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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Brady is Just 2 Wins Away From Catching Bart Starr

If the Patriots win the Super Bowl, Tom Brady will be one championship win away from catching Bart Starr. That's right. What gets lost in most of the debate about who's the greatest quarterback of all time (Joe Montana or Tom Brady), is that if the number of championships is THE metric by which we are to decide, then Bart Starr is the guy. Starr won 7 championships (he went to 8 championship games), including the first two Super Bowls.

But should championships be the only metric? What about the great quarterbacks who played for lousy teams most of their careers (e.g., Archie Manning)? And I'm pretty sure if John Elway had played for Mike Shanahan (or someone like Mike Shanahan) his entire career, rather spending a good piece of it playing for Dan Reeves, he might have put up numbers that may never be reached. Or what about QBs like Sammy Baugh, Johnny Unitas, and Otto Graham? Why are they left out of the conversation? Do we only consider QBs who careers occurred in the Super Bowl era? That strikes me as unwise.

Of course, I'm one those who thinks such conversations are a waste of time. It's hard, if not impossible, to compare QBs from different eras because they played under different rules, with different offensive schemes, and against different types of defenses. I think the best we can do is identify the best of each era, but even that has its difficulties (e.g., there are many who think Peyton Manning is better than Brady but Brady had more success because he played for better coaches and teams).

Still, if you're going to argue about who's the greatest, use more metrics than championships. The number of championships is one piece of evidence, but it isn't the only one. Using the NBA as an example, does anyone really think that Robert Horry, who won 7 championships, is better than LeBron James (who's won 3)? Of course not. So, expand your metrics. Just don't expect me to join in on the conversation.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Pope Francis and President Trump: Twin Sons of Different Mothers?

First Things is a theologically conservative scholarly journal. It was founded in 1990 by Richard John Neuhaus, who was ordained a Lutheran minister in the 1960s, but he then converted to the Roman Catholic Church in 1990 and entered the priesthood a year later. Although he was active in the Civil Rights movement and associated with the theological and political left, after Roe v. Wade (1973), which he opposed, Neuhaus moved to the right. Here is Wikipedia's description of First Things (FT):
With a circulation of approximately 30,000 copies, FT is considered to be influential in its articulation of a broad Christian Ecumenism and erudite social and political conservatism. George Weigel, a long-time contributor and IRPL board member, wrote in Newsweek that, after its founding, the journal "quickly became, under [Neuhaus's] leadership and inspiration, the most important vehicle for exploring the tangled web of religion and society in the English-speaking world." Ross Douthat wrote that, through FT, Neuhaus demonstrated "that it was possible to be an intellectually fulfilled Christian".
Neuhaus was the author of several books, but he was probably best known for two columns that appeared in each issue of FT: "The Public Square" and "While We're At It". Neuhaus died in 2009, and it is now written by FT's current editor, R.R. Reno, a former professor of theology at Creighton University. In the most recent issue (February 2019), Reno begins "The Public Square" as follows:
The current regime in Rome will damage the Catholic Church. Pope Francis combines laxity and ruthlessness. His style is casual and approachable; his church politics are cold and cunning. There are leading themes in this pontificate—­mercy, accompaniment, peripheries, and so forth—but no theological framework. He is a verbal semi-automatic weapon, squeezing off rounds of barbed remarks, spiritual aperçus, and earthy asides (­coprophagia!). This has created a confusing, even dysfunctional atmosphere that will become intolerable, if it hasn’t already.
It struck me that if "President Trump" was substituted for "Pope Francis" (along with other related changes), we'd have what many would consider an apt description our current President:
The current administration in Washington will damage the U.S. President Trump combines laxity and ruthlessness. His style is casual and approachable; his politics are cold and cunning. There are leading themes in this administration--freedom, patriotism, and pride--but no ideological framework. He is a verbal semi-automatic weapon, squeezing off rounds of barbed remarks, patriotic aperçus, and earthy asides (@#$%&?!). This has created a confusing, even dysfunctional atmosphere that will become intolerable, if it hasn’t already.
It's curious how we disparage the behavior of those who promote policies with which we disagree, but explain away the same behavior of those who promote policies with which we do agree. Perhaps "curious" isn't the right word.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Stephen Hawking and the Questions Science Can (and Cannot) Answer

The late Stephen Hawking's collection of essays, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, was released this past Fall. Interestingly, most of the publicity it did attract seemed to focus on Hawking's belief that there isn't a God. Toward the end of the essay, Hawking writes (p. 64),
We are each free to believe what we want, and it's my view that the simplest explanation is that there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our faith. This leads me to a profound realisation: there is probably no heaven and no afterlife either. I think belief in the afterlife is just wishful thinking. There is no reliable evidence for it, and it flies in the face of everything we know in science.
It's worth considering this passage in more detail. At the front end, he speaks of belief and probability: belief in God and the probability in a heaven or the afterlife. Interestingly, he distinguishes between the existence of a God (or gods) from the possibility of an afterlife or heaven, correctly recognizing that the existence of one does not demand the existence of the other. The focus on belief and probability is appropriate given that scientific enterprise can only speak to the functioning of the natural world. Unfortunately, Hawking immediately abandons this perspective when dismissing the possibility of the afterlife because "there is no reliable evidence for it, and it flies in the face of everything we know in science." All of which is too bad, for as the sociologist, Christian Smith, notes, that just because we can't observe or discover something, doesn't mean it isn't true (Atheist Overreach, p. 93). One would hope that someone as brilliant as Hawking would know the limits of the scientific method, but apparently he does not.

Hawking also displays little or no interest in learning why faith continues to persist in the modern world. He remarks toward the beginning of the essay that people "cling to religion, because it gives them comfort, and they do not trust or understand science" (p. 25). If he had bothered to actually spend some time studying religion (and it's clear that he didn't), Hawking would have learned that religion's persistence is not due to a lack of education, a poor understanding of science, or because it offers comfort in the face of a meaningless universe. Rather, it appears that religion’s appeal is rooted much deeper in our evolutionary history. At least three streams of thought inform this perspective. One, which is associated with cognitive scientists of religion, argues that religion is an evolutionary accident, that is, a byproduct of separate (but adaptive) process. Another contends that religion, or at least some forms of it, helped human groups adapt to various evolutionary pressures; this perspective is associated primarily with the work of the evolutionist, David Sloan Wilson. Finally, the philosopher Steven Asma argues that religion persists because it is good for us; he sees it is a necessary and much needed mechanism that has helped and continues to helps people manage and regulate their emotional instincts, of which "comfort" is only one of five emotional instincts he identifies.

If Hawking had studied religion, he would've also learned that approximately 40% of American scientists affirm a belief in a God "to whom one may pray in the expectation of receiving an answer." by which they meant "more than the subjective, psychological effect of prayer." (This is a surprising high percentage given that a high proportion of mainline Protestant pastors wouldn't even be able to affirm it.) And, then, there is Hawking's fellow member of the Royal Academy of Science, John Polkinghorne, who taught mathematical physics at Cambridge (as well as spending time at Princeton, Berkeley, Stanford, and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)), where he explored quantum theory and played a role in discovering the quark. Polkinghorne resigned his position at Cambridge to study theology and be ordained as an Anglican priest. He subsequently served several parishes, but he is best known for his writings on the intersection of science and religion. Surely, Hawking would concede that Polkinghorne "understands science."

Finally, Hawking begins his essay noting that scientists are "increasingly answering questions that used to be the province of religion" (p. 25). He is correct, of course. What is interesting, though, is how little scientists who make claims about religion take any time to actually study it. Imagine if the reverse was true. What would happen if theologians began writing about quarks, black holes, and multiple universes, but before doing so, they only bothered to consult an undergraduate textbook on physics? They'd be laughed out of the building. But that is exactly what many scientists do with regards to religion. Scientists with little or no knowledge about religion feel competent to pontificate about it at length. As the Marxist (and Roman Catholic) literary critic, Terry Eagleton, remarked in his review of Richard Dawkins's book, The God Delusion:
Imagine someone holding forth on biology where only whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. ("Lunging, Failing, Mispunching")
So, why are scientists who lack any competence in matters of theology taken seriously when they make theological claims? They are because of the "authority, status, and prestige" science enjoys in the West (Atheist Overreach, p. 97). Be that as it may, "authority, status, and prestige" aren't a substitute for actual knowledge. Thus, I agree with Christian Smith, who argues that before scientists
Publicly pronounce on metaphysics and theology, they should be obliged to satisfy two conditions. First, they should learn enough about real metaphysics and religion to be able to speak accurately and intelligently about them. And second, they should make clear in their writing and speaking that they are no longer making scientific claims but rather switching modes of discourse and epistemological frameworks to discuss metaphysics or religion. (Atheist Overreach, p. 99)
Unfortunately, I doubt Smith's argument will have much effect, at least in the short run. As the philosopher (and atheist) John Gray notes in his recent book, The Seven Types of Atheism, "While atheists may call themselves freethinkers, for many today atheism is a closed system of thought” (p. 2). Put differently, many are as dogmatic as the religious believers they deride.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Writing the Possessive Singular Right

Let's start the year right by learning (or re-learning) a simple, but often violated, rule concerning the possessive singular. Contrary to much conventional wisdom (and a lot of press headlines), a possessive singular noun that ends in "s" should be followed by an apostrophe and then another "s." This is actually the first rule in Strunk and White's classic book, The Elements of Style (p. 1). As they note, we should write,
Charles's friend
Burns's poem
not
Charles' friend
Burns' poem
Strunk and White are not alone. The authors of Grammar Smart note (p. 122) that we should add an apostrophe and an "s" for proper nouns that ends in "s", such as
Yeats's poem
Ross's riddle
Chris's crisis
And aside from a few exceptions, the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press agree ("Apostrophe-S vs. Apostrophe: Forming Possessives of Words Ending in S (or an S Sound)"). Still skeptical? Consider the following "real life" examples from a wide-range of authors and disciplines (updated from previous posts):
Johann Arnason has pointed out that Jaspers's "most condensed statement" of the axial age, describing it as the moment when "man becomes conscious of Being as a whole, of himself and his limitations," and "experiences absoluteness in the depths of selfhood and in the lucidity of transcendence," is remarkably similar to Jaspers's own version of existential philosophy.
-- Robert N. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, p. 272
In using it to build a science of the materially extended world, Descartes missed the significance of empirical measurement and inductive mathematical principles in physics; he went so far as to dismiss Galileo’s law of gravity because it was merely empirical. Descartes’s methodological pronouncements missed the actual procedures of the scientific revolution as badly as Bacon’s. Nevertheless, Descartes’s deductive system became for a generation or more the leading emblem of the “mechanical philosophy”; his Principles of Philosophy in 1644 was the most comprehensive statement across the range of science, incorporating everything from physics, chemistry, and physiology to celestial mechanics into a single materialist system.
-- Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies, p. 568
During our period at the abbey his hands were always covered with the dust of books, the gold of still-fresh illumination, or with fellowship substances he touched in Severinus’s infirmary.
-- Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, p. 17
,
Anyone who chooses to believe something contrary to evidence that an overwhelming majority of people find overwhelmingly convincing... will not be convince... And so, with this book, I do not expect to convince anyone in that boat. What I do hope is to convince genuine seekers who really want to know how we know that Jesus did exist, as virtually every scholar of antiquity, of biblical studies, of classics, and of Christian origins in this country and, in fact, in the Western world agrees. Many of these scholars have no vested interest in the matter. As it turns out, I myself do not either. I am not a Christian, and I have no interest in promoting a Christian cause or a Christian agenda. I am an agnostic with atheist leanings, and my life and views of the world would be approximately the same whether or not Jesus existed. My beliefs would vary little. The answer to the question of Jesus's historical existence will not make me more or less happy, content, hopeful, likable, rich, famous, or immortal.

-- Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, pp. 5-6
"Don't be silly, my boy. You can't have Peters's job."
-- Dick Francis, Flying Finish, p.19 
He stowed a bottle of a local rotgut called Five Island Gin--nicknamed Five Ulcer Gin--in radioman Harry Brooks's gas mask holster.

-- Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken, p. 90

I plunge into a maze of cobbled alleys and mews cottages that once comprised the Circus's outstation for Covert Operations -- or in the parlance, simply Marylebone.

-- John le Carre, A Legacy of Spies, p. 106

Over the course of a week Amos [Tversky] gave five different talks about his work with Danny, each aimed at a different group of academics. Each time the room was jammed--and fifteen years later, in 1987, when Biederman left Buffalo for the University of Minnesota, people were still talking about Amos's talks.

-- Michael Lewis, The Great Undoing, p. 205

Yet it is also at once clear not only that Rawls’s priorities are incompatible with Nozick’s in a way parallel to that in which B’s position is incompatible with A’s, but also that Rawls’s position is incommensurable with Nozick’s in a way similarly parallel to that in which B’s is incommensurable with A’s.

-- Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, p. 249
At the time, Aleander had seemed full of humanist promise. With Erasmus's encouragement, he had traveled to Paris and secured a position at the Sorbonne.
Michael Massing, Fatal Discord, p. 409  
Note that religion is singular in James's definition and plural in Dennett's. James is describing an experience that he takes to be universal among religions of all descriptions, while Dennett sees religions as distinct 'social systems.'

-- Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind, p. 8

But Harry was already pulling a roll of parchment from the owl's leg. He was so convinced that this letter had to be from Dumbledore, explaining everything -- the dementors, Mrs. Figg, what the Ministry was up to, how he, Dumbledore, intended to sort everything out -- that for the first time in his life he was disappointed to see Sirius's handwriting... "I can't stop the owls coming," Harry snapped, crushing Sirius's letter in his fist.

There are plenty of more examples, but surely these should suffice.