Sunday, November 18, 2018

Eschatological earthquakes

 2 For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses plundered and the women raped. Half of the city shall go out into exile, but the rest of the people shall not be cut off from the city. 3 Then the Lord will go out and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. 4 On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward. 5 And you shall flee to the valley of my mountains, for the valley of the mountains shall reach to Azal. And you shall flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. Then the Lord my God will come, and all the holy ones with him (Zech 14:2-5).

The gist of this oracle is a supernatural earthquake that provides an escape route for Jerusalemites while walling off their retreat from the invaders. The invading army is on the wrong side of the new hill to pursue them.

The oracle trades on the fact that parts of the Middle East are seismically active. To a modern reader, there's nothing surprising about the imagery. Seismologists and geologists study faults which preserve trace evidence of massive ancient earthquakes that reshaped the landscape. And they make projections about future earthquakes. 

But it's anachronistic to read the text that way, in the sense that while the original audience was acquainted with earthquakes (v5), they had no experience of earthquakes sufficiently cataclysmic to transform the topography in the way this text describes. An earthquake that massive would kill all the inhabitants. There'd be no surviving observers to transmit memories of the disaster. 

So the text reflects a knowledge of tectonic activity that's hard to explain if OT prophets were merely children of their time. They never witnessed an earthquake on the scale necessary to have anything remotely resembling the impact described in the text. So how could they extrapolate from lesser earthquakes? That's an issue whether we construe the oracle literally or figuratively. 

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Why don't more pastors speak out?

What about Quetzalcoatl?

A village atheist trope makes the following challenge to Christians: have you disproven the existence of Allah, Manitou, Quetzalcoatl, Ra, Shiva, Thor, Zeus, &c.? 

There are lots of problems with that objection:

i) It cuts both ways. Why is that supposed to be a problem for the Christian but not the atheist? Has the atheist run through the entire list of gods and individually disproven the existence of each one? Why is it incumbent on a Christian to do that but not an atheist? Either it's a problem for both or for neither one. 

ii) Does an atheist think you must eliminate every conceivable alternative to know something or be warranted in what you believe? Has the atheist evaluated every school of thought in Eastern and Western philosophy? We all take intellectual shortcuts. 

iii) I'm unaware of any appreciable evidence for the existence of Quetzalcoatl, Ra, Shiva, Thor, Zeus, &c. The onus is not on me to disprove something for which there's no discernible evidence. 

The evolution of the nose

At the 12th World Congress on Evolutionary Biology, held in Stockholm, an acrimonious debate broke out between Prof. Obstkuchen and Prof. Knödel on the evolution of the nose. Prof. Obstkuchen said the function of the nose isn't for breathing. Rather, the nose was an adaptation to keep the eyes apart. If the eyes are too close together, that impedes depth perception or peripheral vision.

Conversely, Prof. Knödel said the function of eyes isn't for seeing. Rather, eyes were an adaptation to keep the nose centered. An off-center nose throws the esophagus off-center, too, which impedes swallowing (like the S-bend in a sink pipe). Just imagine a nose on the left side or right side of the face!

Both biologists offered learned but divergent backstories to explain the stochastic evolution of the nose and eyes.

The White House press corps

I'm struck by the fact that David French and Ben Shapiro are siding with CNN over the Acosta kerfuffle. They act like Trump violated Acosta's Constitutional rights. 

This is concerning because it goes to the issue of judicial philosophy. Conservatives typically champion strict constructionism rather than a living Constitution. 

A president can't shut down the press. The press has a right to report on the Executive branch. Has the right to investigate the Executive branch. 

However, there's no Constitutional right to have a White House press corps. There's no Constitutional right for journalists to be stationed at the White House. There's no Constitutional mandate that a president hold press conferences. Or have a press secretary. Those are traditions that developed long after the Constitution was ratified.

There's no Constitutional mandate that a president call upon a particular reporter. There's no Constitutional mandate that a particular reporter from a particular news outlet have access to the White House. Those are traditions that developed long after the Constitution was ratified.

Banning a reporter from the White House grounds isn't a criminal penalty. The only folks who are really entitled to be on White House grounds are White House employees. 

It's disturbing when David French and Ben Shapiro hail the ruling of a judge in favor of Acosta. That's the kind of judicial overreach that conservatives are supposed to oppose. Inventing Constitutional rights that have no basis in the text, logic, or history of the Constitution. Their antipathy towards Trump is skewing their judgment. 

BTW, I've never seen the point of the White House press corps. The press secretary will defend whatever the current policy happens to be, whether the policy is logical, illogical, factual, or demonstrably false. It's a vacuous, predictable game in which reporters pose argumentative questions while the press secretary gives evasive, disingenuous, scripted answers. This is equally true for Democrat or Republic administrations. It's not a productive way to elicit useful information.  

We're both vegans!

I contend we're both vegans, I just eat one fewer animal than you do. When you understand why you only eat some animals rather than all animals, you will understand why I don't eat yours.


I think Tim Hsiao makes some good general points in this article:

However, I disagree with using retribution as the primary paradigm for child discipline. 

i) Why not deploy a remedial theory of punishment in the case of children and retribution for adult offenders?

ii) Part of the problem concerns the incidental connotations of corporal punishment. "Corporal punishment" is a conventional designation, but can be misleading if we treat that conventional label as the frame of reference. With regard to young kids, we should reframe the issue in terms of conditioning rather than punishment. Analogous to dog training.

ii) Sometimes children do things that are morally wrong even from a child's perspective. They can be cruel. They may steal. 

iii) That needs to be distinguished from foolish or dangerous things kids do, that are innocent of malice. Kids are impetuous. 

iv) I don't think physical pain is the major factor in the corporal punishment or discipline. What makes it effective has less to do with the degree of physical pain than humiliation. A psychological effect.

Skinning your knees by falling off a bicycle is more painful than a light spanking, but spanking has a psychological effect that mere pain doesn't. It's a reproof from a parent. More like an honor/shame dynamic. Putting a misbehaving child in its place. 

The shocked or hurt expression of a child who's swatted isn't primary due to the pain, which may be minor, but the humiliation–and the fact that it was done by someone they're so emotionally dependent on.

Another cliche example is a young child who shoplifts. The parent discovers the stolen item after they return home, takes the child back to the store, where the shamefaced child must present the stolen item to the storeowner and personally apologize. There's nothing physically painful about that experience, but what makes it a disincentive to future shoplifting is the acute embarrassment.

Even in the case of the public caning of juvenile delinquents, the primary deterrent isn't physical pain but public humiliation. The psychological rather than physical unpleasantness of the experience. 

Take the famous case of Michael Fay. The corrective effect of his caning has less to do with physical pain than public shaming.

v) Take the cliche of a cliche example of a young child who does something hazardous because kids his age are impulsive, oblivious to danger, and shortsighted regarding the consequences of their actions.

The purpose of swatting them isn't punitive in that context. Rather, it's to make it memorable and unpleasant in order to create a disincentive which will override the impulse to engage in that kind of risky behavior in the future. Associate the behavior with something unpleasant or fearful. 

vi) It can be useless to reason with a young child who wants to do something he shouldn't–because children can be willful. They don't care about the reason. They just want what they want. So a parent needs to make it unpleasant, to create a disincentive. 

This isn't a question of justice or fairness but prudence. Conditioning prudent behavior. 

BTW, I'm not suggesting parents shouldn't give children reasons. They should. But oftentimes children aren't listening, so a reason will be ineffective, although it's still important for parents to reason with their kids.

vii) I wouldn't say young kids are either amoral or moral agents. There are moral elements to a child's psychological makeup. Take their sense of fairness or betrayal ("You promised!"). However, kids lack the cognitive ability to entertain the kind of counterfactual reasoning that's a part of moral deliberation and decision-making. 

Friday, November 16, 2018

Affirmative claims

It's common for the average atheist to say the burden of proof is on the Christian, because the Christian is affirming something to be the case whereas the atheist simply lacks belief in deities. 

The implication is that an existential claim or affirmation has an initial presumption against it, which the claimant must overcome by providing countervailing evidence. If so, that's a general principle which applies to all kinds of existential claims, and not to Christianity in particular. But is that reasonable? Is that a principle atheists accept in general?

Suppose two students are standing outside a class room, peering into the class room through the open doorway. One student says the class room is occupy. His classmate, with the same view, says he has no opinion on whether the class room is empty or not. 

Suppose the first student said the class room is occupied because, peering through the doorway, other students appear in his field of vision. He sees students (or the impression of students) inside the class room. Is there an initial presumption that his affirmation is false? Is something additional required to overcome that initial presumption to the contrary?  

He simply finds himself in an epistemic situation where he's confronted with manifest evidence that something is the case. What more is required? There's no shift from a presumption to the contrary to an affirmation. Was there a prior point at which the onus was on him to justify his belief? 

And what about his classmate? Even though students appear in his field of vision as well, does he have no burden of proof so long as he makes no claim one way or the other? Is the onus not on him to explain how he can be noncommittal in the face of evidence that eliminates one of the two options (either it's vacant or occupied)? Is he justified in withholding judgment at that point?

Jewish evangelism

One of the sore points in Jewish evangelism is the position that Jews are damned unless they believe in Jesus (i.e. the messianship, deity, and Incarnation of Jesus). Of course, that's not unique to Judaism. That's standard exclusivism, which applies to non-Christians generally. And there wouldn't be much point evangelizing Jews if it didn't matter what you believe about Jesus.

Many people naturally resent being told they're hellbound unless they become Christian. Suppose, though, we turn this around. Imagine if Christianity said all Jews are going to heaven. Would Jews be impressed?

Religiously conservative Jews think Christianity is an idolatrous, polytheistic heresy. So why would they care if a false religion gives their own religion the thumbs up? Isn't a Christian endorsement of rabbinic Judaism worthless from their standpoint? 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Hopeless grief

Does life matter?

Does life matter? Surely there's no more important question in ethics. 

1. According to nihilism, including antinatalism (which is a paradigm version of nihilism), it's better not to exist in the first place. And that's not just a hypothetical position to fill out the logical continuum of possible views, but a live option. Nihilism regards human existence is irredeemably tragic. 

2. According to Epicureanism, existence and nonexistence are equivalent. Prenatal and postmortem nonexistence are interchangeable. Although nominally heathen, the Epicurean view of life and death, as well as the nihilist, are essentially atheistic. We're on our own. 

It would be interesting to see a debate between an Epicurean and a Christian annihilationist! An Epicurean doesn't think oblivion is bad. 

There are some people who say postmortem nonexistence is significant in a way that prenatal nonexistence is not. They only agree with one side of the Epicurean comparison. 

3. Here's one way to view the issue: Suppose you're the proud father of a teenage son. I offer you $10 million to step into a time machine and contracept his existence. If you take the offer, you will travel back to point shortly before he was conceived, and do something to preempt his conception. 

I doubt most fathers would accept the offer. For one thing, they couldn't stand to lose their son. But over and above that, they couldn't bring themselves to do that to their own son. To deprive him of existence. 

Yet on the time-travel scenario, by taking that preemptive and retroactive action, the father made it the case that his son had no existence to begin with, for the new timeline replaces the original timeline. It's as if he never existed. He has no counterpart in the new timeline. And the father may or may not remember the original timeline (depending on how we detail the thought-experiment).

On Epicurean grounds, his nonexistence is insignificant. Yet I expect most fathers would balk at the prospect. 

And that's germane to the question of whether God, if there is a God, ought to intervene more often to prevent evil. Is that a reasonable expectation? 

Problem is, whenever God intervenes, that's analogous to a time-traveler who changes the past to change the future. Which doesn't mean that God never intervenes. But there are tradeoffs. When people imagine a better world, an improvement over the status quo, they men


On Twitter, atheist Jeff Lowder directed the following comments at Christians:

Sincere question for conservative Christians: what is the Biblical case against allowing transgendered persons from transitioning to the gender identity they identify with? What reason(s) do you have which would not also prohibit the correction of birth defects?

I can see how Genesis provides support for a (the?) gender binary, but I don't understand the Biblical basis for condemnation of individuals who wish to transition to the gender they most closely identify with.

It also assumes that pronouns have to be a reference to anatomical sex rather than gender identity. 

Besides, does anyone really think it makes sense to refer to a trans person like Laverne Cox (pictured below) using male pronouns?

i) Even from the standpoint of Protestant epistemology, the case against transgenderism isn't confined to Scripture. God gave us a mind, a world, and five senses. So we can supplement biblical arguments with extrabiblical arguments. 

ii) Does Jeff mean morally prohibitive or legally prohibitive? For instance, some Christians might say it shouldn't be illegal for consenting adults to "transition", but that ought to disqualify them from church membership, church office, military service, &c. 

iii) Conversely, there should be conscience clauses for physicians who disapprove. 

iv) "Transitioning" shouldn't be mandated coverage in healthcare plans, although people can pay extra for extra coverage if they so desire. To make it mandatory compels other  people to subsidize your perversion.

v) It should be illegal for minors to "transition". 

vi) If someone actually suffers from gender dysphoria, hormone therapy, plastic surgery, and/or sex-change operations won't fix that condition, which is psychotic rather than physical. Indeed, "transitioning" aggravates the problem, to judge by suicide rates for those who've "transitioned". So it's not analogous to corrective surgery. 

vii) The distinction between gender identity and "anatomical sex" begs the question. Whether we should grant that dichotomy is the very issue in dispute. 

viii) Unless Jeff is hopelessly uninformed, he ought to realize that this isn't just about letting transgender people "transition", but about radical accommodations. Unisex public bathrooms and locker rooms. "Transgender women" (i.e. biological men) sharing shelters for battered women. Dissenters fined, fired, or imprisoned. Students punished if they "misgender" a classmate. 

ix) Sorry, but the correct term for "Laverne" Cox is "freak". It's demeaning to real women to call a biological man a woman. 

x) Trangender ideology is incoherent:

Transgender contradictions

Witch lights

You will not fear the terror of the night,
    nor the arrow that flies by day,
(Ps 91:5)

The sun shall not strike you by day,
    nor the moon by night.
(Ps 121:6)

These are rather obscure allusions. Ross offers a naturalistic interpretation. He thinks they refer to surprise attacks at night. A military assault or invasion.

By contrast, Goldingay presents evidence that Ps 91:5 may have its background in nocturnal demons, although he's noncommittal on that interpretation. And Ps 121:6 might be a comparable metaphor. 

On a possibly related note is the disputed identity of Azazel in Lev 16 (cf. Lev 17:17). Michael Heiser defends a supernatural interpretation:

There is, though, the danger of anachronism when we use later traditions to interpret earlier texts.

But let's assume for argument's sake that these have supernatural referents. That's a reasonable, albeit inconclusive identification. 

I thought about these biblical passages when reading this:

Now, I'd like to have more corroboration. And this raises a similar issue. Assuming the reports are accurate, are these mysterious lights natural, but unexplained phenomena–or occultic entities? 

Is this the kind of thing that the biblical passages are alluding to? Since we don't live in the ancient Near East, we don't have the same experience or frame of reference. But given the proliferation of witchcraft in the ancient Near East, would there be analogous phenomena? 

In that regard it might be instructive to do a cross-cultural study of witchcraft in American Indian tribes. Are there similar reported phenomena?

Finally, you can see how this luminous phenomena, if genuine, might feed into ufology, where secular observers reinterpret their experience in reference to categories supplied by scifi movies. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Faithful waiting

How to read Genesis

I recently read/skimmed Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and the Truth in Genesis 1-11 (Zondervan 2018) by John Collins. 

1. It's a seasoned and erudite exegetical defense of old-earth creationism. Collins has a sophisticated hermeneutic that he applies to Genesis. 

The book fights on two fronts. On the one hand, it takes aim at the hermeneutics of young-earth creation. 

On the other hand, it takes aim at scholars like Peter Enns, Dennis Lamoureux, Robin Perry, Paul Seely, Kenton Sparks, and John Walton–who think the Bible suffers from a hopelessly obsolete, prescientific outlook. (Kyle Greenwood is another example, but he doesn't figure in the discussion.) That target looms larger in his treatment than young-earth creationism. 

Collins does a nice job of showing that the way Enns, Walton et al. read the Bible is naive. Does a nice job of showing that ancient Near Easterners were more observant than Enns, Walton et al. give them credit for. 

That's not just his conservative opinion. Take this quote: 

People in the ancient Near East did not conceive of the earth as a disk floating on water with the firmament inverted over it like a bell jar, with the stars hanging from it…The textbook images that keep being reprinted of "the ancient Near Eastern world picture" are based on typical modern misunderstandings that fail to take into account the religious components of ancient Near Eastern conceptions and representations. O. Keel & S. Schroer, Creation: Biblical theologies in the Context of the Ancient Near East (Eisenbrauns 2015), 259-60n34.

So his monograph defends the inerrancy of Scripture against an influential academic fad that's eroding evangelicalism. In that regard it's useful for young-earth and old-earth creationists alike. 

2. I disagree with some of exegetical decisions. And there's a disappointingly thin discussion of the flood account. But in general this is an exceptional treatment. 

3. I'd like to focus on one particular issue, and that's his provocative endorsement of anachronism in Scripture (6.C). 

i) Normally, anachronism is a telltale sign of fiction, forgery, or the limitations of an author who's out-of-touch with the period he's writing about. However, Collins argues that anachronism can be a technique to make the past come alive for a later audience. If successful, his argument pulls the rug out from under a stock objection to the historicity of some biblical accounts. 

ii) One concern his whether his argument proves too much. Anachronisms are a way in which we distinguish apocryphal Gospels from 1C Gospels. Or take the Donation of Constantine. Likewise, what if a Mormon apologist redeployed this argument to salvage the Book of Mormon? Admittedly, Mormonism has many defeaters. 

iii) At least from my reading, it isn't clear to me if by anachronism, he means a Biblical narrator sometimes updates the treatment, or if he's staking out the more radical position that there's nothing in the past which underlies the narrative. Consider two possible illustrations:

a) Long-range prophecy depicts the future in terms of the past. It uses imagery familiar to the original audience. The oracle reflects the kind of world they knew. 

b) The Warriors (1979) is a cinematic adaption of a novel by Sol Yurick, which is, in turn, a modern adaptation of a true story by Xenophon. In the original, the Greeks are trapped deep behind enemy lines and must fight their way back to the homeland. In the modern adaptation, this is recast in terms of New York street gangs. That preserves some correspondence between the original setting and the modernization, but with great artistic license. 

I don't know if that's the sort of thing Collins has in mind. One issue is whether that's too loose a view of historicity. I find some of his examples more plausible than others. 

Gunshot victims

Two additional observations about the contretemps between the ACP and NRA:

i) No doubt ER physicians see lots of gunshot victims. But to extrapolate from that to an epidemic of gun violence suffers from selection bias. For instance, suppose an oncologist discovers an ominous pattern: all his patients have cancer! Does that mean there's an epidemic of cancer? Obviously not. He's in a profession that selects for patients with cancer. The fact that a disproportionate number of ER patients are gunshot victims doesn't make that a representative sample of the general public. 

Gun violence in the USA is concentrated among certain demographic groups in certain cities in certain states. 

ii) Some people are gunshot victims because they were unarmed. They couldn't defend themselves thanks to cities with gun bans. Some people are gunshot victims because bans on guns eliminated the deterrent to armed robbery, armed burglary, and armed mugging. 

Yes, it really is a homosexual scandal

Hospital security

There's currently a row between the NRA and the American College of Physicians. The ACP is lobbying for more gun control. I'd like to draw attention to an obviously irony in this debate. Ever heard of hospital security? Increasingly, hospitals have armed guards on the premises. So doctors demanding more gun control for private citizens have a job in a workplace where they're protected by armed guards. They benefit from the very thing they deny to private citizens. How many of them would even go to work without a security detail on hand? 

Perhaps the rejoinder will be that if we had even more gun control, there'd be less need for hospital security. But that goes to the debate about how effective gun control really is.

And is it coincidental that states which abridge Second Amendment rights increasingly abridge First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendment rights. Gun control becomes a subterfuge for security forces which exist to protect the ruling class and force at gunpoint the social policies of the ruling class.

I vow to thee, my country

Last Sunday, to commemorate Veterans Day, the church choir sang "I vow to thee, my country". It has inspirational lyrics set to a classy tune. Here's the text:

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

And there's another country, I've heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

And here's a fine performance:

1. Patriotism is a controversial issue in Christianity. On the one hand there's the knee-jerk cliche about how patriotic displays have no place within the four walls of the church. Likewise, that nationalism is idolatry. Our only allegiance should be to Jesus. On the other hand you have churches that bilk patriotic holidays. It's easy to get more emotional charge out of patriotism than the average sermon, and some pastors piggyback on that sentiment to give their preaching a boost.

Then there's the more balanced view that a Christian is a citizen of two worlds. Although Christian identity takes precedence, that doesn't cut earthly ties. Indeed, Christian identity is naturally expressed through earthly ties–though not exclusively.

2. Then there's the question of the message. Pretty music and inspirational rhetoric can seduce us into singing things that aren't true.

i) The two stanzas present a point contrast between heaven and earth, this life and the afterlife. That's nice.

ii) I don't know what Rice means by "all earthly things above". Typically, heaven is above and earth is below. So the imagery seems confused.

iii) Especially in the context of war, "the love that asks no question" seems like blindly following orders.

iv) Then there's the question of what your "country" stands for. Does that represent your family? A way of life? Liberty? A common history and culture? A people? Freedom to practice the true religion?

What's the altar? Is that a metaphor for willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice (i.e. dying in combat)? And how does that relate to the "dearest and best"? If the "dearest and best" stand for things like family, does that mean you should be prepared to sacrifice your family for your country? In one sense, Rice may mean patriotism requires parents to risk their sons in battle. On the other hand, doesn't paternal or filial duty require you to protect your family at the risk of your own life? You're not putting them at risk, but endangering yourself for their sake. So the message seems confused. But perhaps it depends on which family member is in view. Men protecting women and children. Some family members are required to make the final sacrifice on behalf of other family members. Or for the common good.

3. The theology of the second stanza is vague. Is a faithful heart the ticket to heaven? Faithful in what sense?

4. The message of the hymn is fuzzy. I'm not sure if Rice had a clear idea of what he meant. It may be impressionistic. More intuitive than exact.

5. When parsing hymns, we should make some allowance for the fact that the dual constraints of a metrical scheme and rhyming scheme limit the choice of words, so that precision of thought and expression may suffer. And poetic imagery is open-textured.

6. In light of (2) & (5), it's better to bring our theology to hymns rather than taking our theology from hymns. In one respect, what's important isn't so much what the hymn means to the hymnodist but what it means to the singer.

Stay in their lane

Political Map: how Democrats see America

“Life After Google” (Introduction)

Life After Google
Life After Google
My blogger profile says that I work in “marketing automation”. As a young writer, with a then-young family, I gravitated toward advertising copywriting as a career, and later into other forms of marketing and marketing communications.

Marketing and advertising have been around for a long time, and the most successful marketers and advertisers have long used “data” of one form or another – information about you that they could use either to target you or to personalize their messaging to you or both. With TV and radio and even printed publications, the information was very generalized – marketers appealed to certain “demographics” rather than to individuals.

The founder of Macy’s, John Wanamaker (1838–1922), an early pioneer in marketing, is credited with saying, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half”. That was a big problem in the world of business where, it was known, “if you can measure it, you can manage it”. Advertising in print, radio, and TV, were expensive, but the results were largely unmeasurable and therefore the entire system seemed unmanageable.