Philosophy Word of the Day – Brain in a Vat

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I heard Alvin Plantinga say recently that this is one of those things that makes the life of a philosopher difficult – spending your days thinking about what it’s like to be a brain in a vat.  But the term has a long and venerable history.

Contemporary counterpart of Descartes’s hypothesis that one’s beliefs are induced by an evil genius.

Used within a premiss in arguments for scepticism, the hypothesis says that nothing exists except one’s brain—in a vat, in order that its electrochemical activity should be sustained—so that whatever may seem to one to be the case, its seeming so is accounted for by such activity alone.

The sceptic invites one to say “For all I know, I am a brain in a vat, and there is no external world.”

Brains in vats are introduced also in philosophy of mind in connection with the idea that a person’s psychological faculties require nothing but a brain’s operations.

Prof. Jennifer Hornsby, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (Oxford, 1995), 102.

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Some Exegetical Humor . . .

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from Dr. Bill Mounce, at the Koinonia blog, commenting on translating John 15:2-3:

I suspect that there is nothing harder to bring into English than a play on words. When that play on words branches (pun intended) into metaphors (and the question of how hard to push the imagery), and into the relationship between justification and sanctification, it moves from “hard” to “almost impossible.” Then add in John’s use of double meanings and nuances, and many translators go screaming into the night.

I believe I did that once or twice while taking Greek.

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Every Author on One Website

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Open Culture reports (as noted by the LA Times)

Without permission or advance notice, FiledByAuthor has cataloged the information of about 1.8 million authors into individual pages. There are biographies, photos, links to purchase books from online retailers and links to share the author’s FiledBy page through a dizzying list of social networking sites. And everyone is there, from the novice self-published author to Stephenie Meyer.

The not so favorable LA Times piece continues here. Get the FiledByAuthor web site here.

I’m guessing the authors won’t object.

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Useful, Free Stuff by Google

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Much obliged to Jane Friedman for passing on this helpful list of free tools from Google for scholars, students, and hobbyists.  A few notable examples (the site has many more):

Desktop. Make it easy to find everything on your desktop with this application from Google. It allows users to search through their email, computer files, music, photos, chats, and web history to find what they need and also allows them to install useful gadgets to their desktops.
Page Creator. This program from Google allows users to design and build webpages and then publish them to sites hosted by Google. Users are offered 100 MB of storage and the program comes with a variety of preloaded templates and layouts.

Sites. Create and collaborate on shared websites with this tool from Google. Users can create a simple webpage, collect relevant information and choose who can edit and work on the project with them.
Talk. You may have heard of Google Talk but did you know that it’s not only a chat tool but can be used for VoIP conversations as well? Users can make the most of the service, and enjoy its integration into their Gmail accounts.
Trends. Get easy to read graphs of Web trends over time with this tool. It allows users to track searches over city, region or country to see when certain topics were of more interest to browsers. Users can also take a look at Hot Trends which displays the most popular searches over the past hour.
Cookin’ With Google. Have some random ingredients in the fridge but aren’t sure what to make with them? Maybe this Google-based tool can help. Enter in a few ingredients and it will give you recipes in several different categories.

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Eternity

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I will return to Part Two of the teleological argument soon, but for today – it’s eternity.

Sometimes used to mean simply the whole of time; but more usually used to mean a timeless realm (with no past or future) in which God lives.

Boethius defined it as the “total and perfect possession at once of an endless life.”  It seemed unthinkable that for God there should be a “no longer” and a “not yet.” Most Christian thinkers since the fourth century (unlike the authors of the Bible) held that God exists outside time, but in his timeless realm simultaneously acts at and knows about every moment of time.

It is, however, doubtful if this is a coherent claim—if God sees some event in 500 BC as it happens and sees some other event in 2000 AD as it happens, and all divine seeings are simultaneous with each other, then 500 BC must be the same year as 2000 AD—which is absurd.

Richard Swinburne, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (Oxford, 1995), 251.

For Further Reading

God and the Nature of Time, Garrett J. DeWeese

Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time, William Lane Craig

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Is Theology Knowledge? (Pres. Obama and Notre Dame)

Many of you have read about the flap over Notre Dame’s invitation to President Obama to speak and receive an award.  If you’re not familiar with the story, Christianity Today gives a nice summary:

The University of Notre Dame invited President Obama to be the keynote speaker and receive an honorary doctor of laws degree at commencement on May 17. The invitation has created an uproar from conservative Catholics, since the President has taken executive actions that oppose the Catholic Church’s teachings on life ethics.

CT also interviewed Francis Beckwith, who is currently a visiting fellow at Notre Dame, to ask his opinion.  Beckwith makes some insightful observations, in my opinion.

The honorary doctorate is more troubling than the commencement address because to give him an honorary doctorate in law is to say that he’s accomplished something in the field of law that the University of Notre Dame wants to honor. In the past three weeks, we’ve seen a number of different events, one of which was the change in policy on embryonic stem cell research. The problem is, the areas in which he’s been involved with legislation on the issue of abortion have been contrary to Catholic teaching. . . . I think if he were just the commencement speaker and not receiving the honorary doctorate, it would tone down the criticism. How can Notre Dame give him an honorary doctorate for excellence in something that our own theology teaches he isn’t excellent in?

But Beckwith raises an even bigger issue that has profound implications:

The real debate is whether theological claims can count as knowledge. . . . if we think theology is true and knowable, that means it’s no different than what we learn in literature or sociology or philosophy. If that’s the case, the university is where we should integrate these areas of knowledge.

If . . . Notre Dame were to terminate a faculty member for denying the Apostle’s Creed, you would hear claims that the faculty member’s academic freedom had been violated. Yet, if the university had terminated a chemistry professor because he denied the periodic table, nobody would object. That means that theology in some circles is not thought to be knowledge. Can one legitimately claim that one’s theological tradition is knowledge? Not only Catholic but evangelical institutions—can one legitimately claim that certain issues are settled? That’s really the issue. What are we to think of theology? Is it something we can know? I think it is.

An excellent point!  If theology isn’t knowledge, I suppose it would have to be something like poetry – but no one accepts poetry as a basis for making moral or prudential decisions.  As long as theology is considered poetry, it won’t carry much weight in real-world choices.

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Electronic Resources for Biblical Studies

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The Tyndale House blog highlights some excellent electronic resources for biblical studies.  Tyndale has even put together their own toolbar that brings most of these resources together in one place.  For example,

Tyndale Periodicals

lists 440 online & paper periodicals in Biblical Studies & Theology, of which 225 have full text online, many of them free, without subscription, and if it isn’t online, you can ask Tyndale Library to scan it and email it to you.

On the Tyndale Toolbar under “Bible Links: Online Books & Periodicals”

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2009 Christian Book Award Winners and Christy Award Nominees

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This news is a few days old, but for all the bibliophiles reports

On March 19th, during this year’s Christian Book Expo held in Dallas, the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association announced the winners of the 2009 Christian Book Awards. Founded in 1978, the Award honors the year’s finest in Christian publishing.

-Click here to see the winners of this year’s Christian Book Awards.

On March 21st, the nominees for the 2009 Christy Awards were announced at the Christian Book Expo. Now in its 10th year, the Awards recognize excellence in novelists and novels in several genres of Christian fiction. The winners will be announced during the International Christian Retail Show, which will be held in Denver in July.

-Click here to see the nominees for this year’s Christy Awards.

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Free Education and Free Books

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Ah, what a wonderful concept!  One of the best things to happen online in the last couple of years is the proliferation of free college and seminary classes and, increasingly, free access to books or portions of books.

For seminary classes, the best site by far that I’ve discovered is Biblical Training.  Here you can download complete seminary course lectures on mp3 taught by well-known evangelicals like Douglas Stuart, Robert Stein, Craig Blomberg, Bruce Ware, and many others.  All that’s required is an initial free registration.

iTunes U also has some great courses available from seminaries.

For a nice list of other sources of free learning, see the article “Top Ten Tools for a Free Online Education” posted today by Lifehacker, and this collection by Mashable.  In addition, the Open Culture blog has a comprehensive listing of courses organized by subject, and frequently posts news about other lectures and talks by prominent scholars and thinkers.

For a very nice list of sources of free e-books, see “50 Places to Find Free Books Online” posted by Education Portal.

If you know of other sources and sites, please share them in the comments section, or email me at, and I’ll post them in the future.

It’s never been easier to learn about the most interesting subjects from some of the best scholars alive today.  And that’s a real good thing.

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Teleological Arguments, Part 1


William Paley, Wikipedia

Since we touched briefly on the ontological and cosmological arguments earlier in the week, it’s a good time to cover another of the traditional arguments for God’s existence, the teleological argument.

The name derives from the Greek word telos, meaning goal or purpose.  The argument contends that as we observe certain features of ourselves, the world, and the universe, we have the strong intuition that these features were designed to achieve some special purpose or goal.  Many thinkers have asserted that these instances of design point to an incredibly powerful and intelligent designer – God.

Scripture seems to validate this intuition in passages like Psalm 19:1-4 and Romans 1:19-21.

Famously, the design argument was the fifth of Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways of rationally discerning God’s existence.

We see that things which lack knowledge, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that they achieve their end, not fortuitously, but designedly. Now whatever lacks knowledge cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is directed by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God (Aquinas, Article 3, Question 2).

Historically, the teleological/design argument has taken two main forms.  The first is an argument from analogy that attempts to compare man-made objects (e.g., tools, machines) to objects in nature (e.g., an eye), and concludes that, since like effects have like causes, the design in nature (like design by man) reflects the work of a purposeful designer.

David Hume notably claimed that the analogy between man-made objects and features of nature was too dissimilar to succeed.

If we see a house,… we conclude, with the greatest certainty, that it had an architect or builder because this is precisely that species of effect which we have experienced to proceed from that species of cause. But surely you will not affirm that the universe bears such a resemblance to a house that we can with the same certainty infer a similar cause, or that the analogy is here entire and perfect (Hume, Dialogues, Part II).

A second form of the argument was championed by William Paley (sometimes mistakenly described as an analogical argument as well).  Paley sought instead to discern reliable indicators of intelligent design such as fitness to accomplish a purpose and specific arrangement of parts necessary to bring about the purpose.  Paley used the example of a watch, which performed the function of keeping time and exhibited a specific and essential arrangement of parts to accomplish this.  He wrote:

Every indicator of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater and more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation (Natural Theology: Or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature [Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1867], 13.)

Critics of this form of the argument have claimed that an intelligent designer is not the only or even most probable explanation for apparent design in nature.  Such critics frequently cite Darwinian evolution and natural selection as natural processes that can readily account for what appear to be cases of design in the natural world.

Stay tuned for Part Two, where we’ll look at more recent developments in the design argument.

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