Saturday, May 30, 2020

"Ballast" as uncharacteristic vocabulary

My recent post on two-hit wonders led to some discussion of whether or not Obama counted as such, given claims that he didn't write his own books. Searching for evidence regarding this allegation (which, as it turns out, includes several direct claims by Bill Ayers to have written Dreams from My Father) led me to this passage from a book about Rush Limbaugh.
Limbaugh claimed that Obama did not have the intellectual capacity to write his own books, and that Bill Ayers wrote them. . . . There is not even the slightest evidence to support this attack, but Limbaugh contended that Obama's use of the word "ballast" in his books was proof that he didn't write them: "He doesn't talk this way. You know, there are stories out there he may not have written this book."
-- John K. Wilson, The Most Dangerous Man in America
(Actually, he does talk that way. Trying to find that passage again in order to include it in this post led me to a 2016 statement by Obama that his wife, Michelle, is the "ballast for our family." Is that something he would have said anyway, I wonder, or did the Limbaugh allegation lead him to start consciously using the word ballast more often?)

A day or two after reading the Limbaugh "ballast" reference, I was reading a novel in which a pirate's wife asks the main character about "ballasting," and the author feels the need to explain how she happened to know that word.
"Still ballasting that thing?" she said, nodding past him at the Carmichael. She had learned the term while watching him work one afternoon a few days ago.
-- Tim Powers, On Stranger Tides, emphasis in original
Finally, shortly after reading that, I happened to check The Onion, which I haven't read regularly in a very long time. The main page featured, for some reason, a link to an old (2017) video called "Black Lives Matter Organizer Explains Movement To Older White Americans Using Sailing Metaphors To Make Them Feel More Comfortable" -- the implication, of course, being that sailing metaphors (like, I don't know, "ballast for our family") are a white thing and that black people "don't talk that way."

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Cats and lilies

Lilies kill cats. Ingesting even a tiny amount of any part of a lily, even mouthing a lily without swallowing anything, even drinking water that once had a lily in it -- all can cause complete and irreversible kidney failure and death within 36 hours. Bizarrely, this is true not only of true lilies (Lilium spp.) but also of the very distantly related and only superficially similar daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.). Worst of all, cats seem to have some strange and rather un-Darwinian attraction to lilies, making the chance of ingestion very high.

Fortunately I did not have to learn this from tragic experience, though it was rather a near escape. I noticed that the cats seemed abnormally interested in a vase of flowers my wife had just put in the kitchen, and thankfully I followed up the hunch, googled "cats and lilies," and very likely saved a feline life or two. The lilies are now locked away in a room the cats do not have access to, and we will not be bringing any representatives of that particular genus into the house again.

I mention this primarily to spread the word to any fellow cat owners who may be unaware of this potential threat, but also to note the strange appropriateness of it all from a symbolic point of view.

Lilies, besides being a traditional funeral flower (which therefore ought to be deadly to something), are also an age-old symbol of purity, and especially of sexual purity or virginity. They are a common motif in paintings of the annunciation.

Auguste Pichon, The Annunciation

The cat, on the other hand, is a traditional symbol of infidelity -- partly, I think, due to the habit of thinking of cats as the "opposite" of dogs, the latter being a byword for loyalty -- and of sexual misconduct. A cathouse is a whorehouse, and a womanizer is said to have "the morals of an alley cat."

David Hockney, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy

This weird appropriateness is underscored by the fact that, in defiance of all botanical common sense, the daylily (which certainly counts as a lily as far as symbolism is concerned) insists on being toxic to cats in precisely the same way that true lilies are, despite being more closely related to onions and asparagus than to lilies proper.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

"Two-hit wonders" quantified

An author is a "two-hit wonder" to the extent that there is a small difference in popularity between the most and second-most popular of his works, and a large difference between the second and the third. Thus, if a, b, and c are numbers representing the popularity of an author's three most popular works, then the greater the value of b2/ac, the more of a "two-hit wonder" that author is.

The values for a, b, and c can be acquired by checking the author page on LibraryThing, which lists how many copies of each book are owned by members of that site. (This is easier than checking Amazon, because LT combines the various editions of each book.)

Take George Orwell, for instance, as a pretty clear example of a two-hit wonder. His top three works on LT are 1984 (64,964), Animal Farm (46,341 copies), and Down and Out in Paris and London (6,378). There are also 2,625 copies of books that combine Animal Farm and 1984 in a single volume, so:
  • a (1984) = 64,964 + 2,625 = 67,589
  • b (Animal Farm) = 46,341 + 2,625 = 48,966
  • c (Down and Out) = 6,378
  • b2/ac = 5.56

For comparison, Herman Melville is an obvious example of a one-hit wonder.
  • a (Moby-Dick) = 27,517
  • b (Bartelby) = 2,121
  • c (Billy Budd) = 2,094
  • b2/ac = 0.08

Charles Dickens wrote a large number of popular books.
  • a (Great Expectations) = 30,222
  • b (A Tale of Two Cities) = 28,643
  • c (Oliver Twist) = 18,408
  • b2/ac = 1.47

Now that the metric is established, and has been shown by a few examples to give reasonable results, we can try to determine which English-language authors are the greatest two-hit wonders. This post was inspired by a post by Bruce Charlton called "Tolkien - the only 'Two Hit Wonder'?" -- so let's look at Tolkien first. Tolkien's case is complicated somewhat by the fact that The Lord of the Rings, a single novel, is very often sold in three volumes, so to get the number I took the total number of one-volume copies, divided the numbers for Fellowship, Towers, and Return by three, and added them all together. The result is:
  • The Lord of the Rings = 87,087
  • The Hobbit = 80,389
  • The Silmarillion = 26,894
  • b2/ac = 2.76

So Tolkien is indeed a two-hit wonder to some extent, but to nowhere near the same degree as Orwell. (This result surprised me a bit. I had underestimated the popularity of The Silmarillion.)

Here, then, is a ranked list of some two-hit wonders (score at least 2).
  • Anne Brontë = 22.73 (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Agnes Grey)
  • Samuel Butler = 14.93 (The Way of All Flesh, Erewhon)
  • Lewis Carroll = 11.39 (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass)
  • Barack Obama = 10.58 (The Audacity of Hope, Dreams from My Father)*
  • Samuel Richardson = 9.38 (Pamela, Clarissa)
  • Wilkie Collins = 6.26 (The Woman in White, The Moonstone)
  • George Orwell = 5.56 (1984, Animal Farm)
  • Richard Wright = 4.74 (Native Son, Black Boy)
  • Thornton Wilder = 4.48 (Our Town, The Bridge of San Luis Rey)
  • Jack London = 2.88 (The Call of the Wild, White Fang)
  • J. R. R. Tolkien = 2.76 (The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit)
  • Henry Fielding = 2.60 (Tom Jones, Joseph Andrews)
  • Mark Twain = 2.08 (Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer)
  • Rider Haggard = 2.01 (King Solomon's Mines, She)

So far these are the only ones we (I and various commenters here and on Bruce's original post) have found. (Poets and playwrights have proved hard to analyze, as it is so common for several different works to be sold together in one volume, so I have mostly limited this to novels.)  Feel free to add more in the comments.

* Apparently Bill Ayers has repeatedly claimed to be the real author of Dreams of My Father but not of The Audacity of Hope. If that's true (goodthinkers say he's just joking), then of course Obama doesn't count as a two-hit wonder.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

A healing in Galilee (Notes on John 4:43-54)

Older posts in this series: John 1, John 2, John 3:1-10, John 3:9-12, John 3:13-21, John 3:22-30, John 3:31-36John 4:1-26John 4:27-42.

As we resume our story, Jesus has just passed through Samaria en route from Judaea to his homeland of Galilee.
[43] Now after two days he departed thence, and went into Galilee. [44] For Jesus himself testified, that a prophet hath no honour in his own country. [45] Then when he was come into Galilee, the Galilaeans received him, having seen all the things that he did at Jerusalem at the feast: for they also went unto the feast.
Mark (6:1-5; cf. Matthew 13:54-58) also quotes Jesus as saying, "A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country," but does so in a context that makes more sense.
[1] And he went out from thence, and came into his own country; and his disciples follow him.
[2] And when the sabbath day was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were astonished, saying, "From whence hath this man these things? and what wisdom is this which is given unto him, that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands? [3] Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us?" And they were offended at him. 
[4] But Jesus, said unto them, "A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house." 
[5] And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them.
In Mark, Jesus says this just after being dismissed by the people of his own country, and we are then told that he could do few miracles there ("because of their unbelief," Matthew adds). In John, there is no such context, and no indication that his countrymen were dismissive; on the contrary, it appears that they welcomed him as a known worker of miracles. (They had seen him work miracles at the Passover in Jerusalem, as mentioned in John 2:23.)

In John, v. 44 reads at first like a non sequitur. Jesus went into Galilee, for he said a prophet has no honor in his own country -- for? Is that bit about a prophet having no honor supposed to be the reason he went into Galilee? At first I found this so puzzling that I was almost ready to assume that something had been excised from the text between vv. 43 and 44, but on second thought it actually makes sense.

Why was Jesus traveling from Judaea to Galilee? According to John 4:1-3, it was because he "knew how the Pharisees [in Judaea] had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John." Jesus had become too famous in Judaea and was apparently trying to escape from that. One might have supposed he would have been left in peace in Samaria, where the locals had no dealings with the Jews and had stubbornly rejected every prophet since Moses -- but even there he unexpectedly became a celebrity, proclaimed the Messiah even by the unbelieving Samaritans. Then he passed on into Galilee. Surely there he would not be welcomed as the Messiah, since Jesus himself had said that a prophet has no honor in his own country. No such luck, though. The Galilaeans had been at the feast at Jerusalem and seen his miracles, and so his fame had preceded him.

Why was Jesus running from his fame, trying to find a place where the people would not enthusiastically welcome him as the Messiah? Didn't he want people to "believe on his name"? We can only speculate as to his reasons. Perhaps, as I suggested in my notes on John 4:1-26 (qv), he left Judaea so as not to appear to be competing with John the Baptist. Perhaps he was ambivalent about being received as the Messiah because he knew he wasn't the Messiah, not really, not the Davidic figure the Jews were expecting. (See my post on Jesus and the Messianic prophecies.) Perhaps, as suggested in John 2:23-25, he was not interested in attracting disciples whose "faith" went no deeper than a capacity to be wowed by miracles. Certainly he wanted to avoid becoming the center of a political movement. Anyway, whatever his reasons, Jesus' desire to keep a low profile is attested in all four Gospels, most particularly in Mark, where the secrecy of Jesus' Messianic mission is a central theme.

[46] So Jesus came again into Cana of Galilee, where he made the water wine. And there was a certain nobleman, whose son was sick at Capernaum. [47] When he heard that Jesus was come out of Judaea into Galilee, he went unto him, and besought him that he would come down, and heal his son: for he was at the point of death. 
[48] Then said Jesus unto him, "Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe."
What first crossed my mind when I read this was Herod's song from Jesus Christ Superstar (the scriptural basis for which is Luke 23:8): "So you are the Christ / You're the great Jesus Christ / Prove to me that you're divine / Change my water into wine / That's all you need do / And I'll know it's all true / C'mon, King of the Jews!"

Why did that, of all things, come to mind? Because that's the sort of request Jesus seems to think he's responding to. A desperate father comes to beg him to save his son's life, and Jesus responds as if he'd said, "Prove to me that you're no fool / Walk across my swimming pool." It seems almost narcissistic of Jesus to assume that the request is about his proving himself rather than about saving the child. It's as if a physician were to say to a distraught patient, "What, now I've got to cure leukemia to prove I'm a competent doctor? You people!"

Could Jesus really have responded like this to a heartfelt plea for help? Be it far from thee, Lord! Something else must be going on here.

Is it possible that the nobleman's request really was an attempt to put Jesus to the test, or even an expression of idle curiosity, and that his son's illness was just a convenient pretext? That seems highly unlikely. He made a special trip from Capernaum to Cana -- about 24 miles one way (or so; the exact location of Cana is disputed) -- just to see Jesus, leaving behind his son who "was at the point of death." It's hard to imagine what but sincere desperation could have motivated such a trip under such circumstances.

Is it possible that by "signs and wonders" Jesus meant not the anticipated healing but rather the unspecified miracles he had wrought in Judaea at the Passover? The Galilaeans, we are told, had been at the feast and seen those miracles, and that is why this time around they "received him." Last time he was in Cana, people certainly weren't coming from far and wide to request healings -- but now, after witnessing signs and wonders in Judaea, suddenly everyone's a believer. It still seems like an unnecessarily sarcastic thing to say, but at least it would not be questioning the sincerity of the nobleman's request.

Is it possible, even though the Gospel reads "Then said Jesus unto him," that Jesus' comment was actually intended more for onlookers than for the nobleman himself? He did use ye, a pronoun which in the King James Bible is always plural. Perhaps we may imagine that a crowd of sign-seekers had gathered around the two of them, waiting to see if and how this Messiah claimant would rise to the challenge of healing a terminally ill child. And perhaps he intentionally gave the nobleman what he wanted, by healing the child, while at the same time refusing to give the crowd what they wanted, by carrying out the healing in the least showy, most plausibly-deniable way possible -- just "Go home, your son will be fine," with no hocus pocus.

Finally, is it possible that Jesus' statement was not criticism or sarcasm at all, but a simple statement of fact and an explanation of why he agreed to work the requested miracle? He perceived that the nobleman would believe if he saw a miracle, and wouldn't if he didn't, and so he healed his son -- not for the sake of healing him, but in order that the father might believe. People tend to be dismissive of the idea that genuine faith might be occasioned by something as crass as a miracle, but it does happen. And it must be kept in mind that Jesus' mission was spiritual, not medical, in nature. He presumably could have snapped his fingers and healed everyone in the world if that had been what he wanted to accomplish -- but apparently it wasn't.

We rarely ask why Jesus healed people, taking it for granted that of course that's what a good and loving person would do -- but if you think about it, it's fairly obvious that if God didn't want anyone to get sick or die, he would have created a very different sort of world from the one he did in fact create. Sickness and premature death are apparently not always (net) bad things from God's point of view, so Jesus presumably did not want to heal as many people as possible just for the sake of healing. He healed when, and only when, that would lead to the best result -- "best" by spiritual, not necessarily medical, criteria.

In short, perhaps Jesus' statement was not meant to imply that this nobleman was just like the Pharisees, or like Herod in the song, but precisely that he was not like them. The Pharisees would not have been converted by a miraculous sign, but would have explained it away or latched onto how it was a violation of the Sabbath or whatever, and so Jesus generally did not perform signs for them. This nobleman, in contrast, was the sort of person who could be -- and, as it turned out, was -- converted by a sign, and so Jesus gave him one. I find this an attractive reading; the only thing that makes me unsure about it is Jesus' use of the plural pronoun ye, implying that he was generalizing about a group rather than talking about the nobleman as an individual.

[49] The nobleman saith unto him, "Sir, come down ere my child die."
[50] Jesus saith unto him, "Go thy way; thy son liveth." 
And the man believed the word that Jesus had spoken unto him, and he went his way.
"Come down" because Capernaum was a low-elevation town on the Sea of Galilee, whereas Cana was up in the hills.

Whatever was intended by Jesus' comment about not believing without signs and wonders, the nobleman does not engage with it at all but simply asks Jesus again to heal his child -- and Jesus does, simple as that, and sends him on his way. Nothing else is needed, not so much as a "Thy faith hath made him whole." And so, after walking 24 miles to Cana and having this maybe 15-second conversation with Jesus, the nobleman turns right around and walks the 24 miles back to Capernaum (or maybe not; see below).

[51] And as he was now going down, his servants met him, and told him, saying, "Thy son liveth." 
[52] Then enquired he of them the hour when he began to amend.
And they said unto him, "Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him."
[53] So the father knew that it was at the same hour, in the which Jesus said unto him, "Thy son liveth": and himself believed, and his whole house.
The son's recovery was apparently sudden enough that an exact hour could be pinpointed. The nobleman's desire to know the exact time is understandable. If his son had recovered before the conversation with Jesus, Jesus' statement would be evidence only of paranormal knowledge ("remote viewing") rather than healing ability. The coincidence of times makes it more probable (but of course does not prove) that Jesus somehow caused the son's recovery rather than merely reporting it.

Hours were counted from dawn, so the conversation with Jesus took place at approximately 1:00 in the afternoon. The nobleman must have arisen before the sun and begun his journey to Cana very early in the morning in order to arrive so early in the day. Understandably, he would have wanted to avoid traveling in the heat of the afternoon. He did not meet his servants on the road until the next day, so he apparently did not after all head back to Capernaum immediately. He must have stayed in Cana at least to wait out the hottest part of the day, and he probably spent the night there as well.

Given that the nobleman apparently did not set out for home immediately, I find it curious that he "went his way" directly after the brief conversation with Jesus. Since he had some time to kill in Cana, and since Jesus' visit was probably about the most interesting thing going on in that little village, and since he apparently already believed that Jesus had miraculously healed his son -- wouldn't it have been more natural for him to stick around, hear what Jesus had to say, and try to find out a bit more about this extraordinary person? I wonder what he did instead.

[54] This is again the second miracle that Jesus did, when he was come out of Judaea into Galilee.
I'm not sure why the miracles are being counted in this way. This is not the second miracle that Jesus did, since we know that he performed several miracles in Judaea during the Passover. Neither is it the second miracle that he did after coming out of Judaea into Galilee, since his first miracle in Galilee (turning water into wine, also in Cana) was performed before the trip to Jerusalem. At any rate, it is the second of the seven miracles that this Gospel chooses to emphasize, and perhaps that is all that matters.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The philosophaster's stone

I guess I was about eight or nine when I discovered the diagrams of Platonic and Archimedean solids in Mathematics: A Human Endeavor by Harold R. Jacobs and began assiduously making paper models of almost all of them. One I omitted, because it just seemed kind of tacky, was the snub cube -- the singular unattractiveness of which is best seen in Kepler's original illustration from Harmonices Mundi:

I always thought that it (like its cousin, the snub dodecahedron) shouldn't be considered a real Archimedean solid -- that it shouldn't count, just as prisms and antiprisms don't count. I mean, it's just a plain cube, gussied up with a sort of Elizabethan ruff of triangles around each face, antiprismhood taken to the next level. And the name! Kepler dubbed it cubus simus, which has something of the ring of a Life of Brian joke-name, but it is in English that it reaches the absolute nadir of polyhedral onomastics. If cellar door has often been cited (by Tolkien, H. L. Mencken, and others) as a particularly beautiful phrase, irrespective of its meaning, snub cube is the anti-cellar door. Nothing beautiful could be called a snub cube.

Some years later, I read Timaeus, the dialogue to which the term "Platonic solid" alludes, and discovered Plato's idea that the four classical elements are made up of tiny tetrahedra (fire), cubes (earth), octohedra (air), and icosahedra (water) -- which in turn are made up of squares and triangles. (These squares and triangles are made up of two different sorts of smaller triangles, Platonic quarks.)

I realized that if you took the 6 square faces of a cube and the 4 + 8 + 20 triangular faces of the other three elemental solids, and put them all together into a single polyhedron, that polyhedron would be -- the Snub Cube, the perfect unity of the four elements. The philosophaster's stone.

Since making that discovery, I have been using "Snub Cube" as mental shorthand for all those overly-abstract, overly-nifty schemata -- from the Kabbalah to scholastic theology to psychoanalysis -- which, despite how shiny and rectilinear they are, and how neatly everything fits together, are palpably wrong at the deepest possible level and are therefore to be treated with caution -- studied, admired, learned-from, to be sure, but never taken to heart.

"All that I have written seems like straw," Aquinas is reported to have said near the end of his life, but the metaphor is an imprecise one. What he meant was, "I see now that what I have created is, after all, only a particularly well-constructed Snub Cube."

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Supergod delusion

All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme.
-- Mark 3:28
As strong as can be, and as smart as can be, and . . .

By "Supergod," I mean the fanciful being for whom the more familiar philosophy-class shorthand is "Omni-God" -- this latter prefix referring to the various polysyllabic epithets with which this imaginary deity has been decorated: omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and all the rest. Supergod is the subject of what has come to be called "classical theism" (i.e., Christianized Hellenistic philosophy), and he can be defined by the following characteristics:
  1. He knows everything.
  2. He is able to do anything that is logically possible.
  3. He and his motives are entirely good.
  4. Absolutely everything that exists, except Supergod himself, was created by Supergod out of nothing at all.
There is no Supergod. In fact, there is very obviously no Supergod. So obvious is this fact that about the most charitable thing we can say about those who profess to believe in him is that they haven't really thought things through. Disproving his existence is like shooting fish in a barrel, and of course it has already been done to death by atheists. Despite this, and because arguments against Supergod are so often understood to be arguments for atheism, I think it is important for a Christian to come out against the idea of Supergod and to make it clear that theism, and indeed Christianity, is perfectly possible without believing in the God of the Greeks.

Supergod and the Bad

The idea of Supergod can be succinctly refuted by what is traditionally called the "Problem of Evil" -- or, since evil has a rather narrower meaning now than it did when that term was coined, the Problem of Bad. Briefly:
  1. If everything had been created from nothing by Supergod, then everything would be good.
  2. But some things are bad.
  3. Therefore, everything was not created from nothing by Supergod.
It really is that simple. No honest person could fail to see it, nor could any honest person fail to see that every proposed solution is pure, unadulterated sophistry. Briefly, here are some of the ways people have attempted to justify Supergod's ways to man (in italics), with my response to each (in roman type).

1. Evil has no positive existence but is simply the absence of good.

First of all, this is very obviously false. If lying is the absence of truth-telling, then rocks are liars. If adultery is the absence of marital fidelity, then monks are adulterers. If murder is the absence of not-murdering-people, then -- okay, this is just getting stupid. Second, even if we grant the premise, the Problem of Bad (or, if you must, the Problem of the Absence of Good) remains. Whether we say Supergod created bad or merely failed to create sufficient good, the end result is the same: Some things are bad, and Supergod is responsible.

2. Suffering is an illusion.

No, it isn't.

3. Even God can only do things that are logically possible. Perhaps it is logically impossible for the universe to be less bad than it in fact is.

Do you believe in Heaven?

Sorry, that's fighting sophistry with sophistry, since belief in Heaven is logically independent of the Supergod premise. To play by the rules, then: Smallpox has been eradicated, showing that a world without smallpox is logically possible; but Supergod created a world with smallpox.

Certainly a world with less bad/suffering than the real world is logically possible. Is a world with no suffering at all logically possible? I think not, because it is human nature to have mutually contradictory desires, at least some of which must therefore be frustrated. Supergod, though, could have created humans with a different nature, one more amenable to absolutely perfect bliss.

4. Suffering builds character.

Agreed. But Supergod could have just created us with good character to begin with.

5. God can bring good out of evil.

Yes, but why should he choose that particular method of producing good? Supergod can make omelettes without breaking eggs.

6. Free will, which is good, entails the possibility of choosing badly.

First of all, lots of bad things, such as earthquakes, have nothing to do with anyone's free will. Second, free will is inconsistent with Supergod's omniscience, since he can't know with 100% certainty what we will do unless there is no chance of our doing otherwise. (If you somehow think omniscience is consistent with free will, then Supergod could have foreseen, before creating any given being, whether or not that being would ever choose to do anything bad -- and could have created only those who would not.) Third, good people consistently use their free will to choose good things, not bad things, and Supergod could have created us good. Jesus had free will, but was there ever any real chance that he might have chosen to be a serial killer rather than a Messiah? Supergod, however, apparently chose to create lots of people for whom choosing to become a serial killer was a real possibility.

7. We have no right to pass moral judgment on God.

Then where do you get off calling him "good"?

"Mere God" and the Bad

By "Mere God" I mean (with apologies to C. S. Lewis, who was after all in the Supergod camp) God as I believe he actually is, divested of all the childish superlatives with which the Supergod lot have bedecked him. His characteristics, as contrasted with those of Supergod, are as follows:
  1. He knows a great deal, vastly more than any of us, but not "everything." Specifically, he does not know in advance what any given free agent will choose to do in the future, because that is in principle unknowable. Does God know absolutely everything that is knowable? Perhaps, but I'm not about to assume that dogmatically.
  2. He is vastly more powerful than we can imagine, but there are limits to his power above and beyond those imposed by logic. (I suspect that these constraints are entirely moral in character and have to do with the need to respect the agency of other beings not created by God.)
  3. His motives are entirely good.
  4. He "created the world" in the sense that the cosmos as we know it has been to a very significant degree shaped by him, but he didn't make it out of nothing. Other beings with agency (free will) were not, and cannot be, created by him, because a free agent is by its nature an uncaused cause.
This set of assumptions about God makes the Problem of Bad tractable, chiefly by making it possible to think of evil as educational (the "suffering builds character" argument dismissed above). God didn't create us; we were "already there," imperfect from the beginning -- and it is morally (and perhaps also "physically") impossible for God to magically transform us into wholly good beings. The only way we can become wholly good is by learning from experience and making good choices. God's priority, then, is not to provide us with maximally pleasant experiences, but rather with those experiences that will help us learn and grow. (This reasoning cannot be legitimately applied to Supergod, who is supposed to have created us from nothing.)

What about the argumentum ad smallpox? Humans eradicated smallpox, and even Mere God is vastly more powerful than us; therefore, he could have eradicated it. We can also assume that God could have prevented us from eradicating smallpox, and would have done so if smallpox had played some vital role in the divine plan. Therefore, it appears that God could have eradicated smallpox, had no compelling reason not to do so -- and yet chose not to. However, I think this sort of argument is fairly easy to deal with under the education model of suffering. Different learning experiences are needed by different people and at different times, so what was once vital may later become useless; and no one specific experience is likely to be necessary in an absolute sense, since many different experiences can provide similar learning opportunities.

Then why call him God?

It is widely taken for granted that Supergod is the only sort of God worth considering, and that anything short of belief in Supergod doesn't really count as theism. A common formulation of the Problem of Evil is, "If God is good, he wants to eliminate evil. If he is all-powerful, he is able to do so. If he is not good and all-powerful, then why call him God?"

This seems like a ridiculously narrow definition of theism. Do the defining characteristics of Supergod apply to Osiris? To Zeus? To Yahweh himself before the philosophers got their hands on him? Was everyone an atheist who lived before, or outside the cultural reach of, Greek philosophy?

God is good. Isn't that enough? Is a wholly good Being somehow not worth aligning oneself with just because he doesn't know the future in every detail or didn't create absolutely everything out of absolutely nothing? On the contrary, the knowledge that God didn't create this very flawed universe out of nothing is what makes it possible for honest people to call him good; and the free will that rules out perfect foreknowledge is what makes a meaningful relationship with God possible in the first place.


What is the reader to make of the epigraph from Mark at the beginning of this post, about how all blasphemies shall be forgiven? Is it not a tacit admission that this post is itself knowingly and intentionally blasphemous, and that it requires forgiveness?

Well, no. I do not believe that speaking the truth about God as I understand it is blasphemous. If I have criticized and even poked fun at the idea of Supergod, it is in the same spirit, and for the same reason, that Elijah and Isaiah attacked and ridiculed the those conceptions of God which they regarded as "idolatrous."

But I nevertheless think it is important to stress that God forgives blasphemy, because blasphemophobia -- the undue fear of incurring the wrath of God through lèse-majesté -- is a major impediment to thinking clearly and honestly about God. People who reflexively swallow the Supergod doctrine because they are afraid even to consider anything else, those who, for fear of risking eternal damnation, wish always to err on the side of saying God is more super rather than less -- well, I don't think they're doing themselves, or God, any favors.

Everything depends on which assumptions are regarded as the most fundamental. For me, the bottom line is that God is good and loving, and if such traditional doctrines as omnipotence and creatio ex nihilo clash with that, then so much the worse for those doctrines. Let God be true, but every man a liar.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

A very weird Tim Powers sync

So, I stopped by Junior Ganymede, as is my wont, and read the latest post: "The Taste is Bitter in My Mouth" -- a brief post which includes the line "Yesterday I found a Tim Powers book I hadn’t read yet." I realized that I have absolutely no idea who Tim Powers is or what sort of books he writes.

Then, acting on a very uncharacteristic whim, I clicked more or less at random on one of the links on the JG blogroll: labelled "Common sense? What's that?" but directing to a blog called "Yet another weird SF fan." Then, even though the first several posts on the page were topical birdemic-related stuff that completely failed to pique my interest, I kept scrolling down to a January 1 post called "Analogs of Donald Trump in Science Fiction." It had a link, which I clicked on, to a bit in Scott Alexander's Unsong about how The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is about the 2016 election. (I think I had read it before, back in 2017 when it was first posted.) This ended with a link to a "new author's note," which I also dutifully clicked on. This "note" turned out to little more than a lightly annotated assortment of vaguely-related links, only one of which elicited a click: "Where has all the magic gone?" by someone called Jaskologist.

The first sentence in this Jaskologist post (all I've read of it so far): "If you’ve never read a Tim Powers book, go do yourself a favor and check out The Anubis Gates, which ranks in my top 3 favorite works of fiction."

To the best of my knowledge, I had never encountered the name Tim Powers before today -- or if I had, it didn't register. If you had asked me an hour ago who Tim Powers was, I wouldn't even have been able to tell you that he was a writer as opposed to a football player, an actor, or a physicist. I still know nothing about him except that he apparently writes fiction and that two of his books are called Salvage and Demolition and The Anubis Gates. Anyway, it seems pretty clear that the synchronicity fairies are trying to bring him to my attention.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Each continent and region has its own biological "style"

Take a look at these pictures of American species and their European "equivalents" -- not necessarily closely related, but similar enough to have been given the same common name.

American and European badgers

American and European robins

American and European red squirrels

This is just a gestalt impression that I can't begin to quantify or explain, so I'm hoping I'm not the only one who sees it -- but, doesn't there seem to be a common "style" underlying the three American species (on the left), and another, quite different style manifested in the European ones (on the right)? It's as if two artists with very different souls had each been commissioned to paint a badger, a robin, and a red squirrel. Seeing the "Americanness" of the one set and the "Europeanness" of the other is as easy -- and as hard to explain -- as distinguishing a Titian from a Rembrandt.

(I remember once looking at a brochure from a local museum, advertising a Chagall exhibition. Of the pictures featured in the brochure, one immediately stood out as vastly superior to the others and made me think that maybe Chagall wasn't as crappy an artist as I had always thought. It turned out to be a Picasso.)

Something similar can be said for the "Africanness" of African animals, the "Asianness" of Asian ones, and so on. On a smaller geographic scale, I am continually amazed at how consistently Japanese birds look Japanese; observing a new-to-me bird in Taiwan, I can almost always accurately guess whether or not it is also found in Japan.

Although comparisons, like the American-European ones above, make regional styles easier to see, they can also be recognized without comparison. My first sense that there was something ineffably American about American animals came from looking at a picture similar to this one.

Just as Rembrandt and Titian, and even Picasso and Chagall, are all part of a larger style called "European art," which is quite distinct from, say, Chinese art -- so I sometimes feel that I can sense a common "Earth" style underlying all the animals in the world, even though I obviously have no other set of animals to compare them too. The planetary spirit of Earth may be harder to see, for lack of contrast, than the regional spirits of various countries and continents, but it is no less real.

Another unremarked milestone

According to the latest figures , the pecks have now killed more than two-thirds as many people in Taiwan as the birdemic has, and that rat...