A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Marilyn Monroe, melting glaciers, and aliens

We're Having a Heatwave

TOF thought it might amuse his Faithful Reader to post here an excerpt from The Shipwrecks of Time, a novel in progress, in which characters mention things that were au courant back in 1966. There is a thunderstorm in Milwaukee and.... 

As they turned back into the building, the wind buffeted the front door so that it was sucked out and pushed in, like an invisible giant trying to gain entry. “Phil told me that the weather is actually calmer than it used to be,” Frank volunteered. “On the average.”

“The average,” said Wilma. “How nice.”

“I mean it. We hardly ever get the monster heat waves like in the 1930s, or super-hurricanes like the ‘Long Island Express’ in 1938.”

Wilma shrugged. “We never worried about hurricanes in California. Just earthquakes. And mudslides. And forest fires. Are you sure about the hurricanes? Nelson told me that global cooling is causing more severe weather.” 

“Yeah. Nelson doesn’t know everything. People think there are more hurricanes because names are easier to remember than latitude and longitude. So since they started giving them women’s names a while back, people remember more of them. That’s all.”
-- (c) 2014. Michael F. Flynn, The Shipwrecks of Time

Based on newspaper stories gleaned on-line and on dire warnings in John Gribbin's novel The Sixth Winter. Everybody talks about the weather, but when there are rhythms on the order of 60 years, as in the case of the Pacific Multi-Decadal Oscillation, everything seems unprecedented, since human memory barely runs back far enough. 

Meanwhile, "scientists are now seeing signals that the Sahara desert and surrounding regions are greening due to increasing rainfall," which if sustained, "could revitalize drought-ravaged regions, reclaiming them for farming communities."Another of the horrific effects of global warming, TOF supposes, albeit one seldom cited in the news. The greening of the Sahara is supported not only by satellite imagery, but more importantly, by computer models and the Oracle at Delphi. 

Bad News for God, or Someone

Flashing point shows relative position of Earth 2.0
Meanwhile, in other news, a marine biologist who blogs at something called the Huffington Post announces that the discovery of Kepler 452b is "bad news for God." The author is evidently a theologian, for he declares with certainty that "The discovery of just one such world is good evidence for many more" and "we come ever closer to the idea that life is common in the universe." Not that we have found any such life, mind you, but it's just gotta be out there, somewhere, because numbers. We note too that Mars is also within the habitable zone, but is no so far was we know actually inhabited.

(IOW: "in habitable zone" ≠ "supports life" ≠ "rational beings." It is from this string of inequalities that the author deduces the downfall of religion, which apparently amounts to bad news for God.)

The reason this is bad news for God and not for, say, the author of the article, is that "the Bible is unambiguous about creation: the earth is the center of the universe, only humans were made in the image of god, and all life was created in six days." So we see that the author is a fallen-away fundamentalist, or possibly that his mother was frightened by a fundamentalist when he was in utero. He gets his disbeliefs from the Bible.

However, if Augustine of Hippo and Thomas of Aquino could consider that the six days were metaphorical or even allegorical, any non-fundy type -- like the Catholic and Orthodox churches -- could likewise consider it. Besides, one needn't discover a planet a mere 60% larger than earth (est.) to deduce that the six days just might not be literally fact. Both Gus and Tom reserved judgement on the six days because they didn't have the data to support a firm nay or yea, a stance that TOF whimsically hopes marine biologists who blog on issues astrophysic might one day take to heart. 

The author seems to suppose that the Earth being, in the old models, at the bottom of the world is in some sort of exalted place, whereas the medievals supposed the place ignoble, the bilges of the World, as far from the heavens as one could (get other than Hell). Besides, there is no privileged frame of reference, so it may as well be here as somewhere from which we cannot as yet make meaningful observations.  

impala, lower case
Impala, capitalized
Then there is the curious announcement that "only humans were made in the image of god." Now, it is actually in the image of God, not god. (The capital carries semantic load. An impala is not the same kind of thing as an Impala, after all.) But the image refers to man's nature as a rational being, not to his physical body. Augustine said that sciopods, blemyae, pygmies, and other then-fanciful beings would be human provided only they possessed reason. And nowhere, save perhaps to fundies like the author, does doctrine say that "only" humans were so endowed. After all, the Church has always taught of angels, whom we may dub "extraterrestrial energy beings" in order to remain orthodox to modernity. 
St. Christopher the doghead

The author declares that if extraterrestrial life is ever discovered (and we might take passing note that it has not yet been) that "religion" (whatever that means) will "contort" itself to accommodate it. He seems unaware that it already has been accommodated and that no contortions were necessary. Once medieval legend had it that a doghead had not only been baptized but had become a saint. So it's not as if anyone had problems imagining intelligent aliens or incorporating them into their world-view.

Short-Term Memory Syndrome

Meanwhile up in the chilly Northlands, Obama has emulated King Canute by bidding the glaciers stop recession. Now the glacier he commanded -- the wonderfully named Exit Glacier -- has been receding since at least 1814, so is unlikely to head even so august a thing as an Executive Order. Hillaire Belloc once observed that people are far to much influenced by the recent past and seldom look more deeply into it. He was commenting at the time on the Western assumption that Islam was a spent force merely because within living memory it was. He warned that in the future a resurgent Islam might once again challenge Europe. (If we judge a theory by the success of its predictions, this might merit a second look.) The same might be said of things like "Superstorm Sandy" of 2012 vis a vis "the Long Island Express" of 1938. After 74 years, the latter had passed from memory.

Similarly, the advance and retreat of glaciers, which are said eponymously to proceed at a "glacial" pace. Note for example, the Annual Average Temperature for Alaska, where the sudden reversal of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation is clearly visible. TOF is generally suspicious of efforts to fair a linear regression through noisy data. He suspects multiple causal regimes. But they are useful to highlight general trends.

Alas, by the time the increasing temperature came to notice in the 1990s, people had already forgotten the relentlessly declining temperatures prior to 1977. Climatologist Roy Spencer writes:
The supposed poster child glacier for global warming in Alaska is Mendenhall Glacier…except that it had already retreated one mile by the early 1900s, long before human greenhouse gas emissions could be blamed.
Furthermore, its retreat is uncovering large tree stumps approximately 1,000 years old, coincidentally coinciding with the (naturally-caused) Medieval Warm Period, back when the Vikings were able to farm in Greenland.

Which begs [sic] the question: How could it have been warm enough to grow giant trees 1,000 years ago in an area now covered in ice?
One of TOF's pet peeves is the ongoing abuse of the phrase "begs the question" to mean "raises the question" or "leads to the further question". "Begging the question" actually means to embed the conclusion of an argument in its assumptions. For example, when climate data is pointed to as confirming a model when that same climate data was previously used to build the model. However, TOFian grumbles constitute a digression from the main point that Dr. Spencer makes: viz., that in historic times, the glaciers have advanced to cover a medieval forest. It hardly seems catastrophic if they have now retreated slightly. 
TOF has other tabs open in his browser, relating to such diverse matters as the Syrian migration and Dawkin's argument for formal causes and the incarnation, but he must shortly depart for his monthly writers cafe. Play nice, until we meet again.


  1. Replies
    1. Have you taught your pet to beg?

    2. Ditto on the peeve. You would not believe how often people use this around my office and it just makes me ill.

  2. TOF, as an occasional reader of your blog I understand you to be familiar with A-T, arguments for the First Way, act/potency and so on. I had a question and was hoping you might be able to point me in right direction for an answer, hopefully not behind a paywall. The arguments describe God as a necessary being, an unmoved mover, do God's possible acts count as potentials until they happen or does the act/potency distinction only apply to change in material reality? If I've badly mangled the question, let me phrase it in specifics: has God been eternally creating/sustaining the universe/multiverse? If not, wouldn't "not creating/sustaining the universe" and then "creating/sustaining the universe" count as a type of change? Could the change be self-caused? Am I misunderstanding something? Any help you or one of your readers can offer would be greatly appreciated.

    1. The potency is in the matter, not in the God. Compare a pile of building materials which has the potency to become a house, a gazebo, a grandstand, a scaffold, or whatever. At some point, building commences and all these potencies collapse into one.Let's say, a house. Eventually, in the common course, the building concludes and there is an actual house. But notice these are potencies and actualities of the building materials, not of the house. They are certainly not potencies of the builder.

    2. But didn't the person who collected all the material and proceeded to build the home have some potential (an act of creation) which was actualized by doing all those things? Perhaps prior to building he might have been asleep, eating a snack, reading a book, but now he's bringing his vision to fruition via the actual labor needed to collect, nail, wire and paint the parts into a home. Do we not tell talented youngsters they "have potential" to do great things? It sounds as though potency is defined in a more limited way in this case.

    3. Certainly, all material beings are a compound of actual and potential. Any being that was purely actual would have to be immaterial.

    4. Any being that was purely actual would not only have to be immaterial, it would also be unique.

      Hence why Aquinas said every angel is a species unto itself.

    5. Material things (including humans) are act/potency but immaterial things (God/Angels) are pure act. So it would be correct to view God as a creator only in an analogous sense while our man creating a home out of various materials would be a creating agent in a more familiar sense?

    6. Actually (pause for gales of laughter) what the builder does is "create" only in an analogous sense. The "divine art" as Aquinas put it, is as if the builder to give to the materials the power to assemble themselves into a building.

    7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    8. Interesting use of relativity in wordplay, curious also that God is labelled omniPOTENT but cannot, by definition, possess any sort of potential at all. Thank you for clearing that up. The idea of human creativity being a pale derivative of Divine power and thus an imperfect frame of reference, is an un-intuitive notion from a modern perspective but something I will think on. I suppose I still wonder what would motivate a naturally perfect being to power such a creation as the material universe we inhabit.

    9. As for that, mi amigo, you'd have to ask him.

    10. ...curious also that God is labelled omniPOTENT but cannot, by definition, possess any sort of potential at all.

      Well, our host can correct me if I'm wrong, but a potency is simply defined as a power or capacity. (Hence, omnipotent means "all-powerful.") But it was my understanding that Aristotle and the Scholastic writers made a distinction between "active potency," which is the capacity to act upon something else, and "passive potency," which is the capacity to be acted upon by something else.

      If God is pure act, then He must possess the former, but cannot possess the latter. Indeed, Aquinas concludes that "in God there is active power [or potency] in the highest degree." (Summa Theologica I, q. 25, a. 1)

    11. Thank you both for answering my questions. JMHenry, are there sources that discuss the distinction between active and passive potency in greater detail? This idea is actually a little closer to my original issue: it seemed being able to act (create) is a kind of potency, and insisting God has no potency, as an Unmoved Mover, seemed to be suggest God was somehow acting though He couldn't possibly do so, as that would imply change of some sort, as if the Thomist was sneaking "active potency" in the backdoor while steadfastly denying God had potency at all: a being of pure act that can't really do anything (because potency only equals being acted upon, which equals change) is non-coherent.

      I couldn't believe that folks so brilliant (Aristotle, Aquinas and modern Scholastic writers like Ed Feser) could make such a simple error or perhaps be so deceptive in their writing or that New Atheists could be so muddleheaded and oblivious that wouldn't capitalize on it immediately.

    12. insisting God has no potency, as an Unmoved Mover

      Again: it is not the Mover but the Moved that is in potency to be something else.

      Remember the pile of building materials that was in potency to be a house? It was also in potency to be a gazebo, a scaffold, a grandstand, etc. It was not in potency to be an armadillo or two pounds of pastrami, so "potency" does not mean "could be anything."

      When the agent starts to build, all these various potentials collapse into one, say a house. Because the builder must be building something, or perhaps I should say something. The building supplies (not the builder) are now in active potency. They are "abuilding," the present participle of a verb. When the house has been completed, they have become "a building," a noun. In between the collapse of the potential function and the equilibrium point is what Aristotle called "motion." Actually, he called it kinesis, but it was translated as "motion" just so moderns could confuse it with change of location exclusively.

    13. So possibly building/actually building are not considered distinctive potential states for an agent, but the material used in the process the agent causes? What distinction is made (if any) for the agent who facilitated the process, before, during and after it ends? Doesn't the builder undergo at least a "change of mind", relating to the decision to facilitate such an end? We say Joe is planning to build/ is building/ has built a patio deck when we describe Joe's participation in the process of a collection of material collapsing into that potential, and we don't speak of Joe as planning to build or still building when the process is complete. How would we describe the process when an immaterial being exists by itself in a timeless state and then acts to create/sustain a material thing like a universe?

  3. The question I would beg to make is if Marilyn Monroe could have single-handedly caused the melting of a glacier?

  4. Actually, what caught my eye was the peculiar phrase "coincidentally coinciding."


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