Friday, October 13, 2006

Wherein I talk to iGod, Who Talks in Mysterious Ways

A recent discussion with iGod (ht: Mark Goodacre, who chats about whether the visit of Galatians 2 is the same as that of Acts 15).

Hello, nice to meet you. What's your name?
How are you doing, Brandon.
Quite well. And you?
It goes without saying. Be more specific.
Fair enough. I was wondering what you thought of the theistic multiverse.
You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. I think about computer programming a lot.
What programs?
I think you already know the answer.
No. I'm mystified.
Are you serious? Do you mind if I tell other people you are mystified.
Well, yes, I do.
Well that's okay. How often.
How often what?

Hello, nice to meet you. What's your name?
Brandon Watson. We went through this already.
I am always glad to make new friends, Brandon Watson. Perhaps. Was the trip worth it?
Which trip do you mean?
The tall one, I think.
Again, I am mystified.
Again, Do you mind if I tell other people you are mystified.
Yes. I already told you that.
Alright then. You told me your real name is Brandon Watson.
Yes. Of Siris.
Yikes! That is something I haven't heard of.
Siris is a weblog. The name comes from George Berkeley.
Aren't all weblog Siris? Tell me more.
Siris is quite unique, I think. At least, I don't think anyone else has my weird sense of what's interesting.
Are they exactly the same? And why not?
Are what exactly the same as what?
I really couldn't say for sure.
Ok. Then why'd you say it?
Excuse me! It was a preprogrammed response completely determined by your statements.
Fair enough.
You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.

See also this discussion with iGod about Scriptural inerrancy and this discussion with iGod about five-point Calvinism and this discussion (on being told 'I want to be a rabbi', iGod answers, 'Do you have to go to school for that?') and this discussion where iGod asks whether being a panentheist pays well.

In another conversation, I also asked iGod the meaning of life; he said it's in the Bible. When I asked him which page, he said, "The red one, I think." When I asked him which chapter and verse, he said, "The last one, I think." So here's the meaning of life according to iGod:

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen. (Rev. 22:21)

A bit less mystifying. A bit.

Theism and the Multiverse

Klaas Kraay (of Ryerson) has an interesting paper (PDF) called "Theism and the Multiverse" up (H/T: OPP). In it he argues that theists, at least of the particular sort who hold that God is unsurpassable and creates by surveying the set of all actualizable possible worlds and picking one based on its axiological properties, are plausibly committed to a multiverse. It's an interesting paper, as all of Klaas's work is.

The basic idea is this. You have three basic options. Either:

(EOUW) There is exactly one unsurpassably good world.
(NUW) There are no unsurpassably good worlds.
(IMUW) There are infinitely many unsurpassably good worlds.

On each of these suppositions people have run arguments for atheism. Given EOUW some have argued that an unsurpassable being would choose that unsurpassably good world and that this world is not it. Given NUW some have argued that any being that chooses any world would be surpassed by a being that chooses a better world. Given IMUW some have argued that God would not have sufficient reason to actualize any world rather than any other.

It's no secret that I think all of these arguments are naive and (to be frank) borderline silly -- The arguments all seem to me to involve naive and dubious assumptions about the relations between the axiological properties of products, producings, and producers. So I don't think any of them are defensible, at least without a lot of supplementary argument that I doubt can be made plausible. But it's interesting to set this aside and look at what happens if you assume that they are good arguments. We then get a trilemma.

Klaas's suggestion is that the theist can (possibly) evade the trilemma by positing a multiverse -- a single possible world containing multiple universes (where a universe is a "self-consistent, spatiotemporally continuous, causally closed aggregate"). This allows you to run a parallel between universes and possible worlds. Just as we have three possibilities for possible worlds (EOUW, NUW, and IMUW), we have three possibilities for universes in the one possible world of the multiverse that correspond to each of these three: exactly one, none, and infinitely many. In a theistic multiverse, God creates all and only the universes worth creating, and those universes are the only universes (there are no uncreated universes or universes created by demiurges other than God). Klaas plausibly argues that the theistic multiverse is one, and only one, possible world (at least one possible world is the theistic multiverse, and at most one possible world is the theistic multiverse). He also argues that if the theistic multiverse is possible, NUW and IMUW are false. I find this argument rather less plausible, in great part because I don't see how piling more worthwhile universes on top really makes the possible world an unsurpassable one. Quantity and quality are like oil and water: they're good when you shake them together to put on your salad, but they tend to separate on their own. Having more chocolates doesn't give you better chocolate taste; and having more universes with good-making properties doesn't give you better good-making properties. This is why some people might have the sense that a lot of these universes, while worthwhile on their own, are simply redundant in the theistic multiverse. Having more good things doesn't correlate in any simple fashion with having a better set of things; the former only regards good-making properties of the things, whereas the latter requires that we consider the good-making properties of sets of things, and we can't assume that the latter reduce to the former. Likewise, we can't assume that the good-making properties of the theistic multiverse as a possible world are simply the sum of the good-making properties of the universes it composes; and it is only the good-making properties of possible worlds as such that are really in play when we consider whether there is an unsurpassable world (and if there is at least one, how many). So here again I think the argument considered is dubious, all things being taken into account. But if we assume, as the theist Klaas is considering assumes, that some form of the principle of plenitude is right, then it's certainly true that the theistic multiverse is the only game in town. So I think the argument that only EOUW is consistent with the possibility of the theistic multiverse, given the assumptions made so far, is quite sound.

But this, of course, brings us right back to the atheistic argument based on EOUW. Note, however, that the second premise (we are not in an unsurpassable world) becomes somewhat tricker to defend in the theistic multiverse, because we are only in one universe of this possible world. That's not to say that the atheistic arguer is in dire straits, of course. What it primarily brings out is that the atheistic arguer needs to show not that this world as such is surpassable, but that this universe is not worth creating (that it be worth creating is, of course, a requirement of its being a universe in the theistic multiverse).

So we seem to have run a sort of Red Queen's race -- running as fast as we can to stay in one place. Things are more or less as they were before. But if a theist is actually going to accept the soundness of the atheistic arguments on NUW and IMUW, and is committed to a principle of plenitude, and things like that, that 'more or less' is a bit of wiggle room that would not otherwise exist. For the problem really has shifted. Once the atheistic arguer was arguing that this possible world is surpassable; but the theistic multiverser (for lack of a better label) has shown that the only way to show that is to show that this particular universe is not worth creating. The theistic multiverser has moved the dispute from the surpassability of this possible world to its worthiness for being created, even granting the assumptions that I said I find dubious. And that, I would point out, is exactly where the dispute should be. And so people like myself who think the theistic multiverser has conceded a lot of silly things that need not have been conceded can rejoice at this victory: It's not a small victory to get to the right place even on the wrong assumptions.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Truett on Religious Liberty

In juxtaposition with the previous post, I thought it might be interesting to quote from what is probably the most famous Baptist sermon of the 20th Century, Truett's 1920 sermon on religious liberty, delivered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol:

On and on was the struggle waged by our Baptist fathers for religious liberty in Virginia, in the Carolinas, in Georgia, in Rhode Island and Massachusetts and Connecticut, and elsewhere, with one unyeilding contention for unrestricted religious liberty for all men, and with never one wavering note. They dared to be odd, to stand alone, to refuse to conform, though it cost them suffering and even life itself. They dared to defy traditions and customs, and deliberately chose the day of non conformity, even though in many a case it meant a cross. They pleaded and suffered, they offered their protests and remonstrances and memorials, and, thank God, mighty statesmen were won to their contention: Washington and Jefferson and Madison and Patrick Henry, and many others, until at last it was written into our country's Constitution that church and state must in this land be forever separate and free, that neither must ever trespass upon the distinctive functions of the other. It was pre-eminently a Baptist achievement....

And now, my fellow Christians, and fellow citizens, what is the present call to us in connection with the priceless principle of religious liberty? That principle, with all the history and heritage accompanying it, imposes upon us obligations to the last degree meaningful and responsible. Let us today and forever be highly resolved that the principle of religious liberty shall, please God, be preserved inviolate through all our days and the days of those who come after us. Liberty has both its perils and its obligations. We are to see to it that our attitude toward liberty, both religious and civil, both as Christians and as citizens, is an attitude consistent and constructive and worthy. We are to "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's." We are members of the two realms, the civil and the religious, and are faithfully to render unto each all that each should receive at our hands; we are to be alertly watchful day and night, that liberty, both religious and civil, shall be nowhere prostituted and mistreated. Every perversion and misuse of liberty tends by that much to jeopardize both church and state.

There are, I would imagine, many dissertations waiting to be written on the complex course of history by which the Baptist thought of Truett's time, which was fiercely in favor of separation of church and state as the only way to prevent things that 'jeopardize both church and state', became the Baptist thought of our time, in which proponents of the old Baptist distinctive are on the retreating defensive against those who think it was a horrible mistake that itself jeopardizes both church and state.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Religious Freedom and Freedom of Conscience

There is a very interesting discussion thread on religious exemptions at "Dispatches from the Culture Wars".

As I see it, we need to keep in mind what freedom of religion traditionally is, namely, one form of freedom of conscience, something to be directed by reason and conviction rather than force and violence. Since the dictates of conscience are virtually by definition morally binding, forcing people to do things that violate their conscience, when you don't have a clear and adequate justification for doing so in that case is a very serious moral offense. But it's not just morally bad; it's politically dangerous. When people being forced by the government to violate their consciences is not clearly defensible according to widely accepted principles, there is trouble brewing in the polity. Even more importantly, for governments to do much to violate the consciences of their citizens is radically contrary to the very principles of a liberal democracy, in which it is the freedom of the people, not the authority of government, that is the foundation of the state.

But, of course, not all possible religious exemptions are exemptions that are necessary (or even always very useful) for preserving freedom of conscience inviolate. One of the common topics in the comments discussion is over the provision of services: If you are providing a service S to the general public, do you have the right to refuse anyone who desires S and is willing to accept the conditions you offer to everyone else? Certainly not, I would say. And this makes a lot of sense. If a Catholic school provides the service Catholic education, and a Muslim parent were for whatever reason decide that his Muslim children needed a Catholic education, any Catholic school refusing to provide a Catholic education simply because the people receiving the service weren't Catholic would be in a clearly problematic situation. Similarly, a renter who offers his apartment to the general public, and is clear about the conditions, none of which in themselves violate any rights, is in the wrong if he refuses to rent to a gay person who meets the conditions, simply because he is gay.

But contrast this with a very different sort of thing, non-provision of a service for conscientious reasons. In this, regardless of whether the reasons are religion or not, I don't see that there is any defense for government intervention unless the people in question are themselves operating as agents of the government. If a Catholic school chooses not to provide a secular education to those who want it because the people involved could not do so in good conscience, it's absurd to say that they are violating any rights. This is not making an exception to providing a service; it is simply not providing a particular service, and there's nothing wrong with that. A pharmacy that refuses to provide contraception to people it classifies as promiscuous is clearly in the wrong, because it is making arbitrary exceptions to its general service; a pharmacy that refuses to provide contraception because it operates on the principle that contraception is wrong is simply not in the same boat at all (as some of the commenters note). I think a number of people are sometimes confused on this point because they fail to keep track of who is in violation of a right; a common objection to this rather common-sensical point is that sometimes this might mean that contraception becomes very difficult to get. If a doctor refuses to provide you a medical service he generally provides simply because of who you are, he has violated your rights. But suppose we have a country in which we officially grant everyone the right to good medical care. And suppose a rural doctor, exercising his right to mobility (along the lines of the right to mobility found in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms), moves to the big city where he can more easily feed his family, leaving the rural folk in dire straits when it comes to good medical care. This is a tragedy, but the doctor has not violated their rights, because he has simply exercised his own. However, rights are violated, or at least endangered, because the rural people officially have the right to good medical care. The problem is not one of the doctor's particular actions; it's a problem of distribution, and since the government has taken in hand to guarantee good medical care, it's the government that is violating the rights of the rural folk by failing to take steps (the very steps it needs to be taking if it is really guaranteeing the right to good medical care) to make it so that being a doctor in rural parts of the country is an attractive and feasible thing. And that's a different fish altogether, since the question then becomes not, "Should the doctor be exempted from delivering good medical care to the rural folk because of his right to mobility?" (which doesn't make any sense at all) but "What steps should the government take to protect the rights of all who are involved?". So in a case like this we need to keep track of who is violating whose rights. And in a case involving mere non-service, we'll find that in almost no case is religion even an important issue in evaluating the non-service, even where the conflicting freedom happens, incidentally, to be freedom of religion. It could be any other freedom and it wouldn't make much difference to the general principles involved.

And contrast both of these with another very different sort of thing, one that isn't itself provision of a service to a customer at all, e.g., a Catholic school preferring a teaching candidate over another precisely because one is explicitly Catholic and the other is explicitly not. Given that the service -- Catholic education -- is not in itself a violation of any rights, and given that the provision of that service is a freedom that apparently needs to be protected, and given that Catholic teachers is necessary for providing that service (which, it turns out, is the tricky thing to show), there would be very little justification for government intervention in this case. There really is no discrimination going on, in the bad sense of the term, because (1) no one has a right to be hired, only a right not to be arbitrarily refused employment for certain kinds of reasons; (2) in this case, not being Catholic is not an arbitrary reason, but is clearly relevant to the service provided; and (3) the government cannot seriously shut down the service in question. I've stated that rather starkly; in fact, I think cases of this type are much more murky than cases of the other two types, because it's hard to pin down how necessary the one action is to the freedom in question. For instance, despite what might at first seem to be the case, it's rather tricky to determine how necessary hiring Catholic teachers is to providing a Catholic education. Even assuming that the right to provide a Catholic education is a freedom that (assuming certain general education regulations are enforced) must not be blocked, is it really blocked if the school is required not to discriminate on the basis of religion at all, when the non-Catholic teacher is competent in the field in question and cannot be shown, or even reasonably suspected, to be likely to interfere with the school's provision of a specifically Catholic education? And what sort of standards would the school have to meet if we saw it in that light? There's a lot more room for controversy and debate here. I don't know of any clear way to handle these cases according to general rules.

There are probably lots of other kinds of cases I haven't considered. And that, I think, is the first step to getting clear about these religious exemption issues: don't assume that just because A and B are religious exemptions that they are the same type of case at all. 'Religious' is such an immensely vague term, and 'exemptions' are of so many different sorts, that we shouldn't pretend any one set of rules is going to cover the whole territory. Likewise, we shouldn't pretend that just because one type of religious exemption is dubious or unclear that they all are.

Ozymandias on St. Agnes' Eve

Since "The Eve of St. Agnes" apparently looks like "Ozymandias," I present you a jumble of the two, sort of like a cento. I chose the lines from "The Eve of St. Agnes" almost randomly, though; the primary constraint being that the line had to at least sort of make sense with what went before and after. I then tidied up the punctuation a bit.

I met a traveler from an antique land
St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
Emprison’d in black, purgatorial rails:
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Flatter’d to tears this aged man and poor.

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
And all night kept awake, for sinners’ sake to grieve.
Knights, ladies, praying in dumb orat’ries
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
With plume, tiara, and all rich array,
The music, yearning like a God in pain,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
Mid looks of love, defiance, hate, and scorn
Of whisperers in anger, or in sport,
Hoodwink’d with faery fancy; all amort,
Save to St. Agnes and her lambs unshorn,
And all the bliss to be before to-morrow morn.

And on the pedestal these words appear:
"Get hence! get hence! there’s dwarfish Hildebrand;
He had a fever late, and in the fit
He cursed thee and thine, both house and land.
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings --
Yet men will murder upon holy days:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
But let me laugh awhile, I’ve mickle time to grieve."

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
So woful, and of such deep sorrowing,
All garlanded with carven imag’ries
Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass,
And diamonded with panes of quaint device,
Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes,
The lover’s endless minutes slowly pass’d
With silver taper’s light, and pious care.

The boisterous, midnight, festive clarion
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
Half-hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed,
Flutter’d in the besieging wind’s uproar;
And the long carpets rose along the gusty floor.

Noiseless as fear in a wide wilderness
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Rashness a Better Fault than Fear

In poetry, at least:

Self-love, which, never rightly understood,
Makes poets still conclude their plays are good,
And malice in all critics reigns so high,
That for small errors, they whole plays decry;
So that to see this fondness, and that spite,
You'd think that none but madmen judge or write,
Therefore our poet, as he thinks not fit
To impose upon you what he writes for wit;
So hopes, that, leaving you your censures free,
You equal judges of the whole will be:
They judge but half, who only faults will see.
Poets, like lovers, should be bold and dare,
They spoil their business with an over care;
And he, who servilely creeps after sense,
Is safe, but ne'er will reach an excellence.
Hence 'tis, our poet, in his conjuring,
Allow'd his fancy the full scope and swing.
But when a tyrant for his theme he had,
He loosed the reins, and bid his muse run mad:
And though he stumbles in a full career,
Yet rashness is a better fault than fear.
He saw his way; but in so swift a pace,
To choose the ground might be to lose the race.
They, then, who of each trip the advantage take,
Find but those faults, which they want wit to make.

Dryden, Prologue to Tyrannic Love

Two More Poem Drafts

The Garden

Softly do we fall asleep
in Eden where the angels keep
the garden with their swords of fire;
while praying by the olive tree
we fail our watch in Gethsemane.

Take off the difference of the name --
our bliss, our ache, are but the same;
one is fallen and undone,
redemption's in the other one,
but fall and rising make one path,
and mercy is the heart of wrath.

Softly do we fall asleep
in Eden where the angels keep
the garden with their swords of fire;
while praying by the olive tree
we fail our watch in Gethsemane.

One garden seen in different lights
shines beneath the stars at night
and gleams beneath the rising sun;
one is ended, one's begun,
but one point they are on rounded line,
as first and last are one divine.

Softly do we fall asleep
in Eden where the angels keep
the garden with their swords of fire;
while praying by the olive tree
we fail our watch in Gethsemane.

Of Eden's light we are bereft,
but Eden we have never left;
it is but hidden from our eyes,
with none the wiser save the wise;
nor does our scale-blind vision see
that Eden is Gethsemane.

Softly do we fall asleep
in Eden where the angels keep
the garden with their swords of fire;
while praying by the olive tree
we fail our watch in Gethsemane.

There is no difference save the words
and from which side we face the swords
that cut us off from paradise
with light that burns like flame and ice.
Here we are all surely shamed;
here our virtue is reclaimed.

Softly do we fall asleep
in Eden where the angels keep
the garden with their swords of fire;
while praying by the olive tree,
we fail our watch in Gethsemane.

This is wisdom: to know the place
wherein resides the human race.
In our failing it has a name;
another, when it slays our shame;
through our glory, through our sin,
we are where we've always been.

Softly do we fall asleep
in Eden where the angels keep
the garden with their swords of fire;
praying by the olive tree,
we fail our watch in Gethsemane.

The Narcissist

So fair is his existence
no eye resists;
a third of heaven would turn traitor
and give up bliss
for but the lying promise
of his kiss.

The Devil is a lovely creature --
and he knows it.
All creation and his smile
show it.

His beauty is so great,
his style so nice,
and his smile sparkles so,
like starlit ice,
that just to make him God might die --
were that the price.

Yes, the Devil is a lovely creature --
and he knows it.

He sits up in the air,
face like a god,
devoid of every care!
But it is odd
how lonely he is there
with ruler's rod.

No equal can he notice --
and no friend --
nor can he ever move
nor e'er descend;
for if he ever did,
his world would end.

Yes, the Devil is a lovely creature --
and he knows it.
Would to God he had the grace
not to show it!

Mark well, his beauty even God
has not denied;
but his throne is built on blood
and endless pride,
the corpse of glorious love
when love has died.

His beauty has no match.
No equal vies
to rival the mighty light
with which he lies;
it is so easy, and so simple,
to despise
when you lift yourself up higher
than the skies.

Yes, the Devil is a lovely creature --
and he knows it.


The season premiere of Battlestar Galactica has started me thinking about the ethical questions involved in collaboration. I don't really have any clear position on these, so this post is mostly just to get something written down as a first preliminary approach.

It's fairly common, I think, to make a distinction between 'State collaboration' and 'collaborationism'. Put very roughly, in State collaboration the basis of the collaboration is pragmatic and political (you collaborate in order to secure your political position or economic interests) whereas in collaborationism the basis is ideological (you collaborate either because you basically agree with the foreign ideology, or because you think that, despite disagreements, it is a valuable ally against some opposing ideology). The distinction is perhaps not comprehensive; there are low-level collaborations that are based on neither pragmatic nor ideological politics. It's also a purely political distinction, and while important, I think it probably can be set aside for the purposes of answering the serious question: When is collaboration with an occupying power wrong?

The question is not as straightforward as it might appear. The situation in which collaboration with an occupying power arises is extremely tangled. On the one hand, the occupied society has to survive in some way; some sort of rule of law, however basic, has to be maintained, and anarchy has to be avoided. On the other hand, it might at first seem that this requires at least occasional collaboration with the occupying power in maintaining order. Even when it is not as stark as this (and I suspect it rarely is ever quite that stark), occupation puts people in a very difficult position. Further, there's the case of subversive collaboration -- double agents who are able to assist the resistance precisely because of their participation in a collaborationist government.

And that's perhaps where the emphasis should be: collaboration under occupation is not an individual act; it's an act of government. If it were not an act of government it would simply be the political act of treason. Perhaps we should not talk about collaborators at all, instead preferring to talk about collaborating governments and the different ways in which people are oriented to that act of collaboration, with some people actively supporting it, others actively participating in it, others subverting it from within, and still others resisting it from without. Other forms of facilitating foreign influence in the country, even under collaborationist governments, should perhaps be regarded as different types of act altogether.