Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Turtles, or terrapins, on a log in a pondToday we visited the beautiful Airlie Gardens in Wilmington, NC, USA, and came across a contented herd of turtles sunning themselves on a log.

The scene brought to mind the amusing “turtles all the way down” anecdote. On the surface, it makes fun of credulity. But I think it also has something to say about the nature of infinity and eternity.

The anecdote, which might be apocryphal, sometimes names Bertrand Russell as the scientist confronted by a determined old lady. But I like John Robert Ross‘s version, which names William James as the scientist:

After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, James was accosted by a little old lady.

“Your theory that the sun is the center of the solar system, and that the earth is a ball which rotates around it, has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it’s wrong. I’ve got a better theory,” said the little old lady.

“And what is that, madam?” inquired James politely.

“That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle.”

Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position.

“If your theory is correct, madam,” he asked, “what does this turtle stand on?”

“You’re a very clever man, Mr. James, and that’s a very good question,” replied the little old lady, “but I have an answer to it. And it’s this: the first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him.”

“But what does this second turtle stand on?” persisted James patiently.

To this, the little old lady crowed triumphantly, “It’s no use, Mr. James — it’s turtles all the way down!”

(Source: J0hn Robert Ross, Constraints on variables in syntax. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dept. of Modern Languages and Linguistics. Thesis. 1967.)

Drawing of a hemispherical earth on the backs of four elephants, in turn standing on a turtle's back

This story references a supposed Hindu cosmology that imagined the earth resting on the backs of a group of elephants standing on a tortoise’s back.

“Turtles all the way down” makes me reflect on the idea of infinity. Where does the universe end? It’s turtles all the way out there.

And, while I can imagine living on forever into the future, I have a hard time conceiving of an eternal being that has always existed. When did God begin? It’s turtles all the way back.

ARK — 19 February 2017

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Satellite image of Durupinar formation

Durupinar site. Credit: Google Earth.

Have researchers proven that this formation in Turkey is the resting place of the massive Ark that was used to save the Biblical patriarch Noah, his family, and many animals from a worldwide catastrophe?

Not long ago, a friend posted on Facebook a link to the article “Noah’s Ark Has Been Found. Why Are They Keeping Us In The Dark?” on the website of Joe the Plumber. The byline identifies the author of the article as Dan Eden, possibly a pen name for activist Rodney Lee Conover (a link to his Facebook page appears at the end of the article).

Joe the Plumber became a kind of political icon during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign.  The article’s appearing on Joe’s website evidently lends the topic credibility for some readers.

The article shines a light on a fascinating chapter in the story of “arkeology,” the search for the remains of Noah’s Ark. I think it also points to some useful questions about scientific research, and our relationship with subject-matter experts: Should we only give credence to the findings of those with professional credentials, or should knowledgeable amateur researchers get a listening ear as well?

The Dan Eden article discusses the formation known as the Durupinar site, a stone structure found in the mountains of eastern Turkey near the border with Iran. The Durupinar formation consists of a ridge of rock protruding from the ground, describing an oval shape with one end pointed in a way that suggests the prow of a ship. For decades, the Durupinar formation has been promoted by enthusiasts as the true site of Noah’s Ark and proof of the Bible’s account of a global deluge, given at Genesis chapters six through nine.

The question whether the remains of Noah’s Ark still exist interests me and my readers (I think), because my Biblical fiction series, The Cursed Ground, takes place in the ancient world before its destruction by a worldwide flood. Whether the Bible account is literally true or not is, in a way, irrelevant to the fictional world I’m developing. It’s fiction, after all. But the historicity of Bible accounts is certainly of interest to many thinking persons, and the ancient story of a society destroyed by a global catastrophe is relevant in a moral and religious sense, and perhaps also to those concerned about the environmental problems facing humanity today.

What Evidence Has Been Found at the Durupinar Site?

The evidence presented by Dan Eden is based on the work of amateur explorer and archaeological researcher Ronald Eldon “Ron” Wyatt (1933-1999). Eden cites several claims by Wyatt in support of the Durupinar site as the Ark’s resting place, including the following:

  • The length of the Durupinar formation is 515 feet, or 300 Egyptian cubits; its average width is 50 cubits. These are the same as the dimensions of the Ark, mentioned in the Biblical account at Gen 6:15. The Bible describes the Ark as rectangular; Eden claims that this only refers to the upper levels of the structure, and that the vessel required a boat-like hull “to enable the huge ship to remain stable in the water and survive tremendous waves.”
  • On the side of the structure can be seen a series of vertical bulges corresponding to ribs of a ship’s hull.
  • Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) revealed a structure under the mud, with regular, “periodic” placements that showed them to be human-made structural elements.
  • A core sample into the structure obtained a lump of petrified animal dung, a petrified antler, and a sample of cat hair.
  • A piece of petrified wood discovered at the site proved to be a large beam made from three planks laminated together with organic glue.
  • Using metal detectors, Wyatt unearthed what he described as a disk-shaped hammered metal rivet, containing iron, aluminum, and titanium.
  • Some miles from the Durupinar structure can be found a number of large, heavy stones with holes carved in them. Wyatt proposed that these were anchor stones used to stabilize the great ship, and that the holes were used to tie the stones to the ark with ropes.


Object purported to be a metal rivet

Purported rivet found by Ron Wyatt.


Durupinar is possibly the best-known of several sites that enthusiasts have proposed for the remains of Noah’s Ark. The idea that the Ark might still exist fires the imagination of many who take the Bible seriously. In Evangelicals and Science in Historical Perspective (ed. David N. Livingstone, Oxford University Press, 1999), historian Larry Eskridge writes about the phenomenon of “arkeology” and its connection to contemporary religion:

The hunt for the ark, like evangelicalism itself, is a complex blend of the rational and the supernatural, the modern and the premodern. While it acknowledges a dept to pure faith in a literal reading of the Scriptures and centuries of legend, the conviction that the ark literally lies on Ararat is a recent one, backed by a largely twentieth-century canon of evidence that includes stories of atheistic conspiracy, and pieces of questionable “ark wood” from the mountain. Fortified by grassroots creationist networks and the publicity of a string of articles, books, movies, and television specials, the quest for the ark has spawned a network of committed “arkeologists,” thousands of dedicated supporters, and legions of the just plain convinced. (245)

Eskridge quotes clergyman Timothy Francis “Tim” LaHaye, expressing a powerful theological motivation for finding the Ark:

[H]umanistic ideas would have to change if Noah’s Ark were ever discovered … [A] successful search would ring the death knell to the already fragile theory of evolution … [W]e would be reminded of God’s past method of purging the world of sinful people and our attention would be focused on God’s promise of another judgment in the very near future. (251)


Photo of Durupinar formation

Durupinar formation. Credit: Tuấn Lê, via Google Maps.

Wyatt’s assertions about the Durupinar site have been widely popularized among religious audiences.

Counterarguments From a Geologist

However, geologist Andrew A. Snelling, now director of research at Answers in Genesis, wrote in 1992 an extensive argument against the claims of Wyatt and collaborator David Fasold. Writing for the journal Creation, Snelling maintained that:

  • “Hot spots” identified by metal detectors at the Durupinar site were randomly distributed, not in any regular pattern, and were attributable to basalt boulders in the mudflow material.
  • The “molecular frequency generator/discriminator” device alleged to have mapped “iron lines” at the site amounts to a dowsing instrument with no scientific value.
  • Ground-penetrating radar did not in fact identify anything like the prow of a ship, as claimed by Wyatt and Fasold. Geophysicist Tom Fenner was falsely quoted to support Wyatt’s claims, and said, “I was surprised and dismayed to learn that Mr. Wyatt was using my name as well as the name of Geophysical Survey Systems Inc. (GSSI) in order to lend credibility to his unsubstantiated claims concerning the so-called ‘Noah’s Ark site.'”
  • The vertical bulges supposedly forming the ribs of a ship were just hardened mud and boulders, lined with erosion gullies and containing no petrified wood.
  • Contrary to Wyatt’s claims, very little petrified wood has been found at the Durupinar site. The segment claimed to be a deck timber of laminated planks has actually been identified as basalt; a laboratory report cited as proof actually did not test the sample in a way that could identify it as petrified wood.
  • Soil samples from the site contain just the kinds of metals to be expected in soil developed from basalt, not from forged materials; carbon at the site is in mineral form, not the organic form expected from decayed wood.
  • The object described by Wyatt as a metal rivet only exhibited a vaguely round shape. Lab tests “returned results consistent with the chemical composition of the major local rock type, basalt,” writes Snelling.  The object was not subjected to any testing capable of identifying the kind of exotic metallurgy claimed by Wyatt.
  • Wyatt claimed that Turkish archaeologists found a series of metal rods like cotter pins, but Wyatt himself is the only source for this claim, and a leading researcher from the Turkish teams denied this and other claims by Wyatt.
  • Fossilized animal materials found at Durupinar came only from the “walls” of the purported structure, not from deep within it. In any case, points out Snelling, “the finding of such animal residues in association with the site is hardly surprising when one considers that animals are likely to have roamed across these Turkish hillsides for thousands of years anyway.”
  • The stone slabs found in the region and proposed as anchor stones have no proven connection to the Durupinar formation itself, or to the Biblical account of the Ark.

Snelling’s article summarizes the results of a professional geophysical survey of the Durupinar site, which has revealed a thoroughly natural geological explanation for the formation. As far as the formation’s resembling a boat, he writes:

The boat-shape is situated in a sloping valley and is surrounded by deposits of loose soil and crushed rock which is slowly sliding down hill, flowing much as a glacier flows — a mudflow. As we have seen, the stable area around which this mudflow material flows is an uplifted block and erosional remnant of basement rock, including limestone and basalt. Just as water flows around a rock in a river bed, the site has acquired a streamlined shape due to the dynamics of the slowly flowing mud.

Difficulties of Relying on Experts

Associates and admirers of Ron Wyatt, who died in 1999, have continued to argue in favor of his research at the Durupinar site. A set of “frequently asked questions” by an organization called Ark Discovery International presents counterarguments against Snelling and other critics. An interesting but unattributed article titled “The Results of the Subsurface Imaging Project of Noah’s Ark” presents a number of images and comments based on a “resistivity imaging” study done at Durupinar in 2014. John Larsen is named as the person conducting the scans for these images, but his qualifications are not mentioned.

I find Snelling’s refutation persuasive, in part because of his thorough examination of the evidence, but admittedly also because of his professional credentials. However, should every amateur like Wyatt be disregarded simply for not having academic credentials?

And what about these newer subsurface images by Larsen? I looked at them but couldn’t do much more than scratch my head. When faced with complicated technical information and conflicting claims from purported experts, what is the thinking person to do?

I would say, keep an open mind but don’t be credulous.

Just because the evidence has cast doubt on one proposed site for the Ark’s remains does not mean that the Bible account is not historical. Archaeological evidence, free from biased interpretation, has never disproved the scriptural account of the past. But archaeological findings are of necessity fragmentary. Human structures and remains deteriorate quickly, and the older they are, the more likely they are to disappear entirely. In the case of Noah’s Ark, we are considering a wooden structure that existed more than 4,000 years ago. One might wish that such remains could be found, but there’s no virtue in fooling yourself.

For further discussions of archaeology as it relates to Bible history, please see the following articles:

Has Archaeology Proven That the Biblical Exodus Is a Myth?

Oxford scholar: Egyptian history is ‘a collection of rags and tatters’

How Much Does Archaeology Really Reveal?











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The short answer is no, but he has said some interesting things about who God might be.

Michio Kaku

Michio Kaku. Credit: Cristiano Sant´Anna/indicefoto.com. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This question came to my attention this past week, when someone pointed me to articles on this topic, including “Top scientist claims proof that God exists, says humans live in a ‘world made by rules created by an intelligence’,” at the website Christian Today.  That article makes the claim:

A respected figure in the scientific community recently said he found evidence proving that there is a Higher Being, which he described as the action of a force “that governs everything.”

Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, who is known as one of the developers of the revolutionary String Theory, said theoretical particles known as “primitive semi-radius tachyons” may be used to prove the existence of God.

However, nothing on this topic appears on Kaku’s official website, and a search of academic sources reveals nothing written by Kaku referring to “semi-radius tachyons.” According to Jay L. Wile, a nuclear chemist and textbook author,

Tachyons are theoretical particles. We have no idea whether or not they exist. If they exist, they travel faster than the speed of light, so it’s hard to know how in the world we could ever detect them, much less conduct tests on them. I have no idea how such particles can tell us something about the nature of the universe. I looked in vain for an article on the subject authored by Dr. Kaku himself. I then went to his Facebook page, which made no mention of this “monumental discovery.”

Since I couldn’t find anything written by Dr. Kaku, I decided to investigate these “primitive semi-radius tachyons” myself. I had never heard that term before, but then again, I am not a particle physicist. So today, I tried to find the term in my reference books. I could not. When I did an internet search on the term, the only hits I got were to articles about this supposed discovery. As a result, I seriously doubt that primitive semi-radius tachyons exist, even in the minds of theoretical physicists.

Wile, in fact, discovered that this assertion about Kaku’s “discovery” goes back to at least 2013, when it was apparently circulating on Spanish- and Portuguese-language websites.

So the claims that Michio Kaku has found God seem fabricated, or at least exaggerated. However, I do find that Kaku has made some interesting statements about the possibility of design in the universe. Wile characterizes Kaku as “a theoretical physicist who had done some cutting edge research a couple of decades ago, but is more of a ‘scilebrity’ today, promoting science and his ideas about the future on television shows, etc.” For that reason, it’s possible to find a number of video presentations by him. In some ways, Kaku seems to espouse a belief in the god of Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who believed not in a personal God, but in a god “who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists,” as Albert Einstein put it.

In a 2013 video program, Kaku said:

The goal of physics, we believe, is to find an equation perhaps no more than one inch long, which will allow us to unify all the forces of nature and allow us to read the mind of God.

And what is the key to that one-inch equation? Super-symmetry. A symmetry that comes out of physics, not mathematics, and has shocked the world of mathematics.

But you see, all this is pure mathematics, and so the final resolution could be that God is a mathematician. And when you read the mind of God, we actually have a candidate for the mind of God. The mind of God, we believe, is cosmic music, the music of strings resonating through eleven-dimensional hyperspace. That is the mind of God.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein in 1947. Photo by Orren Jack Turner.

And in a 2011 interview, he more specifically referenced Einstein and Spinoza:

Einstein was asked the big question, Is there a God? Is there a meaning to everything, right? And here’s how Einstein answered the question. He said there really are two kinds of gods. We have to be very scientific. We have to define what we mean by God. If God is the God of intervention, a personal God, a god of prayer, the God who parts the waters, then he had a hard time believing in that. Would God listen to all our prayers, for a bicycle for Christmas? Smite the Philistines for me, please.

He didn’t think so. However, he believed in the God of order, harmony, beauty, simplicity, and elegance, the God of Spinoza. That’s the God that he believed in, because he thought the universe was so gorgeous. It didn’t have to be that way. It could have been chaotic. It could have been ugly, messy. But here we have the fact that all the equations of physics can be placed on a simple sheet of paper. Einstein’s equation is only one inch long. And the quantum theory is about a yard long, but you can squeeze it onto a sheet of paper…

… And with string theory, you can even put those two equations together, and string theory can be squeezed into an equation one inch long. And that equation, but the way, is my equation. That’s String Field Theory. That’s my contribution.

But we want to know, where did that equation come from, you know. This is what Einstein asked. Did God have a choice? Was there any choice in building a universe? When he woke up in the morning, he would say, “I want to create a universe. I want to be God today. What kind of universe would I create?” This is how he created much of his theory.

So, Kaku doesn’t really claim to have proven the existence of God through physics. However, he does acknowledge that the physical universe implies that there is something more going on than just a big random mess.

ARK — 19 June 2016




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I know that’s a provocative title and might sound extreme. However, it’s actually less extreme than the quotation I ran across today by 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote in his diary in 1850:

Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion — and who, therefore, in the next instant (when it is evident that the minority is the stronger) assume its opinion … while Truth again reverts to a new minority.

[Source: Soren Kierkegaard, The Diary of Soren Kierkegaard, pt. 5, sct. 3, no 128 (1850)]

Søren Kirkegaard statue Copenhagen, Denmark

Søren Kirkegaard statue, Copenhagen, Denmark. Via Wikimedia Commons.

That’s a profound idea, and it makes me think about controversies today that center around the “consensus” opinion on questions of science and scholarship. Consensus is a tricky idea, because consensus occurs within a population, and how the consensus emerges depends on how big you draw the circle of people who are allowed to participate.

The problem of consensus comes up these days around the question of evolution. If you drew the circle of participants around the population of biology professors at major American universities, you might conclude that belief in evolution is the consensus opinion, and therefore the majority. But if you drew the circle around the entire adult population, you would get a more mixed result, because many lay people believe in creation. And me? These days, when someone asks me whether I believe in evolution, my usual response is, ‘Well that’s kind of complicated to answer, because I find that people don’t always mean the same thing when they talk about evolution. What does that word mean to you?’

Another magnet for the idea of consensus these days is climate change. One important narrative is that the consensus among climate scientists is that the heat balance of the earth system is increasing because of the greenhouse effect. Another narrative basically says, ‘No, that’s wrong,’ and keeps itself busy by poking holes in the consensus climate science. I’ve decided that where you stand on this issue says more about your ideological leanings than about your science literacy. But it emphasizes again that the idea of consensus is tricky and contingent.

I ran into the problem of consensus again recently, when a Jewish friend opened a Facebook discussion by claiming that the consensus among archaeologists now is that the Hebrew nation was never in slavery in Egypt and didn’t wander in Sinai for 40 years. Therefore, the suggestion was, Jews should stop claiming that the Passover is based on historical events and admit that the whole story is a fiction. My friend linked to an article with kind of thin reasoning, written by an undergraduate in Middle East studies — see “Were Jews ever really slaves in Egypt, or is Passover a myth?” He also linked to “Were the Jews Slaves in Egypt?,” a more thoughtful piece by an actual professor, who writes more authoritatively (but who works in Bible studies, not archaeology, and seems really more interested in promoting his pet theories about the Hebrew Scriptures).

The question of the Hebrew exodus is an interesting topic, and I’m putting it on my to-do list to go into the topic more in depth in a future blog entry here. But it relates to this same issue of consensus and majority opinion. If the majority of archaeologists who are directly involved in Egypt and Sinai claim there is no evidence that a large nation of Hebrews lived in the area in the mid-second millennium BCE, what is their claim based on? What should we lay people think about it? Should we just assume they know what they’re talking about and accept it as gospel? Is there a minority opinion that questions the consensus? What are the minority’s arguments?

Anyway, I was struck by that Kierkegaard quote and wanted to pin it to the wall for future reference, because it’s a useful idea. The majority opinion can sometimes be intimidating and often works to get itself established as “The Official Version of the Truth.” Yet, majority and consensus are messy concepts, because whether an opinion is the majority depends on the population you are looking at, whether a narrow population of supposed experts or the larger population of everybody. In any case, all of us should be wary of accepting ideas credulously and taking the easy path of following the crowd.

Here are some previous pieces I’ve written about the question who gets to say what’s true:

“How Much Does Archaeology Really Reveal?”

“How Much Do We Really Know About Human History?”

Also applicable is this piece by a ‘colleague’: “The Way Things Are, the Way Things Were, and What Is True”

Also, if you want to keep informed about future articles on this blog, and especially about my historical fiction series set in the ancient world, please sign up for my email newsletter here: http://eepurl.com/2U3Uf

ARK — 25 December 2014


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I know it’s a bit after Columbus Day, but this question came up recently when I heard yet another speaker say that Columbus proved the earth is round when he sailed across the Atlantic and didn’t fall off the edge of the world. The story goes that in the Middle Ages everyone believed the earth was flat, and that the courageous Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo in Italian) went to Queen Isabella of Spain and got her to finance his voyage across the ocean to prove everybody was wrong.

15th century global

A 15th-century Columbus-era globe. Credit: Alexander Franke, via Wikimedia.

This question about the shape of the earth and Columbus’s voyage sometimes comes up in discussions of the authenticity of the Bible, which is why I bring it up here. Critics of the Bible often claim that the Bible is unscientific. They might point to statements in the Bible that supposedly prove that its writers believed in a flat earth, as if using figurative language such as “the four corners of the earth” (Rev 7:1) or ‘the rising and setting of the sun’ (Ps 113:3) were somehow verboten.

Many of us who are students of the Bible accept it as an inspired expression of a divine Author. At the same time, it is literature and its individual writers were human, so there is nothing wrong with their use of literary devices. The Bible is not a science textbook, but we like to point out that when it touches on matters of proven science, it is accurate. There’s a lot to say about that topic, but one point we sometimes bring up is that the Bible as early as the 8th century BCE described the shape of the earth as round. Isaiah 40:22 describes that shape as a “circle” or “sphere” — chug in Hebrew.

While it’s beneficial to point this out, sometimes I hear folks add that the shape of the earth was not known until Columbus proved it in 1492. This is not accurate. In fact, the spherical shape of the earth was known by Greek scientists as early as the 5th century BCE. Here are a couple of articles that discuss this question briefly:

The best article I’ve seen on this topic, though, is “Inventing the Flat Earth,” by historian Jeffrey Russell, in History Today. Unfortunately, that article is not available online outside of a paywall. However, following are a few points of interest from Russell’s piece.

Russell writes that “after the fifth century BC very few Greek writers thought of the earth as anything but round.” In the Greek and Roman worlds in the last few centuries BCE, maps showing a round earth as well as “three dimensional globes … were used publicly as educational tools.” After that and all through the Middle Ages, the roundness of the earth was generally known among educated people, with flat-earthers few and far between and little-respected.

Russell says that the “Flat Error” or “Myth of the Flat Earth,” that is, the misconception that people in the Middle Ages thought the earth was flat, was not widely disseminated until the early 19th century, when the American writer Washington Irving popularized the idea in his partly fictional writings about Columbus. After that time, it became common to portray the Middle Ages as a time of scientific ignorance, with belief in a flat earth as an important trope.

Interestingly, Russell writes, the Flat Error became a rhetorical tool in perhaps the most important ideological battle of the 19th century:

The Flat Error became an article of almost unquestioned faith for historians from the 1860s onward, and for a very deliberate reason. The Darwinist controversy was underway, and Positivists wanted to discredit the anti-Darwinists as foolish bumpkins. To do this they wanted both to compare resistance against evolution with resistance against sphericity and to incorporate it as part of a historical pattern of religious resistance to science. They created the historical myth of the warfare of theology and science.

Russell makes the interesting assertion that the persistence of the Flat Error really comes down to prejudice: “medieval people were so superstitious they must have believed in something as foolish as the flat earth.” Underlying this, he believes is “the Protestant prejudice against the Middle Ages for being Catholic, the Rationalist prejudice against Judeo-Christianity as a whole, and the Anglo-American prejudice against the Spanish…”

He believes that it comes down to fear as well, the fear of giving up cherished ideas, in way,  the fear “of falling off the edge of knowledge.” Easier “to believe a familiar error than to search, unceasingly, the darkness.”

ARK — 21 October 2014



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I ran across the following passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage (1999), a passage which in turn is from a letter Vonnegut wrote to someone who objected to one of his novels:

If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.

I see some good reasoning here. Recently, someone took offense because a racist character in one of my stories used a racial slur. I was puzzled as to what else I could have done, as the scene in question took place among a group of young white boys in the southern U.S. in the mid-1960s, and there is no doubt that a racist teenager would have used a racial slur, however reprehensible that might have been.

For me as a writer, though, the issue of profanity presents a dilemma — I mean profanity that relates to sex and other bodily functions. I want my stories to be believable, but I don’t use profanity in my daily life (well, ‘hardly ever,’ as the Captain of the Pinafore might say) and neither do my Christian friends or family members. I don’t wish to influence anyone else to use profanity and I don’t wish to be influenced to use profanity by the content I consume. So for the most part, I prefer to use strategies that allow me to write fictional accounts that don’t (or hardly ever) involve profanity.

As far as what I read, I have read Vonnegut in the past, as well as many other popular and literary authors. I read fiction every day and love it. I have frequently abandoned a novel because of the profanity of the narrator or a character. On the other hand, I have sometimes tolerated a certain level of coarse language in order to benefit from an otherwise excellent piece of fiction.

ARK — 22 September 2013

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Philosopher Daniel Dennett

Philosopher Daniel Dennett

Atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett recently published “Seven Tools for Thinking” in The Guardian. An excerpt from his new book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, Dennett’s seven tools make up a useful set of guidelines for some aspects of rhetorical arguments.

However, I was particularly struck by a seeming irony that shows up between tool number 4 (“Answer Rhetorical Questions”) and tool number 5 (“Employ Occam’s Razor”). In his section on rhetorical questions, he has just encouraged the reader to check his baloney meter any time he hears the word “surely,” saying that “often the word “surely” is as good as a blinking light locating a weak point in the argument.” Then he makes a similar point about rhetorical questions:

Just as you should keep a sharp eye out for “surely”, you should develop a sensitivity for rhetorical questions in any argument or polemic. Why? Because, like the use of “surely”, they represent an author’s eagerness to take a short cut…

This seems like a useful piece of advice for evaluating arguments. But what struck me was what he writes in the very next section on Occam’s Razor (“don’t concoct a complicated, extravagant theory if you’ve got a simpler one (containing fewer ingredients, fewer entities) that handles the phenomenon just as well”):

One of the least impressive attempts to apply Occam’s razor to a gnarly problem is the claim (and provoked counterclaims) that postulating a God as creator of the universe is simpler, more parsimonious, than the alternatives. How could postulating something supernatural and incomprehensible be parsimonious?

Did you notice his rhetorical question? Dang, I almost wonder whether this is calculated to somehow entrap the unwary theist into a debate, because I would say Dennett’s use of a rhetorical question at that point represents the “author’s eagerness to take a short cut” and spotlights “a weak point in the argument.” Having in the previous section been sensitized to rhetorical questions, I find myself reflecting on Dennett’s linking of the four key words: postulate, supernatural, incomprehensible, parsimonious. What does his selection of these words indicate about his thinking, his biases, his rhetorical purpose, and the weakness of the argument implied in his question?

In his section on rhetorical questions, Dennett makes a useful suggestion:

Here is a good habit to develop: whenever you see a rhetorical question, try – silently, to yourself – to give it an unobvious answer. If you find a good one, surprise your interlocutor by answering the question.

I like that idea. If I were to answer the rhetorical question, “How could postulating something supernatural and incomprehensible be parsimonious?,” how would I do so? An interesting exercise.

One answer might be to focus on the weakness inherent in that question, the assumption that a supernatural being is incomprehensible.

Another answer might be that evoking God as as creator of the universe is parsimonious if it happens to be true.

In any case, hats off to Dr. Dennett for putting together a thought-provoking set of rhetorical guidelines.

ARK — 24 May 2014

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