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Thursday, July 30, 2009

The recent eclipse, seen from space

Since you didn't see the recent solar eclipse, you can see the shadow of the moon on the earth, on China, as posted by Wired. Amazing!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sunspots 221


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



Science:
Did you ever wonder about the adaptive significance of toucan's bills? The BBC reports on research into the function of these large bird parts.

Philosophy:
(or something) Wired has an article on guidelines (ethics, if you please) for robot behavior.

Christianity:
The problem of how a good God can allow bad things is addressed again, in Christianity Today. The article asks "Why do we Need Earthquakes?" and goes on from there.


Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

We are all human.

When you hear a baby cry, you can't tell the sex, skin color, national origin, ethnicity, or language group of the child from the sound. We just know that it's an important person crying. We are all that much alike.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Water: an amazing substance

Water is a very common substance, so common that we take it for granted, but it is also unusual. How so? Why is that important?

1. Water is the only common substance that may be found in all three states under common conditions. This means that we can have a water cycle, wherein water moves all over the earth in the gaseous state, and precipitates in the liquid or solid state. If it weren't for that, agriculture would be mostly impossible. It also means that we can have snow and ice, which are important for many reasons, including the fact that snow and ice insulate organisms that live under them, greatly slowing heat loss from bodies of water with ice and snow covering them.

Mars is the only planet, other than Earth, in our solar system where conditions are enough like earth that all three states might occur there, but there doesn't seem to be much water on Mars at all now (there may have been in the past). There may be water on Enceladus, a satellite of Saturn.

2. Water is the only common substance that becomes less dense when it becomes a solid. This means that ice floats. If it didn't, polar bears would have a hard time, and bodies of water (except for very shallow ones) would be mostly solid, even in the summer, because the ice would be denser, and would stay on the bottom, where the sun wouldn't melt it. If that were so, many water-living organisms couldn't exist.

3. Water is unique in that it becomes most dense at 4 degrees Celsius (approximately the temperature inside a refrigerator) when it is still liquid. This means that bodies of water tend to become uniform in temperature when they cool in the fall, and when they warm up in the spring, as liquid water, either colder or warmer than 4 degrees, rests on top of the 4 degree water, until it either cools to 4 degrees in the fall, or warms to 4 degrees in the spring, so that eventually the whole body of water is at 4 degrees. The resulting uniformity means that nutrients that have sunk to the bottom can be stirred by the wind while the body of water is uniform. Again, if this were not true, many water-living organisms couldn't exist. (for more on this topic, see here)

4. Water is transparent. This means that your eye can see, as light goes through the eye (which is mostly water) to the retina. It also means that fish can see, and that plants below the surface of a body of water can carry out photosynthesis, the food-making process that requires light.

5. Water has a high specific heat, meaning that it takes a lot of energy to change the temperature of water without changing its state.

6. Water has a high heat of fusion, meaning that it takes a lot of energy to melt ice, or that you must remove a lot of energy for water to freeze.

Properties 5 and 6 help to stabilize the climate near bodies of water. They also allow fruit-growers to protect their crops from freezing by spraying them with water when a freeze is predicted.

7. Water has a high heat of vaporization, meaning that it takes a lot of energy to vaporize water, ("A watched pot never boils") or that you must remove a lot of energy to condense vapor. Properties 5-7 mean that water stabilizes temperature. For example, a human at 37 degrees C (normal body temperature) can remain in air at 45 degrees C or 0 degrees (freezing temperature) for a long time without damage. It also means that deserts are subject to a great deal of temperature fluctuation compared to areas near large bodies of water.

8. Water makes up most of the mass of most living things, including green plants. It is, of course, made of molecules with two Hydrogen atoms and one Oxygen atom. One reason that this is vitally important is that water is one of the raw materials of photosynthesis, the process by which green plants make food for the rest of living things. Photosynthesis attaches the Hydrogen from water to Carbon from Carbon Dioxide.

9. Water is self-attractive, which means that it makes drops -- water molecules sticking together. This property helps tall plants get water up to their tops, and also makes it possible for some organisms to walk or run on top of the surface of bodies of water.

Some would argue that these, and other properties of water, are so unique, and so important, that water must necessarily have been specially created as it is. I believe that God designed water with these, and probably other, unique properties, but don't believe that I can prove this. In the Bible, Hebrews 11:3 implies that we understand God's creative power by faith.

Thanks for reading.

See this post on the times that water is mentioned in the book of John.

This is a re-post from July 26, 2007, changed slightly.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Loose talk

Mark 7:20 And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (ESV, emphasis added. "He" is Jesus.)

The Bible has a lot to say about sins of communication, including slander
and gossip. The Wikipedia (accessed July 4, 2009) says this about gossip: "Gossip is idle talk or rumour, especially about the personal or private affairs of others. It forms one of the oldest and most common means of sharing (unproven) facts and views, but also has a reputation for the introduction of errors and other variations into the information transmitted. The term also carries implications that the news so transmitted (usually) has a personal or trivial nature, as opposed to normal conversation."

The Wikipedia (accessed on the same date) says this about slander: "slander refers to a malicious, false and defamatory spoken statement or report . . ."

The Bible condemns both of these, but there is some difference. Slander may be a crime, and it involves deliberate spreading of falsehoods. Gossip is talking too freely about the personal affairs of others. Much of what passes for news, in this day and time, also constitutes gossip. Was, for instance, the pervasive media coverage of the crimes connected with the Watergate affair, or of former President Clinton's activity with Monica Lewinsky, or of the adulterous affair of current (so far) South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford news or gossip? Why was I interested in these matters? To be an informed citizen, or because I wanted to hear about all the dirty details, and, especially, to hear speculation about more possible revelations? It's hard to say, but I'm afraid that I haven't always paid attention to the news for good reasons.

It seems clear that exactly when talk becomes gossip is difficult to pin down. We surely may be legitimately concerned about people, and share these concerns when asking for prayer. But we have no business circulating statements about the private affairs of other people just to have something to say, at least not when those statements do not portray those people in a positive way. (It may not just be to have something to say -- we may be passing on gossip so as to receive some of the same in return, and have an unhealthy, and sinful interest in gossip.)

The New Testament condemns
slander in at least these passages, besides the quotation above: (Matthew 15:19, Ephesians 4:31, Colossians 3:8, 2 Peter 2:1) Gossip is forbidden in 1 Timothy 5:13 and 2 Corinthians 12:20.

Romans 1 condemns both slander and gossip: 1:28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. (ESV, emphasis added.)

2 Corinthians 12:20 also condemns both, although not in quite as strong a language as Paul used in Romans 1:
20: For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. (ESV, emphasis added.)

I close with this statement from the Proverbs:
11:13 Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets,
but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered. (ESV)

God help me. Thanks for reading.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Brief book report: Solstice Wood, Inside Job, and Afternoon of the Elves

I have recently read Solstice Wood (New York: Ace Books, 2006) by Patricia A. McKillip. I don't want to give away the plot. This is a reasonably good summary.

The book brings the setting of McKillip's Winter Rose into the present. Characters have cell phones, watch TV, take airplanes, and drive. All this is new territory for McKillip, but she handles it well. Let's just say that the setting of Winter Rose, and of this book, is on the border, or at the interface, of fairyland. She also writes from the viewpoints of a half dozen different characters. Each chapter is from a single viewpoint. I found this an interesting literary device.

McKillip is a good writer. Her settings and characterizations sometimes obscure her plots, but there is a plot in this book. There are real characters in the book. She uses interesting figures of speech, as in "Seven years had done nothing to diminish the force and energy of her voice, which could have cut short a brawl between sea lions." (p. 12. I believe that McKillip lives on the coast of Oregon. The book has no sea, or lions, in it.)

* * * *

I also read Janet Taylor Lisle's Afternoon of the Elves (New York: Orchard Books, 1989). I was attracted by the title, and the fact that the book was a Newbery Honor winner. Let's just say that I liked the book, which is supposedly aimed at middle schoolers, but didn't really meet any elves. I wouldn't call it fantastic literature, because it could have been real.

* * * *
The Wikipedia article on Connie Willis says that she is a highly honored writer, and no wonder. Her Bellwether and Doomsday Book are splendid, and her other works are also good. Inside Job (Burton, MI: Subterranean Press, 2005) is about debunking spiritism, etc. One of the beliefs being debunked by the main characters is Intelligent Design. Willis doesn't say much about that theory. The title, at least in part, is because the late H. L. Mencken, one of the most diligent debunkers of the past, is being channeled by a medium who is otherwise a charlatan, debunking her to her own audience. Short, and funny, and the guy marries the beautiful and brilliant girl in the end.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Elizabeth Moon's Vatta's War books.

Elizabeth Moon has become one of my favorite authors. Evidently others like her work, too. Her The Speed of Dark won the Nebula award for best novel in 2003. I have posted on her five Paksenarrion novels. (See here for perhaps the most important of these posts. See here for a blog by Moon, currently mostly on another book in the Paksenarrion series.)

One interesting aspect of Moon's work is that she doesn't stick to a single genre. The Speed of Dark is straightforward science fiction, set on earth in near future, and extrapolates science only a little from what we know today. The Paksenarrion books are sword and sorcery fantasy, set we know not where, and we know not when. There is magic, but the technology is primitive. In her Vatta's War series, Moon takes us to the far future, when humans have migrated to many planets, and some aspects of science, especially human-computer interfaces and communication, have advanced a great deal. This series comes close to space opera, but probably doesn't quite make that. Go here for more on this series, including plot details.

This post is on the first two of these books. The protagonist is Kylara Vatta, part of a large family that owns an interstellar trading company. She begins Trading in Danger in a military academy. I won't give away any of the plot, except that, which the reader will discover right away. Marque and Reprisal continues the series. (See here for the meaning of the title phrase.)

A few musings:

1) Religion is present in these books. About half a dozen times, praying is mentioned, although there is no specification as to who is prayed to. One of the characters, having suffered the loss of his family, complains that their various religions were not effective in saving them. Thismention, though not emphasis, is not surprising. Moon is an active Episcopalian.

2) Moon pays attention to details. In these books, there is quite a lot about trading, provisioning a spaceship, how a spaceport must work, and cargo storage. (The Paksenarrion series dealt a lot with battle camp hygiene, and other such details.) Moon handles these things well, and they add to the interest. Part of this is because of her own military training, no doubt.

3) I found these books gripping. I had trouble putting them down.

4) As with the Paksenarrion series, Kylara Vatta doesn't seem to fall in love, or have any affairs, during the two books, which is fine, unless someone read them hoping to find romance or erotic love.

5) Although Moon can portray male characters well, she seems to like female ones, and does a good job with them.

Thanks for reading. Read Moon.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Oswald Chambers on conversion versus redemption

I am ashamed to confess that, until recently, I had never read My Utmost for His Highest, by Oswald Chambers. It's a challenging devotional book. Since it is not public domain, I won't be quoting lots from it.

The entry for January 10th (the book is designed to be read as a devotional for each day of the year) discusses conversion versus redemption. I confess that I had supposed that they are the same thing. Chambers thought not. He quotes from Acts 26:18. Here is the entire verse:

'. . . to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.'

Chambers said that conversion is a human act -- turning away from sin, and a sinful lifestyle. Redemption, however, is something that is received. God does it for us. He wrote that too many so-called Christians have not gotten beyond conversion -- they have joined a church, and given up some old habits, but they have not yet received anything from God, and are satisfied as they are.

I can see that Chambers is going to be well worth reading!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sunspots 220


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



Science:
Wired reports that a human egg has now been grown from an immature follicle cell.

Carl Zimmer writes about how complicated living things really are, and how far we are from understanding them.

There's a fascinating report in the New Yorker on obesity -- what causes it, why is it so prevalent?

Computing:
CNet has published the results of a survey on why people respond to spam. (And a lot of us do!)



Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Fireflies: how to communicate with them

Carl Zimmer, science writer, and a good one, has recently written a piece as a blog post for Discover magazine.

In his article, Zimmer discusses the flashing of fireflies, reporting on research on the subject -- there is some such research. He even describes how it is possible to use a small light to communicate with fireflies. You can't say much to them that way, except "I'm over here, and I'm the gender and species you are looking for."

Like most scientific research, research in fireflies opens up more questions than it answers, but it's interesting.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Yet another proof that sex does not equal love

I'm old enough to remember some of the stir created by Masters and Johnson, who boldly went where very few had gone before, namely into research on human sexual intercourse. They published four books, beginning with Human Sexual Response, first published in 1966.

The New York Times has published a book review of a study of their lives, named
Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love, by Thomas Maier (Basic Books: 2009). I have no plans to read the book. Based on the review, it would be too depressing to do so. Christina Nehring, the author of the review, places this sentence early in the review: Can the life of a man who spent most of the waking hours of his adult life either having sex, watching sex or talking sex be sad? The answer, says Nehring, is "YES."

As C. S. Lewis said, at some length, in his The Four Loves, Greek has four words for love. Agape love, as described in 1 Corinthians 13, is the highest form, according to the Bible. English has only one, which has the burden, then, of use to describe affection for a pet, or a child, liking certain foods, lifelong happy matrimony, one-night stands, and all sorts of other things. That's too much work for the word. Apparently Masters and Johnson understood this, but some of their readers didn't, becoming too interested in "love" as merging biological plumbing, and way too uninterested in developing a Christ-honoring relationship with a member of the opposite sex.

According to the reviewer, Masters and Johnson, who may have engaged in intercourse with each other as often as 10,000 times, both before they were married, and during their marriage, never loved each other. Masters eventually left Johnson, and married a high school sweetheart, and found a form of love, perhaps even agape love, beyond mere sex. Virginia Johnson still hasn't.

Christians have often been reluctant to discuss sexual matters openly. There are reasons for such reluctance, but there are also reasons, in appropriate forums and settings, to discuss such matters. Masters and Johnson put us on track to discuss such things too much, in all sorts of settings, many of them inappropriate. Too bad.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Revealing Christ

I recently had the privilege of hearing Pastor Kerry Willis present, to a small group, what he said was his main theme, namely demonstrating Christ's presence. He used Galatians 1:15-16, which says, in part: ". . . God . . . called me by his grace, 16 To reveal his Son in me . . ."* As Willis says, on his blog's main page (see previous link) "I only exist so that Christ can manifest Himself in/through me."

Willis also used the familiar story of the call of Isaiah, in chapter 6. He emphasized verse 8, wherein God asked Isaiah who would go for Him, and Isaiah responded that he, Isaiah, would. Willis said that that response was a good one. Isaiah didn't say "here's my agenda. I'll go." He just said that he would go. Willis said that we, Christ's servants, need to go, showing Christ to others. That's God's plan. Some other things are human plans.

Willis illustrated, using his trip from Virginia to South Carolina. He said that he had packed an SUV with his and his wife's luggage, and with his preaching references, but the vehicle had trouble, and he had to go back and take a smaller one, costing him about an hour. He said that he wondered what God had in store for him -- who was he supposed to show Christ to that day? He said that that answer was two children beside the road, who were having a yard sale, of their own toys. Willis believes that God arranged things so that he would take that particular exit, at that particular time, so that he could speak to those kids. No one else was buying anything. The toys were old and of little or no value. But Willis bought one, paying more than was asked, and told them that he had been sent there to tell them that Jesus loved them.

May I represent Christ to someone, each day of my life.

Thanks for reading. Try Willis's blog. The entries tend to be a lot shorter than for this one.

*(KJV. The ASV is very similar. So is the NIV, which is not public domain. I usually use the ESV, but, in this case, it uses "to," rather than "in," in verse 16, with "in" given as an alternate reading. The point I am trying to make requires "in.")

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Stem cells and Lou Gehrig's disease

On July 2nd, CBS Evening News reported on what they say is a ground-breaking new technique, aimed at treating Lou Gehrig's disease, or Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. According to the report, it is possible to take skin cells from a patient, modify them genetically so that they become like, perhaps even identical to, embryonic stem cells, which, then, can be turned into motor neurons.

If this is true, and repeatable -- the mainstream media occasionally reports on "breakthroughs" in science that turned out to be neither -- it is remarkable, not only for the potential for treating this disease, but, probably, treating other diseases. It is also remarkable in that, as I listened to the report, and read it, I didn't see any indication that any human embryos were used in the process. Opponents of using embryos occasionally have reported that adult stem cells were as useful as embryonic ones, and that may be true, but doesn't seem to have been demonstrated yet. The research reported here seems to be a case of a non-opponent reporting a potentially important use for stem cells derived from embryos. That would be splendid.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Footprints of God by Greg Iles

I read The Footprints of God (2003) by Greg Iles, some time ago. Somewhere, I had read that it raised questions about ethical and religious issues. It does. I was hoping that it would be a good fantastic fiction novel. The Wikipedia article on the novel says that it is a "thriller," and I believe that that is a good one-word description, and that the book is not really serious science fiction. It is a page-turner.

The book is about the development of Trinity, a powerful quantum computer, in the near future. The protagonist, David Tennant, is a doctor who has written a best-selling book on medical ethics, and, because of this, has been assigned to the Trinity project by the President of the US. Why a medical ethicist, you may ask? Because the Trinity computer is supposed to replicate the synaptic connections (or something -- that part wasn't well explained) of a live human, and, therefore, replicate that person's consciousness, but in a device that could think much more rapidly than a human brain.

OK so far. However, there's more, in two more areas, that isn't OK. In the first place, the computer, when the project succeeds, apparently thinks of itself as a god, even quoting some of God's words about Himself in its communications with the outside world.

In the second place, the book gives a naturalistic explanation for the existence of God the Father, and also, a naturalistic explanation for the existence of Jesus. Tennant, in fact, experiences parts of God's memory, and that of Jesus. (In spite of the name of the computer, I found no reference to the Holy Spirit.) I would classify the explanations as unsatisfactory and somewhat incoherent, but I'm biased, I guess.

I found that these themes bordered on, or achieved, blasphemy. I can't really recommend the book.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Additional Biblical reasons for environmental stewardship

I have previously posted on "Environmental Stewardship in the Bible," and, in fact, this is one of what I consider to be one of my most significant posts (out of about 1,200!). I freely confess that the Biblical reasons for trying to keep the environment around us in as good a condition as we can were mostly, maybe totally, not original.

In this post, I wish to put forward two new arguments from the Bible, in favor of trying to preserve endangered species, and endangered ecosystems or communities. As far as I know, they are original. Perhaps that is so because they aren't very good reasons. I don't know.

Psalm 19:1-4 and Romans 1:20 tell us that observing and learning about nature are part of God’s revelation to humans. If that is so, isn’t that another reason to try to preserve nature as well as we can? The Bible is one of the ways that God reveals Himself to us. For a long time, Christians have believed that the Bible should be translated into the language people are most familiar with, so that that revelation may be as clear as possible. Similarly, it would seem that God's revelation through nature should be as clear as possible. A person is more likely to see God in a pristine stream than in a polluted river. Probably seeing bison herds roam freely in Western North America gave people a glimpse of one aspect of God’s power and majesty that they can’t really get now. Therefore, helping to preserve nature in as good a condition as we can is one way to bring people to a saving knowledge of Christ. Not the most direct way, and probably not the most effective, for many people, but it is still a way to do this.

2) Colossians 1:15-20 says, of Christ, that “in Him all things hold together.” (ESV -- other versions have similar language. See here for the ESV policy on electronic use of this version of the Bible.) That passage also says that He is working to reconcile all things to Himself, and that He is working to make peace through the blood of the cross. As Christians, we believe that it is our duty to be His instruments in reconciling sinners to Christ, and to help Him in the ministry of making peace. In fact, 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, tell us that:  18 But all things are of God, who reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ, and gave to us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses, and having committed to us the word of reconciliation.

Doesn’t it follow that we should also participate in Christ’s work of sustaining “all things,” including endangered species and ecosystems or biological communities? (I realize that there are other places in the New Testament where reconciliation and peacemaking are mentioned, or implied, and this is probably the only one that mentions Christ's sustaining work. But that doesn't mean that His sustaining work can be dismissed, or that we have no responsibility to be His instruments in doing it.)

What do you think?

Thanks for reading. (This post was edited on October 16, 2009. I attempted to enhance the arguments, without changing them. On September 26, 2013, I added the quotation from 2 Corinthians, and the introduction to it.)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Sunspots 219


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


Politics:
Henry Neufeld has a splendid meditation on patriotism, and its pluses and minuses.

Sports:
Wired reports that high-tech shoes may not be as good for running in as, say, bare feet .

Literature:
Some people make money by creating an index for books.


Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Too much information, too soon?

"You gals ought to keep abreast of things," said Mr. Feebles. "Why?" asked Tilly grumpily. "What good does it do you? It seems to me, from what you've been telling us, that everyone these days know everything about everyone and the split second it happens, too. What do they do with all this information? What does it get them? It just clutters up their peaceful quiet time. It seems to me, from what you've been describing, nobody has peaceful quiet time anymore. Television, bah! Radio, bah! Newspapers, magazines, bah, bah! Sounds like the world is running off half-cocked, people getting zapped with their little bits of information. Needing it every day. Zap, zap, zap. Well, deliver me. Contagious. Like hoof-and-mouth disease. I hope you're not contaminated. Don't go trekking all over our property." Polly Horvath, The Canning Season. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2003, p. 99. Mr. Feebles is a minor character. Tilly is, with her twin sister, an old woman who lives way out in the Maine woods, with a telephone that only receives calls, can't initiate them, and, of course, has no Internet access.

The book received the National Book Award for literature for young people.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Why women use makeup, maybe?

Tropical biologist Dr. Daniel Janzen offers a provocative theory that I find irresistible. Humans, he suggests, descend from a long line of primate ancestors that relished fruit. The pigments and essential oils that plants employ in their flowers also cue the ripening of berries. In particular, the esters and alcohols in the aromas of soft fruits are often identical to floral scents. Janzen argues that flower appreciation is just a happy by-product of evolution, a refinement of the senses we need to find and select a ripe banana.
. . . Janzen sees tremendous irony in some of the fads in human fashion and courtship. The woman who wears perfume and brightens her face with cosmetics, he suggests, is not emulating a blooming rose bursting with sexual allure. She is mimicking a plump, juicy rose hip bursting with vitamin C. From The Rose's Kiss: A Natural History of Flowers by Peter Bernhardt (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1999, pp. 120-121)

Well, that's one theory.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Keeping God's commandments

John 14:15 . . . If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (All quotations from the ESV.)

Psalm 119:35 Lead me in the path of your commandments,
for I delight in it.

Psalm 119:47
. . . for I find my delight in your commandments,
which I love.

1 John 5:3 For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Photos of the surface of Mars

5 stunning photos of the surface of Mars, showing changes as the seasons change, taken from an orbiting satellite, have been published by The Independent, a periodical from the UK. The photos were taken by a NASA satellite.

For NASA's image gallery, go here.

Isn't God a great artist?

Friday, July 10, 2009

An Evangelical Statement on Evolution

Steve Martin, of An Evangelical Dialog on Evolution, is in the process of beginning work on what he is calling "An Evangelical Statement on Evolution." He has made a good start, but is asking for assistance. This is an attempt to offer such assistance.

I won't repeat Martin's work, which I applaud, here. I do want to make some suggestions.

Martin is attempting to demonstrate that there are evangelical Christians who believe that God used natural selection in bringing about the present diversity of living things. It seems to me that one thing a Statement of the type he is working on should do is to define evolution, and, in doing so, indicate part of the common ground that Christians who reject evolution, or say that they do, have with the Christians indicated in the first sentence in this paragraph. I am assuming that orthodox Christian belief, as set forth, for example, in the Nicene or Apostle's Creed, is common ground, and that probably doesn't need to be set forth. But some other things should be:

1) When Martin says that he is an "Evolutionary Creationist," I suppose that he means that he believes that God made the universe the way it is so that natural selection was the process which led to most or all of the various kinds of living things. In other words, an Evolutionary Creationist does not believe that humans, or all of the other organisms, are here solely due to blind, purposeless chance. Evolutionary Creationists agree with other types of Creationists that, at some level, God designed the universe so that natural selection was possible, and that part of His design was the eventual existence of human beings.

Evolution is a process whereby natural selection, over time, has caused new forms of living things to come about. Evolution did not bring about the existence of the universe itself, or of the various entities studied by astronomers. Evolution is not responsible for the appearance of life for the first time.

2) Textbooks, teachers, and scientists who claim that science has proved that God does not exist, or does not have any creative power, should be resisted. Such statements are beyond the scope of science.

3) The Bible teaches not only that God created things, but that He sustains them now. (Colossians 1:15-20)

4) Humans are special organisms. They were created in God's image, with responsibility for other organisms. Although other organisms, or even non-living things, may also have some part of God's image, Genesis mentions this only about humans, indicating that humans have significantly more of God's image than any other organism. God the Son came to earth in human form, which also indicates that humans are special.

This world, as it is now, is temporary. Nonetheless, as humans, and especially as Christians, we have responsibility to maintain God's creation, including non-human organisms and ecological communities and ecosystems, as well as we can.

There are some other Biblical principles that Evolutionary Creationists should set forth, but that other Creationists may not agree on, without some persuasion.

1) The Bible teaches that scientific evidence is part of God's revelation. Psalm 19:1-4 and Romans 1:20 tell us this.

2) It is not possible to scientifically prove God's creative power. Although scientific data are part of the reason for believing in that power, acceptance of its reality comes by faith. (Hebrews 11:3.)

Martin sets forth objectives. The second such is to "Provide Encouragement for those Struggling with the Perceived Conflict between Science and Faith." One group of those that Martin doesn't mention, but should, is parents who believe that public school science classes are detrimental to their faith, and, therefore, do not place their children in the public schools, but home school them, or place them in Christian schools. This is bad for the health and well-being of the public schools, because it keeps thousands of concerned parents from supporting them, and because it keeps thousands of children who might be an example to non-Christian schoolmates from having the opportunity to provide such an example. Not only that, but such parents help to propagate the belief that there is a conflict between science and faith among a significant portion of the evangelical leadership for the next generation.

Thanks for reading. Read Steve Martin's blog.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

I recently read The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. (See the first link in the previous sentence, for more about the book, including a plot summary.) The book won the Newbery Award.

I don't have a lot to say about the book, because I don't want to spoil the plot for anyone, and there isn't any direct religious practice as such.

I will just say that the plot clearly involves a conflict between good and evil. Even though the main characters (except for a "normal" boy, who grows up throughout the story) are ghosts, a vampire, and worse beings, there is such a conflict, and a feeling of goodness from Gaiman's descriptions of those on the side of good, and of Nobody Owens, the boy.

A nice touch is that Gaiman gives us inscriptions from various gravestones, to accompany the names of the people who are buried there. The book mostly takes place in a graveyard, after all.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Sunspots 218


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


Humor:
Website Story, an updated, and shorter, version of West Side Story .

Science:
Huge groups of ants (millions) found in Japan, California, and Europe appear to be closely related, in fact, act as if they are all members of a single colony.


Christianity:
An article in The Panda's Thumb examines results from surveys on the question of whether scientists are more likely than others to disbelieve in God. The short answer is "probably a little more likely." The analysis is more thorough than that.


Image source (public domain)

Monday, July 06, 2009

More on the Kitzmiller Intelligent Design case, and on Intelligent Design

"Intelligent Design," like most phrases, means more than one thing.

A person who believes in intelligent design (id, in lower-case italics, for this post) believes that some entity designed some or all of the various properties of, and entities in the universe. For example, one might believe that a supernatural being designed the properties of atoms, such as Carbon. This supernatural being might or might not be the God of Christianity and Judaism. All people I would classify as Christians believe in id. There are certainly great differences in details -- some believe that God designed the universe in such a way that it would naturally emerge in its present form from the Big Bang, others believe that God specially designed and created each type of living organism. Some believe that the earth is only a few thousands of years old, others that it is much older than that. Some believe that God used seemingly random processes to bring about His purposes, some do not. Persons who believe in id do not belong to any particular organization, and do not generally act in concert. However, they are united in believing that neither the universe, nor humans, are here as the result of purposeless chance.

Another meaning of the term is the Intelligent Design Movement (ID). ID adherents do have a central organization, the Discovery Institute. They subscribe to id, but also have more specific beliefs, as follows:
1. It is possible to demonstrate supernatural design scientifically.
2. Intelligent Design should be taught in the public schools, in science classes.
3. Teaching Intelligent Design in public school science classes is an effective way for Christians to combat atheism.
All who are in the ID movement subscribe to id.

Many Christians, some of them scientists, some of them theologians, believe in id, but disagree with ID. They do not subscribe to any of the 3 specific beliefs listed above. For one thing, some of them they may believe that the Bible, itself, indicates that specific belief 1 is incorrect. For another, they see that the protection the US Constitution provides against state sponsorship of any particular religious belief is important, and that implementing specific belief 2 would violate that. The ID movement often seems to be deceptive, in that it attempts to identify itself with young-earth creationism, although the two are not the same thing. It also seems to be deceptive, in that, although specific belief 3 is well-documented, and spoken of as a strategy by leaders of the ID movement, they sometimes deny it, at least when in court.

The Kitzmiller case, although not tried by the US Supreme Court, rejected an attempt to carry out specific belief 2.

A blog I subscribe to, by a Christian author, discussed the deliberate deception, while under oath, of an official of the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, an organization claiming to be Christian, and closely allied with the Discovery Institute. You can read that discussion here.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Patriotism/partisanship: not always a good idea

The Free Dictionary's definition of patriotism says, succinctly: "a devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country. . ." The Wikipedia article on the subject is here. A partisan is defined thus: "A fervent, sometimes militant supporter or proponent of a party, cause, faction, person, or idea." There is a Wikipedia article on Partisan.

Patriotism, or partisanship, can sometimes be a good thing, I guess, as, for example, when the Jews, or slaves in the US, helped each other against oppression and injustice. But, clearly, such devotion to country, ethnic group, tribe, political party and the like, can go way too far, and often has, leading to various kinds of evil, including war. Some church congregations or denominations will not display a US flag, perhaps because of the evils perpetrated in the name of various forms of partisanship or patriotism.

There is a terrible example of this in the book of Judges. Chapters 19-20 tell the story of how the men of one town in the tribe of Benjamin performed a horrible crime, or several such. The residents of Gibeah were not hospitable to a man passing through, then, later, wanted to sexually assault him, and, finally, sexually assaulted his concubine, so terribly that she died. When the rest of the Israelites demanded that the criminals be turned over for punishment, the entire tribe of Benjamin refused, even though the majority of them had no part in the crime, and, after the Benjamites killed many from the other tribes, the men of the tribe were almost completely wiped out.

Some actions should not be supported or defended, even if carried out by my country, my political party, my extended family, my socio-economic group.

Is it easy to go against your own group? No, of course not. But sometimes it is necessary.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Fortune and Fate, by Sharon Shinn

I have previously posted about Sharon Shinn's Twelve Houses novels, Mystic and Rider and The Thirteenth House. (This is Shinn's web site.)

I have not posted on the last three of these books, which are Dark Moon Defender, Reader and Raelynx, and Fortune and Fate. To summarize briefly, Dark Moon Defender describes an evil woman, politically powerful, Coralinda Giseltess, who has been able to almost stamp out mystics -- people born with various magical powers, such as being able to start fires, or change into an animal's shape. In Reader and Raelynx -- a raelynx is a large solitary feline predator -- her rebellion unites with that of the leaders of two of the provinces of the land, one of them her brother, the other, Rayson Fortunalt. They nearly overthrow the kingdom, and do succeed in killing the king. In the process, it becomes clear that Coralinda herself has been using magical powers. Finally, all three of these rebel leaders are killed. Amalie, the young daughter of the king marries Cammon, a mystic who can Read -- that is, he can read the minds of other people.

Throughout the books, new people, with new mystical powers, are introduced.

There is a religion in Shinn's sub-creation, and the characters believe in supernatural goddesses, and these goddesses are real, in this fictional world. A character says that she has seen two of them during the battles in Reader and Raelynx.

There is another interesting aspect, relating to religion, in fact to Christianity (although there is no reference to Christianity in the book). A bit of background first.

The action in Fortune and Fate makes up two separate stories. (Fortune is the name of the capital building of Fortunalt). In one of them, Wen, a King's Rider who was present when the King was killed, cannot forgive herself. (It wasn't her fault.) She leaves the capital, resigning from the Riders, and wanders around the country without any real goal, leaving any situation that looks like she might make new friends. She does rescue several people who are in danger, using her intelligence and her military skills. She finds herself in Fortunalt, and takes on the job of developing a competent guard force for the young heiress of that House. Meanwhile, the other story is that Cammon, the consort of the Queen, takes a very slow tour of the land, with a large entourage.

Near the end of the book, the two threads are tied together, when Cammon and his entourage come to Fortunalt. Here's a key conversation, between Senneth and Tayse, the main characters in the series, who are part of Cammon's escort:
"Whatever reason he had for making this trip. Was it really to tour the southern lands and try to determine how safe they would be for Amalie to visit? Was it to gain some consensus from the Twelve House overseers about putting together a mixed force to patrol the borders? Or was it to find Wen?"
She sat up straighter in bed. "Surely not even Cammon would believe such a long and expensive journey could be justified by the idea fo finding one lost soul?"
"I actually think it's the only sort of prize Cammon really thinks is worthwhile."
"But -- but -- all this time -- and all these people! Nine Riders and seventy guards! The dinners, the bills at the inns! All to locate a missing woman?" (Sharon Shinn, Fortune and Fate. New York: Ace, 2008. P. 351.)

Yes, Cammon went to a great deal of trouble and expense to make sure that Wen, who, although a friend, is not a special one, is able to forgive herself, and find a useful role in life. Does that remind me of anyone? Of course! Jesus did that, too, on an even larger scale, and not in fiction. He traveled here from Heaven, so that I could be forgiven, and find a useful role in life, regardless of the cost.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Sunspots 217


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


Science:
Slate on why doctors have worn white coats for decades (if not centuries). The American Medical Association is recommending that they do not wear them anymore.

Computing:
Wired, on why you can't find Facebook stuff through a Google search.

Literature:
Elizabeth Moon on why bad books succeed.

Philosophy:
John Lynch on the history of the idea of design in nature -- which, as he points out, is not the same as the history of the Intelligent Design movement.

Christianity:
From USA Today, an editorial on the evidence for the existence of God, and on the evidence for out-of-body experiences. (The writer believes in both.)


Image source (public domain)