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Michael H. Shank on Medieval Churches and Universities

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Put succinctly, the medieval period gave birth to the university, which developed with the active support of the papacy. This unusual institution sprang up rather spontaneously around famous masters in towns like Bologna, Paris, and Oxford before 1200. By 1500, about sixty universities were scattered throughout Europe. What is the significance of this development for our myth? About 30 percent of the medieval university curriculum covered subjects and texts concerned with the natural world. This was not a trivial development. The proliferation of universities between 1200 and 1500 meant that hundreds of thousands of students — a quarter million in the German universities alone from 1350 on — were exposed to science in the Greco-Arabic tradition. As the universities matured, the curriculum came to include more works by Latin masters who developed this tradition along original lines. » More …

Pigliucci’s Exhortation to Skeptics, Atheists, and Secularists

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No matter their cause, every group falls short of its aspirations. Amongst skeptics, atheists, and secularists, some quieter voices like Michael Ruse and Julian Baggini have lamented the rise of a cavalry of imperious and hostile voices that have become the face of atheism. More recently, Massimo Pigliucci, a member in good standing of said community, echoes their concerns. He calls upon his cohorts to reject scientism, anti-intellectualism and a number of vogue theories and instead embrace classic epistemic virtues like charity, respect, and civility. Notably, he draws particular attention to the irony that it is the so-called “community of reason” that is so often hostile to the discipline of reason: philosophy.

G.K. Chesterton on Unseemly Truths

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This, therefore, is, in conclusion, my reason for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing. All other philosophies say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true. Alone of all creeds it is convincing where it is not attractive; it turns out to be right, like my father in the garden. Theosophists for instance will preach an obviously attractive idea like re-incarnation; but if we wait for its logical results, they are spiritual superciliousness and the cruelty of caste. For if a man is a beggar by his own pre-natal sins, people will tend to despise the beggar. But Christianity preaches an obviously unattractive idea, such as original sin; but when we wait for its results, they are pathos and brotherhood, and a thunder of laughter and pity; for only with original sin we can at once pity the beggar and distrust the king.

The Epistemology of Disagreement: New Essays

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The Epistemology of Disagreement brings together essays from a dozen philosophers on the epistemic significance of disagreement; all but one of the essays are new. Questions discussed include: When (if ever) does the disagreement of others require a rational agent to revise her beliefs? Do ‘conciliatory’ accounts, on which agents are required to revise significantly, suffer from fatal problems of self-defeat, given the disagreement about disagreement? What is the significance of disagreement about philosophical topics in particular? How does the epistemology of disagreement relate to broader epistemic theorizing? Does the increased significance of multiple disagreeing agents depend on their being independent of one another?

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Mind and Cosmos

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The modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value. This failure to account for something so integral to nature as mind, argues philosopher Thomas Nagel, is a major problem, threatening to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology. Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history, either. An adequate conception of nature would have to explain the appearance in the universe of materially irreducible conscious minds, as such. Nagel’s skepticism is not based on religious belief or on a belief in any definite alternative. In Mind and Cosmos, he does suggest that if the materialist account is wrong, then principles of a different kind may also be at work in the history of nature, principles of the growth of order that are in their logical form teleological rather than mechanistic. In spite of the great achievements of the physical sciences, reductive materialism is a world view ripe for displacement. Nagel shows that to recognize its limits is the first step in looking for alternatives, or at least in being open to their possibility. ~ Publisher’s Description
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The Adjustment Bureau

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Into the ever-expanding catalog1 of films predicated on our anxiety about the extent of our free will, enter The Adjustment Bureau, perhaps the most cerebral and ambivalent of the lot. The film envisions a world in which human action is directed, though not quite determined, by a confluence of chance, free will, and the nearly ubiquitous superintendency of “The Chairman”, a quasi-religious, mysterious power that influences human actions through the intervention of a minion of “clerks” who alter circumstances (and occasionally thought patterns) in order to keep the course of human events in line with “The Plan”. This is not, as some have supposed, a film about human pawns and a grandmaster who determines their fate. Rather, The Adjustment Bureau explores how the course of human events might be guided or “nudged” by such a master when the chess pieces themselves are free agents pursuing their own ends. As it turns out, this decidedly more difficult endeavor requires constant “caretaking” or “meddling”. The film itself remains surprisingly ambivalent toward this state of affairs and offers a provocative and nuanced picture of human agency, of our wills as simultaneously malleable and free. Indeed, the various kinds of interventions in The Adjustment Bureau provide a backdrop for considering just what should and should not be considered a violation of the will. Finally, though it wisely avoids any explicit religious references, the film portrays a world that bears a striking resemblance to a particular theological proposal regarding the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human free will, namely open theism.

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Roger Penrose On The Grand Design

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With all the hand-wringing about whether Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design changes anything — whether “philosophy is dead” and whether M-theory promises to explain the appearance of our universe in strictly physical terms — Sir Roger Penrose, because of his stature and relationship to Hawking, is one of the most interesting commentators, and he is none too impressed. On the September 25th broadcast of Unbelievable?, Alister McGrath is carrying on in his exceedingly unctuous way when, with wonderful British politeness, Penrose interrupts:  “I think it’s actually stronger than that. What is referred to as M-theory isn’t even a theory. It’s a collection of ideas, hopes, aspirations. … I think the book is a bit misleading in that respect. It gives you the impression that here is this new theory which is going to explain everything. It’s nothing of the sort. … I think the book suffers rather more strongly than many. It’s not an uncommon thing in popular descriptions of science to latch on to some idea, particularly things to do with string theory, which have absolutely no support from observation. They’re just nice ideas that people have tried to explore.” On the whole, Penrose is less sanguine about the prospects for a theory of everything in the forseeable future. And so far, a number of Hawking’s colleagues seem to agree that The Grand Design is much ado about nothing, even apart from its philosophical infelicities. In his review at The Financial Times, Penrose shares a further concern about the subjectivist turn in Hawking’s thinking, illustrated by a, shall we say, atypical conversation in which Hawking proposed that black holes and “white holes” are synonomous. The story underscores the extent to which a layperson like myself is at the mercy of their expertise. I am far from competent to evaluate the merits of such esoteric theoretical physics, to do the math and check the sums. And so, it is incumbent upon the specialists to be forthright about the speculative degree of a given theory. In this case, it looks likely that even with the endorsement of the esteemed Hawking, M-theory, in its current state, is unlikely to put to rest either the teleological argument (in terms of fine-tuning) or the cosmological argument (in its Kalám formulation).
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The Decade of Atheism?

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Radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt concluded 2009 by broadcasting a debate about God between polemicists Michael Shermer and Gregory Koukl, thereby bidding adieu to what he called “The Decade of the New Atheists”. It was indeed a remarkable cultural phenomenon how four atheologians in particular rose to prominence by selling scads of books: Sam Harris with The End of Faith  (2004), Christopher Hitchens with god is not Great (2007), Daniel Dennet with Breaking the Spell (2006), and, of course, Richard Dawkins with The God Delusion (2006). But just as noteworthy, perhaps, is the cavalcade of able critics who rose to these challenges to Christian theism. As with the cottage industry of criticism that accompanied Dan Brown’s and then Ron Howard’s The Davinci Code, these broadsides served as provocation for countless apologists. Of course, none of them were remotely as successful as their atheistic rivals in terms of sales. One wonders whether they will slip into oblivion just as Hume survives in philosophy readers, while most of his contemporaneous critics do not. Whatever happens, the swift and mostly scholarly response to this one decade’s worth of the perennial barrage on Christian theism leaves it an open question whether, in the final analysis, it was the atheists or their counterparts who owned the aughts. Consider the following list an opportunity to judge this contest of ideas for yourself.

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Thomas Nagel on the Cosmological Argument

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The existence of our universe might be explained by scientific cosmology, but such an explanation would still have to refer to features of some larger reality that contained or gave rise to it. A scientific explanation of the Big Bang would not be an explanation of why there was something rather than nothing, because it would have to refer to something from which that event arose. This something, or anything else cited in a further scientific explanation of it, would then have to be included in the universe whose existence we are looking for an explanation of when we ask why there is anything at all. This is a question that remains after all possible scientific questions have been answered.

We’re In This Together

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On a recent broadcast of the Infidel Guy (Sep. 16, 2008), a caller challenged Gary Habermas, the evening’s guest, to reconcile the omniscience of God with human free will. Habermas did his best to argue that there is no necessary conflict, that God knows because we freely choose, we do not so choose because God knows. For my part, I think it’s a legitimate and difficult objection. I’m not yet persuaded by either Molinist or Openness attempts to reconcile the two, much less compatabilism or the notion that it is solved by God’s being outside of time. But what followed is what struck me. Habermas took the opportunity to ask Reggie Finley, the host, whether he, as a naturalist, believed in free will. Reggie paused, then conceded that he was still trying to figure that one out. Good luck, because while free will may be problematic for the theist, it is probably a lost cause for the naturalist. For example, in his excellent and lucid work, The Significance of Free Will, Robert Kane manages to find a place for indeterminacy in matter (in quantum theory), but not for agency, the sine qua non of free will in my judgment. My point is not to wade into the deep waters of human freedom. Rather, I’m taking exception to the widespread impression that it is only the theist who must accept mysteries, antinomies, and quandaries. The truth is, all worldviews are beset by unique difficulties and internal conceptual problems. And, we remain perplexed by many mysteries that we share in common. That is to say, we’re in this together. With our amazing, but limited human faculties, the world remains puzzling to us all. In the ongoing debate about what is and is not real, it would serve us well to be mindful of the problems with which each worldview must wrestle. To that end, here are some that occur to me for both Christian theism and for Naturalism.
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