Sunday, December 31, 2017

My Best Photos of 2017

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I am no professional, and have never tried to acquire insights into the technical side of photography.  But I am captivated by beauty, and try to capture some of it in return through the camera lens.  And early in 2017 I purchased a camera with two lens (not counting my cell phone, which is not represented here) which allow me to photograph at a distance and in some darkness.  And hikes, trips to American national parks with my sons and remote parts of China on my own, and my new digs in the coastal city of Qingdao, gave me a lot of opportunities. 

Here are some of my best shots from 2017.  Enjoy.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Oh Holy Night: When the World Found Hope

Here's my Christmas post at The Stream.  It's all about the difference Christmas Morning made, influences that are neglected and unknown in most history books, certainly in popular understandings of history, but real, and have changed billions of lives for the better.  Christ was born into the world, and the world not only did not recognize him, we even refused to notice how he had fixed up our place.

Sorry I'm a bit late to link this piece here.  I was in Japan, and it was posted only on Christmas Eve, due to various factors.  But I hope you'll share this piece with your friends.  For Christians and non-Christians alike, I think it should add cheer to the season, whatever the football scores may be!

And Merry (belated) Christmas!

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Profiles of Human History by Yuval Harari and H. R. Hallpike

H. R. Hallpike appears aclever man: an anthropologist who has troubled to acquaint himself from the inside with primitive societies in both Africa and Papua New Guinea, a scholar whose work covers many decades and tends to the iconoclastic.  I am hoping to read his book, Do We Need God to be Good, if I can find it in a readable format and within my price range.   He is someone I would cross swords with cautiously: clearly one does not sail in and scatter Hallpikes to the winds as one does with Dawkins and Boghossians, ten to a swipe.

Harari profiles our ancestors for his new book. 
In the New English Review this month, Hallpike published a scathing response to Yuval Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which made me glad I didn't write the book!  He expertly clouts Harari up and down the head for all kinds of foibles: confusing fiction with convention, overlooking the tremendous difference between chimps and even human babies, psycho-babbling about how we destroy nature because of latent insecurity over a previous lower status in the animal world that we forgot we ever had, giving language and math too much credit in the rise of advanced kingdoms, and most of all, for grossly over-estimating primitive man.  (Here he cites Daniel Everett's study of the Piraha people in South America, who could barely count their toes, and had no interest in the past or future -- Tom Wolfe also lauds Everett's work in his The Kingdom of Speech.  I am a bit more skeptical, recalling how Don Richardson described the language of the head-hunting, cannibalistic Sawi, also in New Guinea, as a language of scientific precision and poetic beauty and rather daunting complexity.)

Since the history of humankind is a matter of some concern to me, being notionally a member of that race (though some days I feel quite shocked to realize I have toes), and a fan of the God who chose to save it, let me tip those toes in the water, and offer a few timid corrections, as I think they may be useful.  Let me do that in the friendliest possible way: as I said, Hallpike is not a man I wish to roil.

We'll skip to Hallpike's discussion of the rise and spread of religions, which I find particularly fascinating.  The review becomes interesting here mostly for what Hallpike points out, but also where I think he goes a bit off the rail.

"His chapter on the rise of the universal religions is extremely weak, and his explanation  of monotheism, for example, goes as follows:

With time some followers of polytheist gods became so fond of their particular patron that they drifted away from the basic polytheist insight. They began to believe that their god was the only god, and that He was in fact the supreme power of the universe. Yet at the same time they continued to view Him as possessing interests and biases, and believed that they could strike deals with Him. Thus were born monotheist religions, whose followers beseech the supreme power of the universe to help them recover from illness, win the lottery and gain victory in war (p 242).

"This is amateurish speculation, and Harari does not even seem to have heard of the Axial Age. This is the term applied by historians to the period of social turmoil that occurred during the first millennium BC across Eurasia, of political instability, warfare, increased commerce and the appearance of coinage, and urbanization, that in various ways eroded traditional social values and social bonds. The search for meaning led to a new breed of thinkers, prophets and philosophers who searched for a more transcendent and universal authority on how we should live and gain tranquility of mind, that went beyond the limits of their own society and traditions, and beyond purely material prosperity. People developed a much more articulate awareness of the mind and the self than hitherto, and also rejected the old pagan values of worldly success and materialism. As one authority has put it: 'Everywhere one notices attempts to introduce greater purity, greater justice, greater perfection, and a more universal explanation of things' (Momigliano 1975:8-9; see also Hallpike 2008:236-65).

I think this summary is very well-put: I have been trying to teach my students recently about the Axial Age, that brilliant period across continents that produced the likes of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Euripides in Greece, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah in Israel, Buddha and the authors of the Upanishads in India, and Confucius, Lao Zi, and Zhuang Zi in China.  

But the deeper problem with Harrari's comments here is that he ignores the awareness of God found in many primitive cultures.  If the "invention of God" was based on either new mercantilist ideas, or an Axial Age, why can it be found (as Andrew Lang and Wilhelm Schmidt first observed, and Win Corduan recently confirmed) in so many of the simplest cultures?

"One of the consequences of this new cultural order was a fundamental rethinking of religion, so that the old pagan gods began to seem morally and intellectually contemptible. Instead of this naively human image of the gods, said the Greek Xenophanes, 'One God there is . . . in no way like mortal creatures either in bodily form or in the thought of his mind . . . effectively, he wields all things by the thought of his mind.' So we find all across the Old World the idea developing of a rational cosmic order, a divine universal law, known to the Greeks as Logos, to the Indians as Brahman, to the Jews as Hokhma, and to the Chinese as Tao. This also involved the very important idea that the essential and distinctive mental element in man is akin to the creative and ordering element in the cosmos, of Man as microcosm in relation to the macrocosm."

These, too, are sound observations, though the concept of a universal God and moral order should be seen as revivals not sui genesis (pun intended) innovations.  God predates modern society culturally, if not ontologically -- though I think both. 

One example is the Chinese Dao.  The concept of Dao gained metaphysical meaning already in the most ancient classics, but before it attained the status described in this paragraph, the Chinese had long worshipped the Supreme God by the name Shang Di.  (Or, later, Tian.)  China's universal theism dawned long before her Axial reforms: indeed, the theism may have helped inspire the reforms.  (Read Mozi on how since Tian is love, men should also be loving, for instance.  And there are hints of that in Confucius and Zhuang Zi.) 

"Intellectually, the idea that the universe makes sense at some deep level, that it is governed by a unified body of rational laws given by a divine Creator, became an essential belief for the development of science, not only among the Greeks, but in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. As Joseph Needham has said, '. . . historically the question remains whether natural science could ever have reached its present stage of development without passing through a "theological stage" ' (Needham 1956:582).

Needham was the great Marxist historian of Chinese science.

"Against this new intellectual background it also became much easier to think of Man not as a citizen of a particular state, but in universal terms as a moral being. There is the growth of the idea of a common humanity which transcends the boundaries of nation and culture and social distinctions of rank, such as slavery, so that all good men are brothers, and the ideal condition of Man would be universal peace (Hallpike 2016:167-218).

Here I can only nod my head in agreement.  I think while the Chinese theistic concepts were less radically reforming than the Jewish prophets and of course Jesus, they often pointed in the same direction.
"Harari tries to create a distinction between 'monotheistic' religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and 'natural law religions', without gods in which he includes Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Stoicism, and the Epicureans. From what I have said about the concepts of Logos, Hokhma, Brahman, and Tao it should be clear that his two types of religion actually had  much in common. In Christianity, for example, Jesus was almost immediately identified with the Logos. The Epicureans, however, do not belong in this group at all as they were ancient materialist atheists who did not believe in natural law of any kind  . . . "

In addition, there was a strong upgrowth of something very close to monotheism in at least Taoism, Confucianism, and Stoicism, and in passages of the Lotus Sutra and elsewhere, even at times in Buddhism.  Stoics like Cleanthes and Epictetus were often quite theistic and even prayed to God, indeed.  Paul quickly found a common language with them, as Acts 17 reveals.  And Christians recognized Dao as a synonym for Logos when they translated the Bible -- correctly, I argue here.  

"Harari says that at the beginning of the sixteenth century, 90% of humans still lived in 'the single mega-world of Afro-Asia', while the rest lived in the Meso-American, Andean, and Oceanic worlds. 'Over the next 300 years the Afro-Asian giant swallowed up all the other worlds', by which he actually means the expanding colonial empires of the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British. But to refer to these nations as 'Afro-Asian'  is conspicuously absurd, and the whole concept of Afro-Asia is actually meaningless from every point of view. The general idea of Eurasia, however, does make a good deal of cultural as well as ecological sense, not only because it recognises the obvious importance of Europe, but because of the cultural links that went to and fro across it, so that the early navigators of the fifteenth century were using the Chinese inventions of magnetic compasses, stern-post rudders, paper for their charts, and gunpowder, and were making their voyages to find sea-routes from Europe to China and the East Indies rather than relying on overland trade.

"Harari's next major turning point in world history he refers to, reasonably enough, as  'The Scientific Revolution'.  Around AD 1500 'It began in western Europe, a large peninsula on the western tip of Afro-Asia, which up till then played no important role in history.' (272) This is a unconvincing assessment of a region that had been the seat of the Roman Empire, the Christian Church, and Greek science which was one of the essential foundations of the Scientific Revolution. Harari's opinions about how this got started are even less persuasive:"

To be fair, the Greek world straddled the frontier between Europe and Western Asia, and can reasonably be included in the Middle East, as could much of Rome (the most fertile regions were in the east).  And until the Muslim conquests, most of Christendom was still outside of Western Europe., or probably Europe as a whole.  And skeptics like Harari seems to be don't usually recognize the glories of the Middle Ages, though I expect Hallpike is more aware. 

The Scientific Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has above all been a revolution of ignorance. The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important question. (p 279).

This is a statement whose truth is not immediately obvious, and he justifies it as follows:

Premodern traditions of knowledge such as Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism asserted that everything that is important to know about the world was already known. The great gods, or the one almighty God, or the wise people of the past possessed all-encompassing wisdom, which they revealed to us in scriptures and oral traditions (pp 279-80).

These traditions may have claimed to know all that was essential to salvation and peace of mind, but that kind of knowledge had nothing whatsoever to do with pre-modern traditions of science. In Europe this meant Aristotle and Greek natural philosophy but about which, astonishingly, Harari has nothing at all to say anywhere in his book. Apart from a willingness to admit ignorance and embrace new knowledge, science . . . 

I don't know exactly where these religions state that "everything that is important to know about the world was already known."  Both authors might try reading the questions God poses in Job, and contemplate the role pious believers played in inventing modern science.  (Even so hard-core a skeptic as Richard Carrier points out that ancient Greek scientists often worked in science to glorify the God whom Greeks were coming to believe in even before Christianity arrived.  And Carrier actually is an expert on that topic.)   

The key factor was that the plant-seeking botanist and the colony-seeking naval officer shared a similar mindset. Both scientist and conqueror began by admitting ignorance - they both said 'I don't know what's out there.' They both felt compelled to go out and make new discoveries. And they both hoped that the new knowledge would make them masters of the world (pp 316-17).

Botany was actually of quite minor importance in the early stages of modern science, which was dominated by studies of terrestrial and celestial motion (Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton), and by chemistry which involved the revival of Greek atomism. And Columbus, to take a useful example of 'a colony-seeking naval officer' knew quite well what was out there. He knew that the earth is round, and concluded that if he sailed west for long enough he would find a new route to the East Indies. So when he reached the islands of the Caribbean he was convinced that their inhabitants were 'Indians' and never changed his mind. I think we can perhaps do a little better than Harari in explaining the European origin of modern science. 

Indeed.  All those men were also pious Christians, along with the founder of modern chemistry, Robert Boyle, and several of them were apologists who actively sought to glorify God in their work, as Carrier says some ancient Greeks did.  Let's keep that factor in the mix as we seek a less silly explanation than that Harari apparently offers.   

"Greek science was dominated by the belief that reason, and particularly mathematics, was the true path to knowledge and its role was to be the tutor of the senses, not to be taught by them. The idea of performing an experiment did not really exist, and the great Alexandrian engineer Hero, for example believed that water pressure does not increase with depth.  He defended this belief with an ingenious theory from Archimedes, but ignored the practical experiment of taking a glass down to the bottom of a pool where it could easily have been seen that the water rises higher inside the glass the deeper it is taken. Aristotle's theories of terrestrial and celestial motion, and Ptolemy's elaborate geometrical model of the heavens, for example, were seen as triumphs of reason, and were inherited by the medieval European universities who began a critical study of them. The importance of Greek science, however,  was not that it was rightit contained fundamental errorsbut that it presented a coherent theoretical model of how the world worked that stimulated thought and could be tested."

This may be a little simplistic.  I don't think the Greeks, including Aristotle, were entirely innocent of empirical impulses, nor that they never acted on those impulses.    

"The Islamic world had transmitted much of Greek science to medieval Europe, and Aristotle in particular was greatly admired by Muslim scholars as 'The Philosopher'. But under the influence of the clerics Islam eventually turned against reason and science as dangerous to religion, and this renaissance died out. In rather similar fashion, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian closed the philosophy schools of Athens in 529 AD because he considered them dangerous to Christianity. But while in the thirteenth century several Popes, for the same reason, tried to forbid the study of Aristotle in the universities, they were ignored and in fact by the end of the century Aquinas had been able to publish his synthesis of Aristotelian philosophy and Christian theology in the Summa Theologica."

I don't think the Islamic world was as responsible for saving ancient science as this gloss supposes.  Stark argues that Nestorians and Jews did much of the actual research and transmitting.  
"This illustrates a vital difference between Europe and the other imperial civilisations. Whereas the Caliph and the Byzantine Emperor had the authority to impose intellectual orthodoxy, in Europe the Popes could not enforce their will on society, and neither could the secular authorities, because there were too many competing jurisdictionsof the Holy Roman Emperor, of kings, of free cities, of universities, and between church and state themselves."

And that was a theological difference between Christianity and Islam: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's."  But I agree (as does Oxford historian of science Allan Chapman) that political pluralism within an overarching Christian culture allowed competition and progress in Europe, as something similar had inspired progress in late Zhou China, Israel, and Greece.

"It is highly significant that this interaction between scholars and artisans also occurred in the intellectual atmosphere of 'natural magic', the belief that the entire universe is a vast system of interrelated correspondences, a hierarchy in which everything acts upon everything else. Alchemy and astrology were the most important components of this tradition, but by the thirteenth century Roger Bacon, for example, was arguing that by applying philosophy and mathematics to the study of nature it would be possible to produce all sorts of technological marvels such as horseless vehicles, flying machines, and glasses for seeing great distances. It was not therefore the admission of ignorance that was truly revolutionary, but  the idea that science could be useful in mastering nature for the benefit of Man."

Let me add an amusing note here.  Bacon, a Franciscan friar, has a narrow lane named after him in Oxford.  I once asked the secretary at St. Ebbes Church which lies on that very lane, if Bacon had once lived nearby.  It turned out she had no idea who Bacon was, even though she worked on his alleyway!  Ignorance per se really is not bliss, nor is "admission of ignorance" per se a great sign of progress.  But I did interpret such ignorance in the heart of R. Baconian Oxford as happy evidence that the English are not that far ahead of Americans even when it comes to their own remarkable history. 
(Skip Galileo)

"Throughout the book there is also a strange vacillation between hard-nosed Darwinism and egalitarian sentiment. On one hand Harari quite justifiably mocks the humanists' naive belief in human rights, for not realising that these rights are based on Christianity, and that a huge gulf has actually opened up between the findings of science and modern liberal ideals. But on the other hand it is rather bewildering to find him also indulging in long poetic laments about the thousands of years of injustice, inequality and suffering imposed on the masses by the great states and empires of history, and our cruelty to our animal 'slaves' whom we have slaughtered and exterminated in such vast numbers, so that he concludes 'The Sapiens reign on earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of'. But a consistent Darwinist should surely rejoice to see such a fine demonstration of the survival of the fittest, with other species either decimated or subjected to human rule, and the poor regularly ground under foot in the struggle for survival. Indeed, the future looks even better for Darwinism, with nation states themselves about to be submerged by a mono-cultural world order, in which we ourselves are destined to be replaced by a superhuman race of robots. It has been rightly said that

Harari's view of culture and of ethical norms as fundamentally fictional makes impossible any coherent moral framework for thinking about and shaping our future. And it asks us to pretend that we are not what we know ourselves to be - thinking and feeling subjects, moral agents with free will, and social beings whose culture builds upon the facts of the physical world but is not limited to them (Sexton 2015:120).

"Summing up the book as a whole, one has often had to point out how surprisingly little he seems to have read on quite a number of essential topics. It would be fair to say that whenever his facts are broadly correct they are not new, and whenever he tries to strike out on his own he often gets things wrong, sometimes seriously. So we should not judge Sapiens as a serious contribution to knowledge but as 'infotainment', a publishing event to titillate its readers by a wild intellectual ride across the  landscape of history, dotted with sensational displays of speculation, and ending with blood-curdling predictions about human destiny. By these criteria it is a most successful book."

I am a sucker for a good "damn with faint praise" line, and that last one is a killer.  Still, I am almost seduced into buying Harari's book, if only to bat its batty ideas around from another angle.  I am more inclined to buy Hallpike's, if I can find it in print. 

Still, all in all, the work of both gentlemen reinforces my feeling that we have a crying need for a new universal history from a strong and informed Christian perspective.  If I live long enough, and find the resources, I hope to write such a history, in one volume or possibly two.   

Friday, December 08, 2017

The 100 Best Christian Books Ever!

What are the 100 best / most insightful / most important Christian books ever written? I googled "great Christian books" and found no great answers.

First I wrote my own preliminary list of 75 or so.  Then I asked for input from the people at Christian Apologetics Alliance, grabbed some good suggestions from the list Brad Cooper discovered at Church News (some of which I had thought of, but wanted independent confirmation before I bit down), and the following list emerged.  Sorry if I didn't include your suggestion: "So little space, so many books," to paraphrase one of the truest bumper stickers that ever cushioned a rear-end collision.  Even so, no doubt I have overlooked many brilliant works: that's what the comment section is for, to educate the present blogger.  (I'd love to dig into Christian bookshelves in Africa, Korea, Eastern Europe, India, or other neglected portions of the globe to see what great literature has emerged.  And there are some books here I haven't read yet.)

I begin with the obvious top choice, then follow in order of the author's last name.

(1) The Holy Bible. ("Author disputed."  Taken as a single volume, and I would make this choice even if I were NOT a Christian, I think.)
(2) Brother Andrew, God's Smuggler
(3) Anselm, Cur Deus Homo / Prayers and Meditations
(4) Aquinas, Summa Theologiae.
(5) Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word
(6) Augustine, City of God.
(7) Augustine, Confessions.
(8) Barth, Church Dogmatics
(9) Bede, Ecclesiastical History
(10) Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
(11) Boswell, Life of Johnson
(12) Brand, Pain: The Gift No One Wants
(13) Bronte, Charlotte, Jane Eyre
(14) Brooks, Who Really Cares?
(15) Bunyan, Pilgrim's Progress.
(16) Burke, Notes on the Revolution in France
(17) Butler, The Analogy of Religion
(18) Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization
(19) Campolo, The Power Delusion
(20) Chaucer, Canterbury Tales.
(21) Clement of Alexandria, Stromata.
(22) Chesterton, Orthodoxy
(23) . . . , Everlasting Man
(24) Coles, Children of Crisis
Image result for christmas carol(25) Colson, Kingdoms in Conflict / Loving God
(26) Dante, Divine Comedy
(27) Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
(28) Dickens, Tale of Two Cities
(29) . . . Christmas Carol
(30) Donne (poems)
(31) Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
(32) Dream of the Rood. (Author unknown.)
(33) Ellul, Propaganda
(34) Eusebius, Church History
(35) Farquhar, Crown of Hinduism
(36) Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity.
(37) Golding, Lord of the Flies
(38) Greene, The Power and the Glory
(39) Grimm Fairy Tales.
(40) Kuhn, By Searching
(41) Girard, The Scapegoat
(42) Goforth, Goforth of China
(43) Herbert, Complete English Poems
(44)  Hopkins (poems)
(45) Hugo, Les Miserables
(46)  Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
(47) Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
(48) Julian, Revelations of Divine Love
(49) Justin, Dialogue With Trypho
(50) Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God
(51) Legge, James: The Religions of China: Confucianism and Taoism Described and Compared with Christianity
(52) Lewis, Mere Christianity
(53) . . .  Abolition of Man
(54)  . . .  Four Loves
(55) . . . , Till We Have Faces
(56) . . . , Chronicles of Narnia
(57) . . . , Surprised by Joy
(58) . . . , Screwtape Letters
(59) Lin Yutang, From Pagan to Christian
(60) Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration
(61) Macdonald, Phantastes
(62) Mangalwadi, Book of the Millennia
(63) Milton, Paradise Lost
(64) Murphy, The Owl, The Raven, and the Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimm's Magic Fairy Tales
(65) Newman, Apologia
(66) Origen, Contra Celsus
(67) Otto, Idea of the Holy
(68)  Packer, Knowing God
(69) Paley, A View of the Evidences of Christianity
(70) Pascal, Pensees
(71) Peck, The People of the Lie
(72) Percy, Lost in the Cosmos
(73)  Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief
(74) Ricci, The Truth about the Lord of Heaven
(75) Richardson, Peace Child
(76) . . . , Eternity in Their Hearts
(77) . . . , Lords of the Earth
(78) Ritchie, Spirit of the Rainforest
(79) Satyavrata, God Has Not Left Himself Without a Witness
(80) Schaeffer, He is There and He is not Silent
(81) Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Ivanovich
(82) . . . , Gulag Archipelago (I regard The First Circle as his greatest novel, but it contains little Christian content . . . maybe at the end.)
(83) Stark, For the Glory of God
(84) . . . , Discovery of God 
(85)   Stott, The Cross of Christ
(86) Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin
(87) Ten Boom, The Hiding Place
(88) Tolkien, Lord of the Rings.
(89) Tolstoy, Death of Ivan Ivanov (War and Peace and Anna Karenina are greater, but less Christian)
(90) Tozer, The Pursuit of Holiness
(91) Underhill, Mysticism
(92)  Warren, The Purpose-Driven Life
(93)  Weil, The Need for Roots
(94)  Wesley, Journal
(95)  Wilberforce, A Practical View of Christianity
(96)  Williams, Descent of the Dove
(97) Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (or the series)
(98) Wurmbrand, In God's Underground
(99) Yuan, 神州 (China's Confession)

(100) Silence?  Tristam Shandy?  Wrinkle in Time?  You choose.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Nature, Rocks and Miracles

I am presently enjoying "The Story of Earth" by geophysicist Robert Hazen. (I doubt I'd enjoy it if I were Young Earth, which would be a pity.) Anyway, here are two quotes from that book that to my mind, absolutely wallop David Hume's arguments against miracles:

Robert Hazen in front of a travertine hot spring (depositing terraced limestone) in Yellowstone National Park. "The American statesman and naturalist Thomas Jefferson, upon reading the technical report from Yale University of a meteorite in Weston, Connecticut, quipped, 'I find it easier to believe that two Yankee professor...s would lie than that stones would fall from heaven.'"

See what this does to Hume's whole argument? Indeed, it sounds to me like a paraphrase of Hume.   Hume thought that miracles could likewise be dismissed because they lay so far outside of normal experience, that it was more probable that any reports of them would be made-up.  (Though I have met far more people who claim to have witnessed miracles than claim to have seen a rock identifiable as a rock fall from the skies.)

By contrast:

"Anomalies, whether in planetary orbits or North American weather, are not just inconvenient details to brush aside: they are the very essence of understanding what really happened: how things really work. We develop grand and general models of how nature works, and then we use the odd details (read: miracles) to refine the original imperfect model (or if the exceptions overwhelm the rule, we regroup around a new model.) That's why good scientists revel in anomalies." (42)

Which reminds us that miracles are not to be thought of as "violations" of nature's laws, but as events that fall into a higher pattern of which "natural" events form parallel and related patterns under the auspices of the Creator of all.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Washington Post Condemns Abe Lincoln's Gas Hog

I used to have some respect for the Washington Post, as much as I tended to disagree with its editorial views.  But in the Bezos era (for the Post, if not for the planet), the paper really seems to print just about any nonsense that spins left.  They published a blog piece by Raphael Lataster, sure the worst New Testament scholar Australia (if not the Milky Way Galaxy) has yet produced.  And now take this apocalyptic spin on Global Warming from Tim McDonnell, for example (also published by the Baltimore Post, without the pay wall).  Take it, please:

"The number of migrants across the world is at a record high — 244 million people left their homes in 2015, according to the United Nations. They were driven by war, dire economic straits, and for some, worsening environmental conditions brought on by climate change."

How does your bologna-detector like that claim?  

Follow the link, and anyone who can read learns that the 244 million people referred to did not "leave their homes in 2015," but had left their home country some time in the past and had now lived in another country for at least one year.  This is a good thing, because the link numbers immigrants to the US at 46.6 million.  If that many immigrants arrived in the US in a year, in twenty years the US would have a population of over a billion -- which it does not, and is not about to. 

And no, the International Organization for Immigration does not claim all these people left home due to 'war, dire economic straights,' or Anthropogenic Global Warming.  Though no doubt most of them found the economic pickings better where they landed, as has always been the case on this planet since one trilobite slithered across the ocean floor to a perch closer to the current's rich harvest of tasty drifters.    

Such a blatant and fantastic misrepresentation ought to be astounding in a major newspaper like the Washington Post, and ought all by itself get the author laughed out of journalism for a lifetime.  But we're just getting started.

"There’s a growing body of evidence linking migration and climate change, from Pacific island nations being subsumed by the rising ocean, to the drought-wracked Horn of Africa. In a speech this spring, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned that 'as regions become unlivable, more and more people will be forced to move from degraded lands to cities and to other nations.'”

We skip these links, since the first two are behind pay walls (and are probably crap, anyway), and the third is, well, a speech from the UN Secretary General predicting future events, which hardly need be taken seriously.  

"A recent report from Oxfam found that more than 20 million people a year have been displaced by extreme weather events since 2008, mostly in developing countries."

That would come to one in 350 people in the world.  And if you read the article, this figure includes, for example, those who fled hurricanes in the US this past year.  (Being "displaced" is not the same as becoming a "refugee" or "immigrant:" it might just mean you moved out of town until the storm blew over.)

Would that be more or less than the percentage of people who fled "extreme weather events" in previous centuries?

You can be sure it is dramatically fewer.

Consider the Bible.  Jacob's entire family emigrated to Egypt because of famine, an "extreme weather event" by Oxfam's definition.  Naomi and her family also emigrated for similar reasons.  That's two or three books in the Bible right there.

Or consider China.  The history of China is a history of enormous flooding that forced millions from their homes in some years.  And considering the fact that most ancient civilizations were built along rivers -- the Euphrates, Tigris, Nile, Indus, Ganges, Yellow, and Yangtze -- it is a sure bet that major floods alone have almost always taken a far higher toll than one in 350 per year.

Hurricanes, typhoon, and tornadoes, snowstorms, even glacial advances and avalanches, are if anything far more easily thwarted in our era of r-bar, hurricane clips, and snow-blowers, than at any time in the past.

"But linking migration to climate change is tricky because the environment is just one of many pressure points, many all happening at the same time. Take the case of northeastern Nigeria, where nearly 2 million people are displaced.  Climate change is clearly a factor: Lake Chad, the region’s main water source, has been drying up as the Sahel Desert expands southward."

Only the Sahel Desert hasn't been expanding south: it's been greening in recent decades.  And the lake  (which is no more than 30 feet deep at the deepest) was already noted as having dried significantly by 1899.  And one major reason is water is being diverted for agriculture.  

Dang those facts!  

"But at the same time, the Islamic insurgence of Boko Haram has run a brutal terrorism campaign. Rural poverty and food insecurity were already major problems. Economic opportunities are better in the south. So what combination of factors is causing people to leave home?"

I'd guess American gas-guzzlers.

"For any given instance of migration, how can we know the impact of climate change, if at all?

"A new study may help with that question, by looking at a very different wave of migration with 150 years of hindsight. Researchers at Germany’s University of Freiburg analyzed 19th-century migration from central Europe to North America, and discovered new evidence suggesting climate change played a major role in spurring mass movements of people."

"Through the 1800s, about 5 million people immigrated to North America from what is now southwest Germany, including President Trump’s grandfather, Friedrich, who moved to the United States in 1885. The study, published Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal Climate of the Past, found that up to 30 percent of those people moved because of climate disruptions."

I was under the impression he just didn't like growing grapes.  

But if this is true (big if), I'm not sure it helps Tim's case.  Bad weather happens in every century.  But the amount of CO2 kicked out by industrialization before 1900 would have been a tiny fraction of what it is in modern times.  No cars.  A world population a third to quarter what it is now.  Little industry except in a few countries.  Even if the small world population with its primitive industry in a few remote corners could burn enough carbon to effect the weather already, the extra energy would likely have gone into warming the surface of the oceans.

Image result for lincoln car abeSo Tim is cutting the branch he is sitting off with this argument.  Apparently the gas-hog driving must have started in the early 19th Century, already.
Shame on you, "Honest" Abe!

"That figure is much higher than researchers expected, said lead author Rüdiger Glaser. Research on historic migrations has tended to overlook climate change.

“'I was surprised, to be honest,” Glaser said. 'The 19th century is a period with remarkable changes in the climate, economy, and politics. This is like a case study of learning how system change works.'”

"The findings reveal a historical precedent for a pattern that is increasingly familiar: unusual weather, followed by crop failures, followed by economic instability, followed by a mass exodus.
The study’s window of time, from 1812 to 1887, was a transitional period in climate history following the so-called Little Ice Age, when global temperatures were much cooler than today.
As temperatures began to heat up in response to what we now recognize as manmade global warming, it was a time of tumultuous year-to-year variability. Years of drought were suddenly punctuated by crop-killing cold snaps. So while the “climate change” people experienced then was different from what we’re living through now, its impact on food systems was similar.

Researchers identified a handful of emigration peaks throughout the century, then matched those to historical records of weather, harvests and prices for local staple grains such as barley, oats, and rye."

"That correlation was compelling on its own, Glaser said. But, of course, there’s more to the story: the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, increasing industrialization and global trade, and other forms of political and economic upheaval. So Glaser and his colleagues built a statistical model that could account for the influence those other factors exerted on emigration."

Here you see the witch-hunted mentality perfectly framed and hung on the wall of history: confirmation bias on an apocalyptic scale, combined with a complete inability (or unwillingness) to think critically.

If 1.3 billion people, burning perhaps 2% of the present CO2, were able to so dramatically effect the climate already by 1885 (remember, the effect isn't instant, so we have to count back several decades from that point), why hasn't the entire globe burned up by now and the smoke gone up to the moon?

Yet that is clearly McDonnell's meaning.  Temperatures were heating up because of "what we now recognize as global warming."  This is why he mentions "increased industrialization" as one of the contributing factors to forcing Grandpa Trump, or at least his neighbors, out of Europe.

But then, in another bizarre twist, McDonnell admits that in fact it was COOLING that was causing the problems: 1

"In some years, the environment was a dominant factor, such as 1816, when the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia sent up a cloud of volcanic ash that put a chill on European crop production and spurred thousands to flee.

"In other years, other factors were more important, such as the practice followed by some municipalities in the 1850s of paying  their poorest citizens to move out. But overall, it was clear that millions of people might have stayed put if not for adverse climate conditions, the study found.  The upshot, Glaser said, is that researchers should make better use of historical records to look for clues about how climate migrants might behave in the future.  That’s going to be even more important as global warming continues to send more people on the move."

It is hard to understand how a literate person could put up with such drivel in their newspaper.  McDonnell holds to an ideology which The Washington Post wishes to promote, but that is no excuse for such shoddy reporting.

McDonnell begins by claiming 240 million people migrated in a single year for apocalyptic reasons, a figure no one with any head for numbers would buy for an instant.  In fact the number refers to all who live outside their home country and have done so for at least one year, for any reason.  He claims areas of the world that have greened in recent years are actually becoming desert.  He ignores the reality of Lake Chad in favor of his doomsday cartoon.  He shows no sense of historical awareness, for instance of the fact that people have fled weather (or climate) disasters throughout recorded history, and before.  (See theories for the fall of the Harappan and Maya civilizations, for instance.)  He conflates cold weather disasters with global warming, and shows no sense whatsoever when it comes to proportion and the scale of industrialization in the 19th Century and now.

And yet this fellow seems to get published easily enough.

What people these days put up with, if you only flatter their prejudices.

"The number of migrants across the world is at a record high — 244 million people left their homes in 2015, according to the United Nations. They were driven by war, dire economic straits, and for some, worsening environmental conditions brought on by climate change.
There’s a growing body of evidence linking migration and climate change, from Pacific island nations being subsumed by the rising ocean, to the drought-wracked Horn of Africa. In a speech this spring, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned that “as regions become unlivable, more and more people will be forced to move from degraded lands to cities and to other nations.”

Trump gets Spitting Image treatment

  Trump gets Spitting Image treatment Donald Trump is to get the Spitting Image treatment in a potential reboot of the show in the US. Co-creator Roger Law says he is in talks with production company Avalon to take the show stateside, and a puppet of the President has already been made. © Getty John Major was a regular take on Spitting Image The American version of the show, popular in the UK in the '80s and early '90s, would be written by US writers for NBC, but filmed in the UK, where the puppets would also be made.Mr Trump's puppet likeness is to go on display in Norwich from Saturday until April next year.
Analysis Did President Trump ’ s ancestors migrate to the United States because of a changing climate ? 3. When your kid tries to say ‘Alexa’ before ‘Mama’. Subscribe to The Washington Post. Try 1 month for .
President Donald Trump blows off the seriously worrisome implications of human-driven climate change with hardly a thought. Trump ’ s grandfather emigrated from Bremen, Germany, to the United States in 1885 when he was just 16.
A recent report from Oxfam found that more than 20 million people a year have been displaced by extreme weather events since 2008, mostly in developing countries.
But linking migration to climate change is tricky because the environment is just one of many pressure points, many all happening at the same time. Take the case of northeastern Nigeria, where nearly 2 million people are displaced. Climate change is clearly a factor: Lake Chad, the region’s main water source, has been drying up as the Sahel Desert expands southward.
But at the same time, the Islamic insurgence of Boko Haram has run a brutal terrorism campaign. Rural poverty and food insecurity were already major problems. Economic opportunities are better in the south. So what combination of factors is causing people to leave home?
The number of migrants across the world is at a record high — 244 million people left their homes in 2015, according to the United Nations. They were driven by war, dire economic straits, and for some, worsening environmental conditions brought on by climate change.
There’s a growing body of evidence linking migration and climate change, from Pacific island nations being subsumed by the rising ocean, to the drought-wracked Horn of Africa. In a speech this spring, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned that “as regions become unlivable, more and more people will be forced to move from degraded lands to cities and to other nations.”

The number of migrants across the world is at a record high — 244 million people left their homes in 2015, according to the United Nations. They were driven by war, dire economic straits, and for some, worsening environmental conditions brought on by climate change.
There’s a growing body of evidence linking migration and climate change, from Pacific island nations being subsumed by the rising ocean, to the drought-wracked Horn of Africa. In a speech this spring, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned that “as regions become unlivable, more and more people will be forced to move from degraded lands to cities and to other nations.”
The number of migrants across the world is at a record high — 244 million people left their homes in 2015, according to the United Nations. They were driven by war, dire economic straits, and for some, worsening environmental conditions brought on by climate change.Source:

Friday, October 27, 2017

God vs. Pan: Spitting at a Firefly

"When you understand why you dismiss all other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."

(Note: the main part of this article has now been published as an article at The Stream.  I'll retain additional points below.)

II.  The "gods" are ignoble and incoherent, if taken seriously.  

Pan is said to be half goat, half human.   He is depicted as having sex with goats, and also chasing nymphs and other humans and quasi-humans.  

This is, of course, not only disgusting, but also incoherent.  Species mate with their own, and reproduce true to form.  Of course God, as Creator, is in a sense behind all reproduction, but not by means of his own physical body.  

Or take Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war, sun, and human sacrifice, and the patron god of Mexico City.  Take him, please, so he doesn't stain our alabaster cities with the hemoglobin of thousands of sacrifices every year, while his priests butcher the left-overs.  

No doubt there are difficult passages in the Old Testament.  But anyone who thinks there are simply no arguments for God which do not equally apply to Pan or Huitzilopochtli, is to fools roughly what Xerxes was to the Persian Army in its encounter with Greece. 

III.  Do Christian dismiss "all other possible gods," anyway? 

I am not sure that we do.  The early Christians were sometimes quite open-minded about the existence of the beings the Greeks called "theos" or "daimon."  Of course Christians like Augustine argued, from pagan sources themselves, that they tended to be either malevolent or ridiculous, but the pagans often knew that.  Indeed, the Arcadians were not averse to beating Pan's idol when the hunt failed.

Christians believe that other spirits besides God do, in fact, exist.  Some of those might possibly be spirits who have been given particular names by various cultures.  Some are good, some are bad, and some might have other business in the universe.  C. S. Lewis described these beings as eldila in his Space Trilogy.  The Chinese are indeed flexible about "gods, ghosts and ancestors," since spirits might turn out to be any of the three, without conflating them with Shang Di, who alone was above the Emperor.

We theists are thus able to be far more open-minded and empirical than skeptics like Mr. Roberts.  God is one thing.  If evidence turns up for the existence of other spirits, we do not automatically reject that evidence without looking at it first.  Nor do we automatically accept it.

Apple only has one CEO at a time.  But apples, there are many.  Whether or not one struck Sir Isaac Newton's nose, is an empirical question, not a matter for a priori and hasty decisions.  Let us not confuse ourselves, then, when the differences between objects with similar spelling are far vaster.

Image result for fireflyIf you refute, or prove, the existence of some local spirit, that will have no effect whatsoever on God.  You cannot refute our Ground of Being by scoffing at some tall tale about a half-goat half-man, anymore than you can put out the sun by spitting at a firefly.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Great Thinkers often make Great Apologists, Pinocchio.

Image result for donkey pinocchio
Some arguments make you grow long ears.
I often hear skeptics sneer at Christian apologists.  "He's not a real scientist, he's just an apologist," that sort of thing.  Or as the New Testament critic Richard Miller put it in more detail on Debunking Christianity recently:

"Apologetics is a ruse. Instead of taking on real scientists, philosophers, and historians through the established qualifications of field graduate education and peer review discursive engagement...they study their game of rhetoric under other apologists, foisting themselves on a gullible Christian audience. It’s all parlor tricks and fraud, not authentic human knowledge."

What strikes me, on the contrary, is how many of the greatest thinkers in human history have been Christian apologists.  Here was my initial list:

Blaise Pascal
Matteo Ricci
Johannes Kepler
Sir Isaac Newton
JN Farquhar
G. K. Chesterton
C. S. Lewis
John Polkinghorne
JRR Tolkien
John Locke
Rene Descartes
Robert Boyle
James Legge
Don Page
Alvin Plantinga

To which posters added, among others, the following names:

Kopernikus, Galileo, Brahe, Descartes, Leibniz, Gassendi, Mersenne, Cuvier, Harvey, Dalton, Faraday, Herschel, Joule, Lyell, Lavoisier, Priestley, Kelvin, Ohm, Ampere, Steno, Pasteur, Maxwell, Planck, Mendel, Lemaitre.

Christians, not necessarily apologists, true -- though I believe some were, certainly Leibnitz.  Also:

St. John Damascene, St Justin Martyr, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, St. Gennadios Scholarios, St. John Chrysostom, Albertus Magnus, Bonaventure, St. Anselm of Canterbury, Eusebius of Caesarea, St. Basil the Great.

Let me pause merely to note that St. Anselm wasn't actually from Canterbury, he was from a town in the Italian Alps. 

Edward Feser, David S. Oderberg, Gaven Kerr, Fr. Thomas Joseph White, Fr. Frederick Copleston, Bishop Robert Barron, David Bentley Hart, Raymond Brown, Brant Pitre, Eleonore Stump, Barry Miller, Fr. Brian Davies, Fr. John Romanides, Christopher Ferrara, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP, Jacques Maritain, St. Edith Stein, Dennis Bonnette, Richard Swinburne...

I can't claim to know all these people, though would like to get to know some better.  But more were coming:

Frank Tipler.  N. T. Wright.  Darrell Bock.  Francis Bacon, William Paley, George Berkeley.  Moreland, Craig, Williard, Habermas.  Dembski, Meyer, Axe.  Bock, Evans, Witherington, Dan Wallace.

On science, again: Anders Kvellestad, Francis Collins, Colin Humphreys, John Polkinghorne, Ard A. Louis, Denis Lameroux, Steven C. Meyer.

Someone also posted this graph of leading scientists, showing that Christians (in yellow) have continued contributing immensely (though the part for the 20th Century may not be strictly representative):

A few more philosophers: Peter Kreeft.  Anthony Flew.  Pope John Paul II.  

I can vouch for some of these folks as both top-notch thinkers and Christian apologists, and others you likely know already.  

And I do think I have also increased "authentic human knowledge" in my work.  So have numerous friends whom I've had the privilege of knowing, who also argue powerfully for the Christian faith.  Tim McGrew, Ard Louis and Don Page [the latter two also named above], Don Richardson, Rodney Stark, Ben McFarland, and Dr. Paul Brand, are among the better-known who come to mind - but I find Christian apologists thick on the ground in places like Oxford.  

We also neglected to mention psychologists who argue at least implicitly for the Christian faith -- some names come to mind.  (Robert Coles, Paul Vitz, Armond Nicholi, even Ernest Becker and M Scott Peck, in some ways.)  Not to mention psychological writers like Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alexander Solzenitsyn, Walker Percy, who at least flirt with apologetics at time.  

It is true that the most elite scientists in America, by some measurements, are far less likely to be believers than are ordinary citizens.  I described a variety of reasons for that, largely sociological, in The Truth Behind the New Atheism.   And that fact alone may explain why so many top-flight Christian thinkers are also apologists: they have to be, to explain their quixotic position to their colleagues.  Besides, these are people who are wired that way, to think deeply about important questions and demand evidence for what they believe.  

It is also true that one can find lots of shoddy apologetics.  The popularity of the likes of Ken Ham and other Young-Earth Creationism is an embarrassment, to be sure, and not the only such embarrassment.  But atheists have their own crosses to bear in that regard.

And clearly, some of the greatest thinkers ever, have in fact been Christian apologists.  That's a touch of glory, but it's also a high standard for us to follow.  

One should be careful about easy dismissals of any class of people.   

Miller's real point is the same as that of Honest John in the Disney 1940 classic Pinocchio.  "So you haven't heard of the EEEEEASY way to success?"  After which John eats Pinocchio's apple, detours him from going to school, and sends him to an island where boys are turned into donkeys to work in the mines.  "They don't come back -- as BOYS!"  

Miller wants to take a shortcut to success in defeating Christianity.  This particular shortcut is an abbreviated (of course) form of ad hominem. 

"Christians are Cretans, or at least ostriches hiding their heads in the sand, and Cretans and ostriches can't reason and have no good arguments.  Therefore we can dismiss Christians, knowing their arguments must be wrong, without really listening, carefully observing the facts the best Christian thinkers point to, and considering whether their  arguments from those facts carry water."

And indeed, aside from personal attacks, no skeptic has even tried to seriously deal with the main arguments in my books.  

The easy road to success.

"BRAAAAAAHHHH!"  Image result for donkey pinocchio