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Friday, June 29, 2007

Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson

Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson, won the 2006 Hugo award for best science-fiction novel. If you want a summary of the plot, go here. I wish to muse on it, not summarize it.

Spin (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2005) is what used to be called hard science fiction. That is, it is about possible future developments that can be plausibly related to current scientific knowledge. There is some physics, or cosmology, and some biology, in the book. However, there are characters, and they are fleshed out, with believable personalities. Some hard science fiction novels, at least some written back when I started reading such literature, many years ago, had cardboard characters.

Another aspect of Spin is the way the narrative is written. The entire book is written from the standpoint of a single protagonist, Tyler Dupree, and covers an entire lifetime (although he isn't dead at the end). But it jumps backwards and forwards in time, which, among other things, allows Wilson to tell the story, but spring some surprises (at least to one reader) as he goes.

My main concern in this post is the way Wilson handles religion, or faith. This topic appears, in some way, in all of Wilson's writing that I have read. There is a strong strain of it in Spin.

There are several Christian cult groups in the book, one in particular. On p. 236, and later in the book, Wilson has this group, and similar ones, looking for fulfillment of what they say is the prophecy of the red heifer, appearing in Israel. Wilson has a character refer to Numbers 19 (verses 1-10). I don't read that passage as prophetic at all, and it describes a ritual which was to have been performed first on the way from Egypt to Israel, rather than in Israel. Wilson also has the character who first mentions the prophecy say that related passages are found in "Matthew and Timothy" (p. 236). I didn't go through all of Matthew, but when I did a quick check of both of the letters to Timothy, I didn't find anything that related. Wilson doesn't spell it out, but I believe that he portraying his fictional cult as having distorted scripture badly (which, of course, cults do).

The protagonist is perceived as having lost his faith:
"You look like a man who has lost his faith," Hakkim once told me.
"Or never had one," I said.
"I don't mean faith in God. Of that you seem to be genuinely innocent. Faith in something else. I don't know what." (p. 273)

One of the members of the cult goes through a crisis of faith. Here are excerpts from an extended conversation with the Dupree, who, as indicated above, and elsewhere in the book, seems to be an atheist, or perhaps an agnostic:

"But I believed in what we were doing. Probably you don't understand that. But it wasn't just the red calf, Tyler. I was certain we'd be raised up imperishable. That in the end we'd be rewarded."
"Rewarded for what?"
"Faith. Perseverance. . . ." (p. 310)

and, later in the same conversation:

"I can't speak for heaven and earth. I refuse to let her die as long as I have a choice."
"I envy you that," Simon said quietly.
"What? What could you possibly envy?"
"Your faith," he said. (p. 311)

Wilson is implying that Tyler Dupree does have some sort of faith, even though he doesn't realize it himself. Jason Lawton, an important character, seems to have faith in science. His father, E. D. Lawton, seems to have faith in power.

What about Wilson's faith? I don't know. But his book, by its main scientific theme, which I won't give away, seems to suggest that it is not in a supernatural God, but in purposeless chance over a long time. The salvation of humanity, in Spin, is not in God, but in intelligence, produced over time by long evolutionary processes.

We all need a Savior, a Big Salvation. Tyler Dupree thinks:
But this, I realized, was the faith that had deserted me. The faith in Big Salvation.
All the brands and flavors of Big Salvation. At the last minute we would devise a technological fix and save ourselves. Or: the Hypotheticals were benevolent beings who would turn the planet into a peaceable kingdom. Or God would rescue us all, or at least the true believers among us. Or. Or. Or. (p. 274)

That Big Salvation is not found in us, or any other aspect of God's creation, but in Himself.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Immigration questions

I give up.

I was going to remain silent on this one, but I can't stand it.

Today, the US Senate is to continue its debate on immigration legislation.

What is there about this issue that has galvanized some Christians into making this issue even more important than abortion? I really don't understand this, or I'm afraid I do.

Their arguments say that we shouldn't reward criminal behavior. OK. We shouldn't. However, we shouldn't create a system which expects, and depends on criminal behavior, which is what we have now. "Silent amnesty," as Senator McCain has put it. We expect immigrants, some of them illegal, to die for us in Iraq, build our roads, clean our buildings, serve our meals, take care of our children, and, probably most critically, plant, care for, and harvest our crops. There is no easy way, perhaps not even a difficult way, to check on who is legal and who isn't, because documents are so easy to fake.

That system needs to be fixed. We need documentation that can't be faked, or at least is more difficult to fake. We need some way of accounting for and controlling the illegal immigrants we have now. We need to stop the awful waste of human life that endures degradation, and a lot of other things, to get here to work. We need to stop the hypocrisy that cries out against amnesty, but accepts lower prices for goods produced by illegal immigrants.

The current bill is not perfect, but it's a lot better than what we have now. We have a situation full of exploitation and hypocrisy, and we need to own up to it and try to fix it.

I am a member of The Wesleyan Church. My District of that church has a few Hispanic churches in South Carolina. We are trying to reach out to immigrants, whether they are legal or not. I think that is the right approach.

Some other ideas, mostly not mine:
Give all non-citizens who get advanced degrees from accredited universities a green card, along with their diplomas, and offer them a path to citizenship.

Increase the minimum wage, so that citizens will be more likely to do some of the work we now tacitly expect immigrants to do.

Find and deport all immigrants who are felons.

After some of the other problems have been fixed, or at least changed, stop the system that automatically makes the US-born children of illegal immigrants citizens.

Embrace, admire, and honor anyone who wants to work hard in this country.

It is my fear that much of the anger against illegal immigrants is because some of us don't want anyone who doesn't talk, look, and think like us living near us. That attitude is unworthy of US citizens, and certainly unworthy of Christians.

Thanks for reading.

Sunspots 114


Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:




Humor:
Jan has posted a list of classes that would really help some adults.

Science:
William Saletan, of Slate, on the many ways we have combined mice and people.

Literature:
E. Stephen Burnett on the Left Behind series, and on fantasy in general. (I've never read that series. He complains that the authors didn't do justice to the fantasy parts of the story.)

Philosophy:
Joe Carter believes that he has a solid rebuttal for post-modernism, but he starts with baseball . . . (and, if you have time, read the comments).

Christianity:
Rebecca has concluded her series of comments on seven statements about the Son, from Hebrews 1:2b-3.


This week's Christian Carnival is here. For information on these Carnivals, go here.


Thanks for reading! Keep clicking away.

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Robots and religion

An article in something called "Sightings," from the Martin Marty School of Religion of the University of Chicago considers the question of whether robots will, or will not, practice religion. I'd like to muse about this question myself.

The article doesn't draw any firm conclusions, which is good. One reason is that some terms need to be defined, starting with robot and religion. The Free Dictionary has this as its first definition of robot:
A mechanical device that sometimes resembles a human and is capable of performing a variety of often complex human tasks on command or by being programmed in advance.

Why restrict this question to robots, if that's what robots are? I would suppose that the question should be broadened to consider other artificial intelligences, whether confined to a "body" that resembles a human, or not. Granted, an artificial intelligence in, say, a CIA computer could not be expected to attend church.

For religion, we find this, from the same dictionary source:
Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.

Clearly, that definition could be challenged. There are, I believe, belief systems that fill the function of a religion, for some people, that don't fit this definition. Some atheists say that they are religious, and the article cited in the first paragraph considers this question to some extent, saying that it would be possible that some, or even all, robots might be atheists, which I take to mean disbelieving in a supernatural power or powers.

Let me consider some questions related to this subject.

First, could robots be conscious? From the same dictionary source, conscious is defined thus:
Having an awareness of one's environment and one's own existence, sensations, and thoughts.
I don't see anything that would necessarily prevent this.

How would we know if an artificial intelligence was conscious or not? Clearly, this is difficult to know. Suppose that, say, a frog was conscious. How would, or could, we know this? I don't see a way. One author has suggested that a few non-human mammals are conscious, but this, even for dolphins or chimpanzees, is difficult to prove or disprove. I would expect it would be just as difficult for us to prove, or disprove, that artificial intelligences were. Even if one of them typed out "Help, I'm trapped inside this laptop!" on a computer screen, some of us would have grave doubts about consciousness for such a being.

Second, is it necessary to be conscious to have, or practice, a religion? I'm going to say yes. I'm not going to cite any sources here, that's just what I think.

Third, is there anything in the Bible that would prohibit the possibility of non-human intelligences from having, or practicing, a religion? I don't think so. On the other hand, there is little or nothing that suggests that there would be such a phenomenon.

Christ did come in human form, and died and was resurrected so that humans might be free of the consequences of sin. However, he said, in John 10:16, that he had other sheep that were not of this fold, which perhaps referred to the non-Jews. It might possibly have referred to non-human intelligences, such as dolphins, or to beings on another world, or even some species that is not confined to a planet. There are several indications in the Bible that the Fall impacted the earth as a whole, not just humans, and His sacrifice, in some measure, redeemed, or will redeem, the whole creation.

In C. S. Lewis's space trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, he supposed that the three non-human species were non-fallen, in the first book, and that a new human-like species could fall, but didn't, in the second one. Other authors of fantastic literature have explored such questions, too.

Would artificial intelligences worship their human creators? Possibly. Many of us do, however foolish, stupid and sinful that is. If they really are intelligent, I wouldn't think that they would, though.

What would robot sin be like? I have no good idea. Isaac Asimov proposed the four laws (originally three) of robotics, which he imagined would protect humans, and robots, from harm inflicted by robots. Will we create artificial intelligences who have such rules built in? Would violation of rules like this be possible? If so, then such violation might be more or less equivalent to sin.

If artificial intelligences exist now, or will exist, that have consciousness, and the capacity for religion, are we responsible to try to communicate God's love, and the consequences of sin, to them? I would think so. How would we do this? I have no idea, any more than I have an idea how to do this to chimpanzees.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Starting well, but not finishing well

HON. You say right; and yet the generality of them, that count themselves pilgrims, do indeed do thus. I am, as you see, an old man, and have been a traveler in this road many a day; and I have taken notice of many things.

I have seen some that have set out as if they would drive all the world afore them, who yet have, in few days, died as they in the wilderness, and so never got sight of the promised land.

I have seen some that have promised nothing, at first setting out to be pilgrims, and that one would have thought could not have lived a day, that have yet proved very good pilgrims.

I have seen some who have run hastily forward, that again have, after a little time, run as fast just back again.

I have seen some who have spoken very well of a pilgrim's life at first, that, after a while, have spoken as much against it.

I have heard some, when they first set out for Paradise, say positively there is such a place; who when they have been almost there, have come back again, and said there is none.

I have heard some vaunt what they would do, in case they should he opposed, that have, even at a false alarm, fled faith, the pilgrim's way, and all.

This is an extract from the second part of Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan (1684, public domain). HON is Old Mr. Honest, who has been a Pilgrim (a Christian) for a long time.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, June 22, 2007

An intelligently designed universe?

A previous post, on Henrietta Swan Leavitt, mentioned the size of galaxies and the universe. I'd like to (excuse me!) expand on that a little bit.

I have already indicated that I believe that the universe had an Intelligent Designer behind its construction, and that that Designer is the Christian God. I have also indicated that I believe this by faith (Hebrews 11:3) not for scientific reasons. I am not persuaded that it is possible to find irrefutable scientific proof of God's existence, where science is defined as the so-called hard sciences, namely chemistry, physics, astronomy, biology, geology and the like*. I don't believe that it is possible to prove that Intelligent Design occurred. (see here for discussion) I am also not persuaded that it is appropriate to teach about God's design in the science classes of the public schools. However, it is certainly also not appropriate to teach that science proves that there is no God, or that there is no purpose in the universe, or that humans are only animals. Science has proved no such things, and can't, as they are outside the scope of science. The fact that such false teaching has been done in school is one of the reasons, perhaps the main reason, for the recent movements toward teaching Intelligent Design as an alternative to evolution in schools.

I don't want to give anyone any ideas, but why aren't there school boards, etc., trying to change the way astronomy is taught? Some Christians disbelieve in the Big Bang theory, in part because they don't believe that the universe is more than a few thousand years old. Others might say that scientific findings contradict the Bible, which seems to say that the earth, not the sun, is the center of the solar system, and, by implication, the center of the universe. I haven't heard of any push to teach 6,000 year geocentric astronomy in public schools.

I speculate that there are two reasons. First, astronomy doesn't directly bear on the place of human beings. Second, this battle has mostly been fought, and lost. Galileo won -- as he is said to have said** "but it moves" (referring to the earth). The Roman Catholic church (which pretty much was the church, in Galileo's time) took a long time to approve of Galileo's theories (partly because Galileo wasn't very diplomatic, and also partly because he didn't have irrefutable scientific evidence for his theory) but it has finally done so.

*C. S. Lewis claimed to have found proof in what might be called the social sciences. I don't know if he considered his proofs irrefutable or not. No doubt others have also found such proof there.

**I know that this link refers to a web site produced by atheists. I'm trying not to have a Christian bias, although I'm probably not succeeding. I believe most or all of what this web page says is correct, regardless of the source.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Science is not morally neutral

In an article in The New Atlantis, Yuval Levin argues that science is not a morally neutral enterprise. He writes that, on the contrary, " . . . modern science was a profoundly moral enterprise, aimed at improving the condition of the human race, relieving suffering, enhancing health, and enriching life." One of Levin's sources for this is Francis Bacon. But Descartes also wrote, says Levin, in a similar vein, and in his Discourse on Method, he said that the "conservation of health" was the greatest good.

Here is Descartes, in his own words (translated into English):
". . . the preservation of health, which is without doubt, of all the blessings of this life, the first and fundamental one;" (public domain)

What's wrong with that? Levin says that this idea, that health is the primary good, is the unspoken assumption behind much of what we do today, not just in science. (He didn't say it, but consider hospitals. They are always adding on and remodeling, while, at least where I live, public schools are in outmoded, cramped, and even dangerous buildings. That says something very loud about our priorities.)

Levin does say this "And so when the pursuit of health through science and medicine conflicts with even the deepest commitments of modern life—to equality, to rights, to self-government, or to protection of the weak—science and medicine typically carry the day."

In his concluding paragraph, Levin writes that "The real challenge lies not in the tools that science gives us, but in the attitudes it forms in us. The trouble is not that technology can be used for both good and evil, but that people in the age of technology may have real trouble telling the difference between the two."

This is a warning that we should certainly heed.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Sunspots 113


Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:





Science:
Article about the greatest experiments in science (mostly physics) that were never done, perhaps including Galileo and dropping objects from the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

There is a "dwarf planet," Eris, that has a mass greater than the most widely known dwarf planet, Pluto.

How geckoes hang on to vertical surfaces.

Henry Neufeld on "Evolutionary vs. Scientific Thinking."

Computing:
A report on whether computer keyboards are dishwasher safe (they have more bacteria than toilet seats -- please don't tell my wife!). Probably not.

Philosophy:
(or something) Article on what religion, if any, robots will have.

Christianity:
The American Bible Society has made its Bible Resource Center available. I am not clear about their copyright policy for use of charts, graphs, and the like.

Rebecca has published another in her series "Seven Statements About the Son."

The church we are currently attending had this in the announcements: "The colors of the four lighted panels behind the cross symbolize periods of the liturgical calendar. The green represents spiritual growth and is used for all Ordinary Time. The green color will stay up from now thru November 24th, then again on the 26th of November thru the 1st of December." This reminds me that the church, and Christians, are usually in "Ordinary Time," and of the significance of green.

This week's Christian Carnival is here. For information on these Carnivals, go here.


Thanks for reading! Keep clicking away.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Thirteenth House by Sharon Shinn

In The Thirteenth House, Sharon Shinn continues the series she began with Mystic and Rider. (I posted on that book quite a while ago, and also have a post on Shinn more generally.)

As I indicated in the earlier post, I like the setting of this series better than her first series, the Angel, or Samarra, books. There is no patina of science behind the fantasy, as there is in the Angel books.

This second work uses the same characters as the first, in large part, which is also a plus. These are Donnal, Cammon, Tayse, Justin, Kirra Danalustrous, and Senneth Brasenthwait.

Shinn generally has some moral dilemmas in her work. There are two serious moral dilemmas in this novel. One of them is unresolved. It may be resolved in a later work. That is the question of changing a human into an animal, and back. Some Mystics can do this. There is, apparently, a religious prohibition against doing so, except to yourself. But it turns out that a deadly disease can be cured in animals, but not in humans, so Kirra decides (with advice from others, both Mystics and non-Mystics) that she should do this. If there is a prohibition against doing so, shouldn't something happen? Nothing seems to, at least in this book.

The second doesn't need a fantasy novel, unfortunately, although the resolution is fantastic. The main character, Kirra falls in love with, and has an affair with, a married man, knowing full well that this is dangerous. Finally, she ends the affair. In the process, she cures infertility in the wife of her lover (the wife doesn't know that her husband has been having an affair with Kirra). This is not easy for Kirra to do, but she does it.

Kirra also does something even more redeeming. She doesn't want to, and thinks that doing so will almost be emotional suicide, but she manipulates the memory of her former lover so that he will forget the affair.

Although she shouldn't have gotten into this in the first place, this sort of closing, possible only in fantastic literature, is a particularly appropriate way, it seems to me, to terminate an adulterous affair.

I look forward to the next books in this series. There are some questions to resolve. Who will Cammon and Justin fall in love with? What special powers, if any, do the queen and the princess have? Will there be a war? There are probably other questions, and other adventures, to come.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Conquering at last

Now I saw, that they went to the ascent that was a little way off, cast up to be a prospect for pilgrims (that was the place from whence Christian had the first sight of Faithful his brother); wherefore here they sat down, and rested; they also here did eat and drink, and make merry, for that they had gotten deliverance from this so dangerous an enemy. As they sat thus, and did eat, Christiana asked the guide if he had caught no hurt in the battle. Then said Mr. Great-heart, No, save a little on my flesh; yet that also shall be so far from being to my detriment, that it is at present a proof of my love to my Master and you, and shall be a means, by grace, to increase my reward at last (2 Cor. 4).

CHRIST. But were you not afraid, good Sir, when you saw him come out with his club?

GREAT-HEART. It is my duty, said he, to distrust my own ability, that I may have reliance on Him that is stronger than all.

CHRIST. But what did you think when he fetched you down to the ground at the first blow?

GREAT-HEART. Why, I thought, quoth he, that so my Master Himself was served, and yet He it was that conquered at the last.

This is an extract from the second part of Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan (1684, public domain). CHRIST. is Christiana, the wife of Christian (the original pilgrim) and GREAT-HEART is escorting Christiana and her family on their pilgrimage.

Thanks for reading.

I know, this is Father's Day. For something related to that subject, go here, please.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Baskets in the Bible

Baskets were important in Bible times, important enough that they occur in about 50 Bible verses. Here are some of those. (All references are to the ESV.)

In Genesis 40, Pharaoh's Baker asked Joseph about a dream which featured baskets of bread.

In Exodus 2, baby Moses was put into the Nile River in a basket.

In Exodus 29, Leviticus 8, Numbers 6, and Deuteronomy 26, there are instructions for worship rituals, including a basket of bread.

In Deuteronomy 28, the blessing and the curse for obedience or disobedience included predictions about what would happen to the baskets of the Israelites.

Jeremiah (chapter 24) and Amos (chapter 8) had prophecies which involved a basket. So did Zechariah (chapter 5) although his prophecy involved a woman in a basket.

In Matthew 5, Jesus said that His followers were the light of the world, and that their light shouldn't be hidden under a basket. Jesus also referred to the futility of hiding a light under a basket in Mark 4 and Luke 11.

In Matthew 14-16 (and in two other gospels) there are references to feeding multitudes miraculously, with the excess collected in baskets.

The Apostle Paul escaped from his enemies in a basket.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Fate of Mice, by Susan Palwick

Susan Palwick (her blog is here) is an excellent writer, and leads an interesting life. I recently read her short story collection, The Fate of Mice (San Francisco: Tachyon, 2007). (See here for my post on her The Necessary Beggar.) All but three stories, original to this volume, were published in normal science fiction/fantasy outlets, such as Asimov's. I'll try to give away as little of the plots as possible. (For a review in one of the standard science fiction outlets, go here.)

One story illustrates the last part of Luke 16 --especially verse 31, which says, "He said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.'" (ESV) -- perfectly, although there is no scripture in the story. The setting is some undetermined time in the future.

Another is about a fictional communion, and its effect. As it had a religious theme (although the communion isn't a "standard" one) I was pleased that it had been published by a secular publisher. Why not?

The story I liked best, I guess, was "Going After Bobo." I am going to give away some plot here -- I don't think knowing this much would stop anyone from getting as much pleasure as I did about the story. Bobo is a cat who belongs to a teenager who is living with his mother and brother in Nevada. Bobo has disappeared, during a snowstorm, but has a chip embedded in him, so that he can be found. The chip says he is in a mine up on a mountain, and the chip doesn't move over enough time that it seems that Bobo is dead. The story is really about two important themes that are beyond the title, beyond a search for a cat that probably has died. One of them is the boxes we are in, or we put ourselves in -- behavioral boxes, how we act, what we do and don't do. The protagonist realizes that he is in one, and so are others. He steps out once, and this leads to the second theme, which is family reconciliation. This was a moving story, well told. I'm not sure that it's really fantastic at all. Most any of it could have happened, I think, unless those chips can't be tracked by the ordinary pet owner yet.

"Elephant" is only six pages long, but it's powerful. It's about giving birth, and re-starting.

There is an extension of Little Women, and a fantastic version of "Cinderella." Palwick likes to use the stories that should be part of our cultural heritage. She does it again in the title story, which is about a laboratory mouse. It's also about mice in fairy tales, and about experimenting on animals. Fairy tales, Little Women, finding lost cats -- Palwick knows some of our stories. She has written some that should be part of them.

Thanks for reading. Read Palwick.

* * * * *

Addendum, July 31, 2007. I have now posted on Palwick's Flying in Place.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Be grateful: Topics I haven't considered

Be grateful. This blog has had no posts, at least recently, about:

Paris Hilton

Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez

Immigration legislation

American Idol, or any other current TV show

With one exception, endorsements of any particular politician or party

Macintosh computers

Eternal Security

Investments

Recipes

Maybe next time. . .

Thanks for reading! (Bloglines tells me that 21 people subscribe to this blog through that service alone, which probably means that one person per week, on the average, reads a little of it.)

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Sunspots 112


Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:




Humor:
A tongue-in-cheek attempt to include dinosaurs in children's Bible stories.

Science:
Thinking Christian has a thoughtful post on Darwinism.

Slate on animals that reproduce without sex. (These are vertebrates)

Slate on genetic engineering, as being used in dog breeding .

Maybe neurons send messages as something like sound waves, not as electrical impulses. Hmmm.

Jet-skiers in Florida are sometimes struck by flying sturgeon. (Sturgeon are large fish)

Literature:
Of the death, last month, of Lloyd Alexander, author of the Chronicles of Prydain, and many other good books.

This poem, by Susan Palwick, includes a great prayer. Palwick recently was nominated for an award.

Christianity:
Rebecca has posted on some of the seven statements about the Son in Hebrews 1:2b-3.

Henry Neufeld on how to teach Genesis in church.

This week's Christian Carnival is here. For information on these Carnivals, go here.


Thanks for reading! Keep clicking away.

Image source (public domain)

Sunday, June 10, 2007

A high view of the Bible

PRUD. What do you think of the Bible?

MATT. It is the holy Word of God.

PRUD. Is there nothing written therein but what you understand?

MATT. Yes. A great deal.

PRUD. What do you do when you meet with such places therein that you do not understand?

MATT. I think God is wiser than I. I pray also that He will please to let me know all therein that He knows will be for my good.

This is an extract from the second part of Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan (1684, public domain). Matthew, the oldest son of Christian (the Pilgrim) and Christiana, is quizzed here by Prudence.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Claw of the Conciliator on Elizabeth Moon

I'm working toward doing a post on whether or not Elizabeth Moon's The Deed of Paksenarrion is a Christian novel (or three novels). A lot of this ground has already been covered by Elliot, of the Claw of the Conciliator blog, and I want to acknowledge his work, and link to it. I think I have come to some of the same conclusions independently, but may well have been influenced by reading Elliot.

All links below are to Elliot's blog:

Substantial quotation from a 1999 interview with Moon (from SF Site, not from a religious page!) in which she discusses her conversion experience.

A review of Moon's nebula-winning The Speed of Dark, pointing out how Christianity shows in this book.

A review of Sheepfarmer's Daughter, the first part of The Deed, in which he discusses the religion of this world, pointing out that, although it seems polytheistic, it has a High Lord, and, perhaps, Saints.

A fictional dialog about Paksenarrion offering herself as a sacrifice.

(The Claw of the Conciliator is an award-winning fantasy novel by Gene Wolfe, set in the far future. Wolfe has Christian elements in most of his work.)

Thanks, Elliot!

June 14, 2007:
Here's my own post on the subject.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Radioactive decay and young-earth creationism

If you were given a bank account, which had had interest added to it for a number of years, and it was important to know how many years that account had been drawing interest, you would need to know a few things, including how much money was in the account to begin with, how much was in it now, the rate of interest, and that the rate had not changed, or, if it had, how much and for how long. (See here for a Wikipedia article on calculations involved with such interest)

In a similar manner, if we want to know how old the earth is, one way of determining this is from radioactive decay. However, to make such calculations, a scientist must know how much of the parent material was present to begin with, how much is there now (or how much of the radioactive product was there to begin with, and how much is there now), and the rate of decay. Constant, or nearly constant rates are assumed. Scientists who are experts in this area are virtually unanimous that the earth is billions of years old. Young-earth creationists do not accept this, based on their interpretation of the Bible. They have raised some scientific criticisms about knowing how much was there in the beginning, how much is there now, and about the measurement of the rate. Scientists who are not young-earth creationists have also raised some questions about these matters, but the current scientific consensus is that the data shows that the earth is very old. (I am not an expert in this area of science.)

In a previous post, I commented briefly on a critique of the RATE project, which project was sponsored by two of the leading young-earth creationist organizations, and was designed to examine the scientific evidence from radioactive decay, concerning the age of the earth.

I have since discovered that the first part of the RATE project report is available freely on-line (Warning -- this is a large .PDF file) from the Institute for Creation Research (ICR). As always, it is best to use primary sources, so I have done so. I have not read the entirety of this report, but have looked at the last chapter of the first volume, which I take to be critical. The report is entitled Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth: A Young Earth Creationist Initiative. (ICR and the Creation Research Society (CRS) 2000) There is a second volume, entitled Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth, Volume II. It is offered for sale by the CRS web site, but is there listed as being a publication of the ICR. (It can be purchased from the ICR, also.)

In the last chapter of this on-line book, which is "Accelerated Decay: A Viable Hypothesis?" (p. 345), D. Russell Humphreys begins thus:
Geoscience and nuclear data strongly imply that "billions of years" worth of nuclear decay took place within thousands of years ago. [sic] To explain this, I propose that since Creation, one or more episodes occurred when nuclear decay rates were billions of times greater than today's rates. Possibly there were three episodes: one in the early part of the Creation week, another between the Fall and the Flood, and the third during the year of the Genesis Flood.

He goes on to summarize the findings of the RATE project, namely that the scientific evidence, from more than one type of radioactive decay, is that the earth is very old. (He also summarizes other scientific evidence which suggests that the earth is not very old.)

Humphreys also mentions a problem with his hypothesis of accelerated decay. This problem is the danger, to living beings, of exposure to the radioactivity that would have resulted from such decay. The "three episodes" that he suggests, says Humphreys, would have been during times when living things would not yet have been present, or would have been protected -- during the Flood, for example, by the water over the earth.

Another problem would be the amount of heat produced by rapid radioactive decay. Humphreys, in part, says that the Bible describes such heat, so he doesn't take it as a serious problem.

Humphreys explicitly does not believe that the mainstream scientific belief that radioactivity shows that the earth is very old is a biased product of belief that natural selection has been operating for a long period of time.

What to make of this? Humphreys has made two very important admissions, as I have indicated above, in what comes as close as possible to an official publication of the young-earth creation movement. These admissions are that the age measurements of most scientists are not tainted by old-earth bias, and that the evidence, on the face of it, is that the earth is very old.

My reaction, and the reaction of the American Scientific Affiliation, an organization of Christian scientists (which was reported in my previous post) is that these are significant statements, and the authors, and their organizations, should be commended for making them. However, a further reaction is that Humphreys has proposed a system something like the epicycles proposed, supposedly to save the hypothesis of an earth-centered universe, in early astronomy. As the Wikipedia article on epicycles puts it:
"Adding epicycles" has, thanks to the Rube Goldberg attempts to make the obviously failed earth-centered model work, come to be used as a derogatory comment in modern scientific lingo. If one continues to try to adjust a theory to make its predictions match the facts, when it has become clear that the basic premise itself should be questioned, one is said to be "adding epicycles".

Proposing that there were three episodes when radioactive decay rates were orders of magnitude faster than they are today, so that one can hold on to the idea of young-earth creation, strikes me (and others) as scientifically unwise. It also may even be attributing deception to God.

Young-earth creationism may be right. I don't know. This report is important to believers in that explanation for origins, but it also exposes some serious weaknesses of that idea.

Thanks for reading.

* * * * *

June 13, 2007. The epicyclic nature of the RATE report is even worse than I thought. In a comment on my first post on this matter, Randy Isaac says that "
The argument is further complicated by claims that some isotopes experience accelerated decay while others didn't."

July 25, 2007. I have discovered that Answers in Genesis, another important young-earth organization, apparently cooperated with the other two groups, at least initially, on this project. Answers in Genesis has reported favorably on the results, also. (See here)

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Sunspots 111


Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:




Humor:
Beautiful wedding gowns made from . . . toilet paper. Really.

Science:
Mark Perakh has written a critique of Stephen M. Barr's Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, which I thought was a splendid book. I don't have Barr's book available, thus cannot closely examine Perakh's claims. He believes that Barr hasn't made a strong argument for Christianity, although he does acknowledge Barr's scientific credentials.


Politics:
Hilary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barak Obama, leading Democratic candidates for President of the US, appeared on CNN, for the purpose of discussing their faith. CNN has posted a report, with video excerpts. Here's the NPR report, with audio. Sojourners sponsored the event. CNN has posted a transcript. Paula Zahn Now had follow-up, with discussion of the previous event, and Zahn speaking with Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Dennis Kucinich, and Bill Richardson about their faith.

Some of the Republican candidates for President have been asked about their beliefs on origins .

Sports:
The great majority of head coaches in the National Basketball Association are white (although most of the players are African-American). But, like last year, one of the two teams in the NBA finals is coached by an African-American , and its not the same one as last year. (The team coached by an African-American lost last year. This year's final series hasn't begun yet.)

Literature:
Article on the fiction of Gene Wolfe, in First Things.

Christianity:
Henry Neufeld on going on toward perfection (an examination of parts of Hebrews).

In a missionary prayer letter, I read that somebody or other has determined that the average Christian prays for 3 minutes a day, and the average pastor for 7. God helping me, I'm going to be above average.

This week's Christian Carnival is here. For information on these Carnivals, go here.


Thanks for reading! Keep clicking away.

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Intelligent Design

Neil deGrasse Tyson, astronomer and author (His recent Death by Black Hole was number 96 in sales on February 25, 2007, according to Amazon.) wrote an essay on the matter of claiming that God made something, when we have no current explanation for it. Here's Tyson's web page, and here's the Wikipedia article on him.

I saw him discussing the essay on C-Span, and he said that he didn't want to enter the debate over Intelligent Design, because others were doing so, but then he felt that he could make a contribution. Hence the essay.

Here's part of his third sentence: "a careful reading of older texts, particularly those concerned with the universe itself, shows that the authors invoke divinity only when they reach the boundaries of their understanding." He cites Ptolemy, who, says Tyson, invoked Zeus to explain the apparent retrograde motion of the planets. He also cites Isaac Newton, who invoked God to explain why the planetary orbits were stable, in spite of the gravitational pull of each planet on the others. Laplace, says Tyson, later found an explanation for the stability, and, when asked why his explanation didn't mention God, famously said that he had no need of that hypothesis.

Tyson's next-to-last sentence: "I don't want students who could make the next major breakthrough in renewable energy sources or space travel to have been taught that anything they don't understand, and that nobody yet understands, is divinely constructed and therefore beyond their intellectual capacity."

There is a danger in thinking in the way that Tyson describes. But the bigger danger goes back, apparently, at least to Ptolemy. That is the danger of assuming that, because we think we understand something, that God had nothing to do with it. That's like me saying that, because I understand the rules of basketball, that it sprang up spontaneously on ESPN. Basketball has a history. It was invented, and refined.* God is just as much the God of 2 plus 2 as He is the God of infinity, DNA, and black holes.

Tyson hasn't ruled out God. He doesn't claim to have, although I suspect that he doesn't believe in His existence. However intelligent we are, God was there first, and designed the phenomena that make us possible. Can we prove this? I don't think so, but we can't disprove it, either. We can believe it, though, and I do.

*I have made a few modest proposals for changing the rules of basketball, but, so far, they have been ignored.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Paksenarrion and King Arthur

2 Samuel 8:15 So David reigned over all Israel. And David administered justice and equity to all his people. (ESV)

"We will be in the north for a few years -- no fat contracts in Aarenis, no chance of plunder. If you prefer such service, I will recommend you to any commander you name. . . . If you stay, we shall be making, by Gird's grace, a place of justice, a domain fruitful and safe, and a strong defense for the northern border." Duke Kieri Phelan, speaking of returning to his lands, but, unknown to himself, on the verge of trying to establish a just kingdom in Lyonya. The Deed of Paksenarrion (Riverdale, NY: Baen, 1992) p. 806

In a previous post, I introduced Elizabeth Moon's The Deed of Paksenarrion, and, later, compared the book to Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In this post, I wish to compare the work to the story of King Arthur. There are some interesting resemblances, but the stories are not the same.

Howard Pyle's version of the King Arthur story influenced me the most, but there are other versions. (Part of his version is available from Project Gutenberg.) For other information on King Arthur, see the Wikipedia article, and also this site.

In Moon's book, no one knows who is the heir to the kingship of Lyonya. The heir is found, and his kingship is validated when he draws a sword. (It is not a sword that no one else can draw, but it is a magic sword that reacts to him. The heir is not a boy, but a man who has earned, not inherited, the office of Duke.) There is an order of warriors, who try to fight for only for justice and the good.

These bare bones are there, but there are differences. There is no Guinevere -- Duke Kieri Phelan has no wife during the years covered by the book. There is no Merlin, although there are wizards. There is no Lancelot, unless Paksenarrion, whose Deed is to place Duke Phelan on his throne, and is a tall blonde warrior-maiden, stands somehow in his place. Perhaps she is more like Galahad, the pure. In the closing chapter of the first part of this trilogy-published-as-single-volume, the Duke asks her how an evil man, who has tortured the Duke's soldiers, and their allies, should be disposed of. Paksenarrion is taken aback by the request, but she says that he should be killed quickly, without torture, because ". . . we are not like him, my lord. That's why we fought." (Chapter 31, p. 308. The entire first part of the book, including this chapter, may be accessed here.)

Many stories retell King Arthur's, somewhat. The Lord of the Rings has a king who comes out of obscurity, with a special sword, and a wizard backing him, for example. It is no wonder that Moon's book also retells part of it, but, like Tolkien's, it is a story unto itself.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Christiana sees a man with the wrong priorities

After a while, because supper was not ready, the Interpreter took them into his significant rooms, and showed them what Christian, Christiana's husband, had seen some time before. Here, therefore, they saw the man in the cage, the man and his dream, the man that cut his way through his enemies, and the picture of the biggest of them all, together with the rest of those things that were then so profitable to Christian.

This done, and after these things had been somewhat digested by Christiana and her company, the Interpreter takes them apart again, and has them first into a room where was a man that could look no way but downwards, with a muck-rake in his hand. There stood also one over His head with a celestial crown in His hand, and proffered him that crown for his muck-rake; but the man did neither look up, nor regard, but raked to himself the straws, the small sticks, and dust of the floor.

Then said Christiana, I persuade myself that I know somewhat the meaning of this; for this is a figure of a man of this world, is it not, good Sir?

INTER. Thou hast said the right, said He, and his muck-rake doth show his carnal mind. And whereas thou seest him rather give heed to rake up straws and sticks, and the dust of the floor, than to what He says that calls to him from above with the celestial crown in His hand, it is to show that Heaven is but as a fable to some, and that things here are counted the only things substantial. Now, whereas, it was also showed thee, that the man could look no way but downwards, it is to let thee know that earthly things, when they are with power upon men's minds, quite carry their hearts away from God.

CHRIST. Then said Christiana, O deliver me from this muck-rake!

INTER. That prayer, Said the Interpreter, has lain by till it is almost rusty. "Give me not riches," is scarce the prayer of one of ten thousand (Prov. 30:8). Straws, and sticks, and dust, with most, are the great things now looked after.

This is an extract from the second part of Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan (1684, public domain).

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Young earth creationism and radioactivity

The current print issue of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith has a review of a study by two of the most prominent young-earth creation organizations, on radioisotope dating. (Articles in Perspectives are placed on-line within two years of publication.) The study, which I have not seen, is published as Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth, in two volumes, edited by Larry Vardiman and others.

The review, by Randy Isaac, currently executive director of the American Scientific Affiliation, which publishes Perspectives, appears to be a thorough examination of the results of the RATE (Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth) project, carried out by the Institute of Creation Research and the Creation Research Society.*

Isaac says that the study is remarkable in that it concedes plainly that current scientific evidence from radioactive decay is that the earth is much more than a few thousand years old. He explains the findings of the RATE project in some detail. The approach of the RATE project, he says, is to propose that the rates of radioactive decay were much greater during the flood, thus making the decay evidence indicate that the earth is much younger than it seems to be.

Isaac writes that "The authors report that faced with this evidence, a young-earth advocate must address at least two key scientific problems resulting from a one-year period of accelerated decay rates during the Flood." These problems are the heat that would have been produced by so much decay, and the amount of dangerous radioactivity which would have been produced.

For some (perhaps legitimate) reason, Isaac doesn't mention another serious question, namely why should decay rates have accelerated during the Flood?

Isaac commends the study for its admission (seldom made by advocates of young-earth creationism) that the evidence is in favor of an old earth, but criticizes it for its conclusion, which is that the two problems have been nearly solved. He says that they haven't.

The American Scientific Affiliation neither endorses or denies young-earth creationism. It allows members to believe any scheme for origins which is compatible with its statement of beliefs.

Thanks for reading.

* * * * *

On June 7, 2007, I posted again on this topic, this time with a link to part of the original RATE report.

*On July 25, 2007, I discovered than Answers in Genesis, a third important young-earth creationism organization, was also initially involved in this project, and has reported favorably on the results. (See here)

Friday, June 01, 2007

Paksenarrion and Tolkien

Baen, the publisher of The Deed of Paksenarrion, by Elizabeth Moon, has a blurb on the outside cover of the edition I am reading, by Judith Tarr, claiming that Moon "has taken the work of Tolkien, assimilated it totally and deeply and absolutely, and produced something altogether new. . ." A commenter on my earlier post on this book also mentioned that Tolkien's influence shows.

I see enough resemblance that I mentioned both works as being "sword and sorcery" fiction. But they aren't the same.

How are the works similar? (Besides both being set in a past time, before the use of gunpowder?)

Moon has elves in her book. Furthermore, like Tolkien's, these elves are potentially immortal, are very sympathetic to nature, have magical powers, but can produce offspring with humans. As in Tolkien, a wanderer needs only a little of their bread to be satisfied. There are dwarves, apparently much like Tolkien's, but they aren't very important in Moon's book.

She also has orcs, and, like Tolkien's, these are all evil beings. There are also large spider-like creatures, perhaps as much spiritual as embodied, that are evil, and influence others to do evil.

Swords, or at least one sword, light up when an enemy is faced.

Both works take place over a large area, with many kingdoms, or the equivalent.

But there are differences, serious differences.

Moon introduces a religious order/group/something called Kuakgan. These people, possibly all male, are human, and have deep bonds to the natural world, and possess powers that are apparently magical.

Moon also introduces something called a, or the taig, or an elfane taig. Although this seems to be introduced in Chapter Six of the second part of her trilogy, the idea is clearly important. This is a term for the spirit of a place. Although there is some suggestion of such ideas in Tolkien, for example in Hollin, Moon makes this a more active concept, and Moon's elves expect human rulers they have any congress with to be sensitive to these entities.

The spider-creatures can masquerade successfully as humans, and seem to enjoy not just attacking them, but leading them astray in various ways. I find no suggestion of either in Tolkien.

There are evil elves in Moon's book. In Tolkien's trilogy, such elves have all vanished.

There are numerous beings like gods, spirits, or saints in Moon's work. There are also such in Tolkien, but in his books, these are closely related to the elves than in Moon's. There are religious/military orders dedicated to these entities. I find no explicit mention of prayer in Tolkien. There is mention of prayer by Moon.

Although there are a few female warriors in Tolkien, they are clearly meant to be the exception. They are not exceptions in Moon. Paksenarrion, herself, is female, and becomes a great warrior.

Thanks for reading.

* * * * *

Note: This was rewritten on June 5th from the original post on June 1, 2007.