sees things. Either way, it doesn't seem problematic for God to regret if it's regret about things in their intrinsic nature, which is entirely true in terms of the micro-level. Yet such regret is bad if it's absent from the macro-level joy in all that is good in God's overall plan of providence. So there's no reason to think human beings, once much more (perhaps fully aware) of the fullness of that plan, won't feel regret. I think there's every reason to think we'll have the same kind of regret I take the Bible to be speaking of God having.

More Student Quotes

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I finally finished grading for the semester, and after sleeping only three hours I haven't wanted to expend the effort to write anything I have to think much about. I do have two more student quotes from the last batch of exams and papers. One student in my Issues in Ethics class presented me with the following gem:

Democratic socialism calls for the abolition of a classless society in which the upper class rule the lower class.

Read that sentence over again, and think about what it says. First off, it's ambiguous. On one reading (the more natural one, I would say), democratic socialism (a) calls for the abolition of a classless society and (b) has the upper class ruling the lower class. This is a consistent definition but wrong on both counts. On the other reading, democratic socialism calls for the abolition of a classless society, and the classless society has the upper class ruling the lower class. This is the more natural reading, but it's also wrong on both counts and even has the additional problem of being flat-out contradictory!

I have another one from a dialogue. I believe it was actually Barack Obama's mouth that this was supposed to be coming out of (in a discussion between Obama and McCain):

I believe that there are three factors to determine the justness of war and terrorism. One would be that bad consequences are not intended. Next, the action should be a side-effect rather than a blunt end. The action can't be justifiable to victims.

The final sentence says the opposite of what it's supposed to say, but that's not what's especially funny about this quote. The second factor is an attempt to say that the bad consequence should be (a) a side-effect, as opposed to either (b) the goal of the action (i.e. the end) or (c) a means to that end. How did the idea of an end as in a goal or purpose somehow get turned into a blunt end, presumably of a weapon? And how is that a contrast to a side-effect? Is there some way to read this that I'm missing?

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The 224th Christian Carnival is up at The Evangelical Ecologist.

Ilya Somin points to a recent discussion of what life would be like if we have virtual reality machines that we could spend most of our life in. He's right to mention that this isn't a new debate based on the technology we now have but goes back (in the technological form) at least to the 70s, with Robert Nozick's experience machine.

There may have been other forms of the discussion. In fact, I'd be surprised if it never came up with the Epicureans, although I know of know extant document raising a similar puzzle for them. But it strikes me as odd that the Stoics or some other group wouldn't have raised the possibility of someone being misled about reality but experiencing pleasure, which seriously separates the two views of what counts as a good life. Epicureans would have to find some contingent reason why it would be bad to get in the machine, e.g. it may break down and then you'll miss it later, which constitutes pain (Epicurus' reason for never eating gourmet food) or someone might program in bad experiences while you're in it, and you'll never be able to get out to change the program back to what you wanted (which is similar to the Epicureans' response to the problem raised by an invisibility ring allowing you to get away with whatever you wanted). On the other hand, most people's reasons for not replacing your real experiences with machine-generated ones (at least as a permanent lifestyle) is because it's not real. That's just a bad life.

Somin's post indicates that he's unsure whether people would turn their life over to such a machine. His reason is that there are lots of people with lots of difference preferences. I think he's right about there being variation of preferences, but I think we all have the same basic preferences based on what's really and truly good. We just make mistakes about what will get us those, and those mistakes might lead some people to get into the machine.

I'm a lot less sure than he is that there would be very high numbers of such people, though, at least if my students are any indication. I present this issue in pretty much every ethics class and every ancient philosophy class I teach. That's been somewhere from 30-60 students every semester for the last several years. Once in a while I get a student who says they'd get in the machine. It's never been more than 2-3 in any given class, and more often than not no one thinks they'd get in. Maybe this is weighted in a certain direction because they're college students or something, but I really have a hard time believing a large number of people would turn their whole lives over to a virtual reality just because it's possible to do so.

I haven't seen Expelled, and I probably won't, but I've read some reviews of it across the spectrum of thought about design arguments and the particular species of them that people are calling Intelligent Design. It's been a nice occasion for everyone to say pretty much the same old things, with virtually all opponents of ID misrepresenting it pretty drastically amidst a few legitimate complaints and many supporters overstating their case, confusing some of the same basic distinctions ID opponents regularly confuse, and setting up science against religion rather than what the argument itself is supposed to suggest, which is that science and religion are in fact compatible.

So this film has drawn out much of the same nonsense that usually gets thrown around. Yet occasionally some real gem pops up that strikes me as insightful and helpful, and this time around I see that in Mollie Hemingway's wonderful critique of the media coverage surrounding this film. Several interesting points stand out:

1. She notices that the mainstream media have largely ignored this. That seems right from what I've seen. She only cites two examples, one that she doesn't think got the film quite right and the other that even I can see gets it completely wrong.
2. She compares it in style and tone to the strident, ideologically-colored, often fact-challenged documentaries of Al Gore and Michael Moore. Since I've seen none of the above, I can't comment, but it's an interesting suggestion.
3. She points out that Moore and Gore have garnered far more mainstream media coverage, not just of their documentaries, but of the issues their documentaries are about.
4. She also takes note of opinion media's much more substantial treatment of the film, and I think that's even much more obviously true when you take into account blogs (which she doesn't mention).

She doesn't really draw the conclusion that's just begging to be drawn and that I think she's suggesting. Whether a strident, ideological, fact-questioned documentary garners media attention and brings about a significant discussion of a certain issue seems to depend on what it's about or what ideology is behind it. It's unclear which it is in this case, which may be why she doesn't draw the conclusion explicitly. Is it because it's an ideology that's associated with conservatism and in particular religious conservatism? Or is it because of the issue rather than the viewpoint? Would a documentary by Michael Moore on the idiocy of intelligent design have the same no-impact result as this film has had in the major media? Would a conservative documentary starring Ben Stein but on health care or the Iraq war have the same attention Moore got with his films on those subjects?

My suspicion is that the answer is no in both cases, which if true means it's the ideology and not the topic that has made the difference. That doesn't demonstrate the point the documentary aims to make (which is about academic freedom), but it does demonstrate a similar point about which views are considered kosher by the establishment media.

 
The 224th Christian Carnival will be taking place this coming Wednesday at The Evangelical Ecologist. The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the not-recently-updated Matt Jones's list of previous Christian Carnivals or the up-to-date but less-informative christiancarnival.com list.
 
To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:

I've heard it said that the Levitical requirement for priests to marry virgins is a sign of an assumption that virgins are more pure, which implies that sex is in itself impure. Here is the relevant passage:

And he shall take a wife in her virginity. A widow, or a divorced woman, or a woman who has been defiled, or a prostitute, these he shall not marry. But he shall take as his wife a virgin of his own people, that he may not profane his offspring among his people, for I am the Lord who sanctifies him." (Leviticus 21:13-15, ESV)

There are several things wrong with this argument. One is that the priest is supposed to be pure after marriage too, and if sex is impure then how is he going to remain pure if he has sex with his wife? Another is that there's a reason give, one that doesn't have to do with the purity of the bride but with the offspring. I suppose it's possible to take that as assuming the offspring will be polluted because the mother is polluted, but I don't think that's what's going on here. One of the priestly requirements during Ezekiel's vision of a renewed temple in the last chapters of his prophecy sheds some light on this issue:

They shall not marry a widow or a divorced woman, but only virgins of the offspring of the house of Israel, or a widow who is the widow of a priest. (Ezekiel 44:22, ESV)

If the issue were some animus against people who had had sex, then why would a widow of a priest be ok? Presumably if pollution from sex itself transferred pollution to any offspring, then wouldn't the widow of a priest be just as problematic as the widow of anyone else? This suggests some other reason why priests needed to marry virgins in Leviticus, a reason that must be consistent with marrying widows of priests in Ezekiel. It's unlikely that there's different reasoning involved in the two cases, even if you don't accept divine inspiration behind the two passages.

A much more likely explanation is that the issue with offspring is that virgins raise no problem for offspring having been fathered by someone else prior to the marriage. If a priest marries a virgin, any child she gives birth to will be of the priestly line. If he marries someone who is not a virgin, there is always the possibility that any offspring might have been fathered by someone who is not a priest. At least that's true if her previous sexual activity was with someone who was not a priest. If she was married to a priest, her offspring would still be assumed to be of priestly descent. So this interpretation makes sense of the second allowable condition in Ezekiel, in keeping with the spirit of the Leviticus passage.

Those who begin with the assumption that the Bible is anti-sex like to come up with these implausible claims, and someone who doesn't think carefully about the biblical passages in context can easily come away with the conclusion that these charges have some foundation. Biblical passages certainly do assume a sexual morality that differs from popular views today, but it doesn't follow that the assumptions behind that sexual ethic are anti-sex. Even ignoring the celebration of sex in the Song of Songs and Paul's insistence in I Corinthians 7 that sex should be a normal and regular part of marriage, you still can't easily get the conclusion that sex itself is impure unless you ignore much of the ancient context and often even the literary context of biblical statements.

From Student Papers

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I assign dialogue papers to my students. They basically write a philosophical conversation between two characters who hold differing views, thus presenting both sides or multiple sides of a debate in a way that is fair to the people who hold such views. In the last batch that I graded, I noticed two particularly puzzling sentences and typed them up into my blogging file. I can't remember now if these were from the same paper, so I don't know if the same mind produced them both, but it wouldn't surprise me. The first one sets up the conversation, and the second was uttered by one of the characters in a conversation on the same topic (so they might well be from the same paper).

1. Lester walks into his house and tells his parents that he has been out [of] the closet for 10 years now and has kept it a secret in fear that they would not accept it.

Out of the closet but keeping it a secret? Any suggestions as to what that's supposed to mean? My guess is that the student thought being out of the closet had something to do with admitting to yourself that you're gay rather than its actual meaning of being publicly known as gay.

2. Though I disagree with homosexuality, I do not have anything against it.

I'm trying to figure out what disagreeing with it is supposed to involve if it doesn't involve holding something against it. Maybe the idea is that the person doesn't approve of it but is nice to gay people, but notice that it doesn't say against gay people but against homosexuality. So it's not well put if that was supposed to be the idea. It might be that disagreement is finding it distasteful, while having something against it is thinking it's morally wrong (or vice versa). But that doesn't seem like a natural way to say either.

As I've suggested, there's probably something coherent that these sentences were supposed to mean, but this is a philosophy paper, and clarity and precision are crucial for the very enterprise that these students are supposed to be engaged in.

Caught in the Act

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Me: What's going on here?
Sophia: Nothing.
Me: Then why's there egg all over the place?
Sophia: It's nothing.
Me: Were you playing with the egg?
Sophia: Uh, probably.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The 223rd Christian Carnival is up at Participatory Bible Study Blog.

I have a few requests in case anyone reading this blog can help. If you've been following my recent submissions and approvals for the Blackwell philosophy and pop culture series, you might have some idea of why I want some of the following information if anyone has it readily available. If you have exact quotes or specific scenes from the movies or issue numbers in the comics, that would be wonderful. I have a large number of X-Men comic books (mostly from the mid-late 80s until the early 90s, but I have reprints of older stuff too), but if it's easy for anyone to find some then it will make my work much easier in two weeks once I'm done grading and begin writing, so I can focus on the philosophy.

1. I'm looking for any instances in X-Men movies or comic books where any character or the narrator uses race-language or species-language to refer to mutants as distinct from humans. This includes when it's morally loaded but also when it's not. I'm interested both in Magneto's elevated view of the rights of mutants as superior beings but also in the factual claim that mutants are a separate race, sub-species, or species.

2. I'm also looking for instances where Magneto has given moral justifications for his questionable or immoral actions, again from the movies or the comic books. (I have no cartoon episodes to verify the information.) I'm interested in his attitude toward humans and the moral difference he sees between mutants and humans. I'm also interested in any general moral principles he might state in the process of explaining his reasons for doing things. Any specific descriptions of Magneto's actions as terrorist would also be nice or descriptions of particular actions he's taken that are morally questionable or outright immoral would also help me.

3. For those more wizard-inclined, I'm hoping to compile a list of seemingly-chance occurrences in Harry Potter, where something not under the conscious control of any character, i.e. lucky occurrences, are absolutely crucial for the major plot of the book to move along, particularly if Harry's success or the bad guys' defeat or frustration in their purposes hinges on it. I'm also looking for specific instances where any characters talk about issues related to destiny, the various prophecies, time travel and changing the past, free will, and so on. If you can give page numbers in the American paperback editions (hardcover for Deathly Hallows) or chapter numbers otherwise, that would be great. But even just mention of the events and how important they are could help me if it's something I haven't thought of yet, especially if it's a really big deal.

Whatever help anyone can offer is appreciated.

I've been reading J. Daniel Hays, From every People and Nation: A biblical theology of race. I'm really enjoying it so far. Occasionally something puzzles me a little. Consider the following passage:

The Bible does not begin with the creation of a special race of people. When the first human is introduced into the story, he was called adam [special characters removed because I have no idea how to do them], which means 'humankind'. As mentioned in Chapter 2, Adam and Eve are not Hebrews or Egyptians or Canaanites. It is incorrect for the White church to view them as White or for the Black church to view them as Black. Their 'race' is not identifiable; they are neither Negroid nor Caucasian, nor even Semitic. They become the mother and father of all peoples. The division of humankind into peoples and races is not even mentioned until Genesis 10. Adam and Eve, as well as Noah, is non-ethnic and non-national. They represent all people and not some people. [Hays, pp.48-49]

After the word 'Semitic', he places a footnote number, which leads to the following footnote:

[W.D.] McKissic [in Beyond Roots: In Search of Blacks in the Bible, 1990] disagrees, raising the issue of genetics, both for Adam and Eve and for Noah and his wife. The genetic pattern for all the races of humankind, argues McKissic, had to be present in both these sets of people. Thus they had to carry the genetic pattern for the Negroid race. If they carried these genes then one of them at least, according to McKissic, would have had Negroid features.

I'm not sure there's any real disagreement here, though, at least in substance. Hays seems to be thinking of race as some later subdivision of people, and of course Adam and Eve couldn't be of any race if it necessarily involves that. McKissic, on the other hand, is thinking of race in a very different way. If at one point you had two people who became the ancestors of every human being, including those who would be parts of pretty diverse races, then you must have had the genetic material necessary for those races to exist later. One thing McKissic doesn't take into account, at least in this quote (although I think he might in the book; it's been many years since I read his book, and I don't have it in front of me at the moment) is that mutations can explain changes in skin color, hair type, and so on. It doesn't have to stem from just genetic information present in the ancestors.

I seem to remember McKissic making the argument that darker skin color genes tend to be dominant, which means at least one of the ancestor-pair would have to be black. Using the term this way clearly does not indicate species sub-division into races, as Hays seems to be treating it. All it means is that we in our day have identified various characteristics that we associate with various races. Someone is identified as being in a certain race according to such characteristics. An earlier ancestor with those characteristics would rightly, as the English words are now used, be called black or white (or whatever) according to the criteria we now use to assign such terms. So if Adam, say, looked enough like the typical African or black American today that were he seen today he'd be so classified, then he was black by the meaning of the current term. That, as far as I can tell, is what McKissic means. He's simply talking about something different from what Hays is talking about.

Now there's actually been a DNA discovery since McKissic's book (and since Hays's book, for that matter) that shows that light skin color is a mutation and that the ancestors of white people were black by the current definition (as McKissic is using the term), so I think his view is pretty much scientifically confirmed at this point. Hays doesn't want to acknowledge that as Adam and Eve belonging to the black race, because his notion of race is defined as a sub-division that later occurs. But racialized terms aren't always used that way, as the meaningfulness of McKissic's claim shows. I think it's perfectly ok (at least linguistically) to say that Adam and Eve were black. It doesn't seem to me to involve any misuse of the terms involved. If this is right, then it has an interesting consequence for those who claim race terms involve an ancestry component. It doesn't remove an ancestry component, but it does allow someone with no ancestry (or no human ancestry, depending on how you view Adam and Eve) to have a race under one important concept of what it is to be a member of a race.


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The 223rd Christian Carnival will be taking place this coming Wednesday at Participatory Bible Study Blog. The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the not-recently-updated Matt Jones's list of previous Christian Carnivals or the up-to-date but less-informative christiancarnival.com list.
 
To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:

We got this message on our voicemail from a number that was listed as RESTRICTED. It was an automated message that must have started before it began recording.

We just need to know what email address we can reach you at. The email address we have for you stopped working. So we wanted to ask you to take a quick second to update your address. You can do it over the phone right now. All you have to do is press 1 and fill out your email address. Just press 1. It just takes a second. That way we'll be able to keep you up to date on the great work that MoveOn's 3.2 million members are doing every day to win back the country from radical Republicans. So please just press 1, and thank you for your time and your continued support of MoveOn. And of course this message was paid for by MoveOn.org's political action and was not authorized by any candidate or candidate's committee.

Then the voice changes, and there's a phone number for how to reach them (I assume for when the recording is left on an answering machine or voicemail, and you can't press 1 to get anywhere).

So is this a new tactic or something? Our phone number is associated with only two adults, both members of the Republican Party. No one else has been at this number since 1999. I don't think MoveOn.org even existed back then. (Update: I guess it has.) I'm pretty confident they would count us as radical Republicans. So is there something we actually did that they incompetently assumed would make us prime candidates for giving money to them? Or are they just trying to annoy conservatives by sending them spam phone calls?

April License Plates

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U.S. States: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin

other U.S.: District of Columbia, U.S. government

Canada: Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec

U.S. States Lost from March: Alaska, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming

U.S. States Gained from March: Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada

U.S. States not seen yet at all: I still haven't seen Hawaii and Mississippi since I started doing this in October.

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The 222nd Christian Carnival is up at Brain Cramps for God.

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