I’m in The Atlantic

Elders Craig Thomas (left) and William James Tychonievich (right) in American Fork, Utah, circa 1998


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The fates of non-Christians in Dante’s Comedy

Pagans who were wicked by pagan standards are punished in the circle of Hell appropriate to their particular crimes. For example, Paris is punished in the second circle for crimes of lust, while Brutus is consigned to the jaws of Satan himself for treachery against his lord and benefactor. Pagans guilty of such sins such as suicide and sodomy — sinful by Christian standards but not necessarily by pagan ones — are not specifically punished for them.

Pagans who lived lives of virtue (reckoning, again, by their own pagan standards), but who never had the opportunity to receive Christianity and baptism, are consigned to Limbo — which, though it is technically the first circle of Hell, is not a place of punishment. In fact, it seems to be pretty much what virtuous pagans expected after death. Their only punishment is that they now know that there is something higher — the true Paradise — but have no hope of ever attaining it.

Virtuous Hebrews who lived before Christ could be considered Christians avant la lettre (because they worshiped Jehovah, who is Christ), but they lacked explicitly Christian faith, hope, and baptism. They were consigned to Limbo with the pagans until after the Crucifixion, when Christ came to hell and liberated them. They are now in Paradise.

Note, then, that prior to the Crucifixion everyone (barring perhaps a few exceptions like Enoch and Elijah) went to Hell — either to Hades (Limbo) or Tartarus (the lower circles). This is consistent with most pre-Christian beliefs about the afterlife; certainly no Greek expected to ascend to Olympus after death.

Muslims are considered Christian heretics (a view which is not historically unreasonable), and Muhammad himself is punished as such in the sixth circle of Hell. Other Muslims, though, seem more often to be judged as if they were pagans. Averroes, Avicenna, and Saladin are found in Limbo with the pagan worthies. This despite the fact that, like all Muslims, they lived during the Christian era and could in theory have become Christians had they wished. (Saladin, in particular, had certainly been exposed to Christianity and rejected it; he spent his career fighting against the Crusaders.) I am not aware of any post-biblical Jews who appear in the Comedy, but Dante would perhaps have treated them similarly.

Virgil’s permanent home is in Limbo with the other virtuous pagans, but he is allowed to visit Purgatory in his capacity as Dante’s guide. Paradise, however, is closed to him.

Cato the Younger works as the gatekeeper and guardian of Purgatory. It is not evident what his ultimate fate will be, but it seems reasonable to assume that his situation is similar to that of Virgil: He is visiting Purgatory “on business,” as it were, but in the end — when Purgatory is done away with — will have to return to Limbo. (Note that he is not condemned for his famous suicide — a sin normally punished in the seventh circle of Hell — because it was not forbidden by the Stoic morality under which he lived.)

Trajan, the Roman emperor, is in Paradise, though originally he had been consigned to Limbo like any other righteous pagan. Legend has it that Pope Gregory the Great, saddened at the damnation of so great a man, prayed for his soul and was granted this miracle: Trajan, after all those centuries, was raised from the dead. Back in his body, he was once again free to choose Christianity and baptism, and he did so. When he died for the second time, he went to Paradise as a Christian.

Ripheus is hardly a household name, but he makes a brief (two-line) appearance in the Aeneid, where he is described as “first among the Teucrians for justice and observing right.” Virgil, ever the pessimist, dryly adds that “the gods thought otherwise” — apparently unimpressed by his outstanding virtue, they allow him to be cut down like any common soldier in the sack of Troy. But according to Dante (who apparently invented the story himself), one particular God was impressed with Ripheus’s virtue and chose to reward it by granting him, centuries before the birth of Christ, a private revelation of the Christian gospel. Thus, unknown to his contemporaries, Ripheus died in the true Faith. He lived before baptism was available, but faith, hope, and charity took the place of that sacrament for him. In this he is similar to the pre-Christian Hebrews, who are also saved without baptism — and we may presume that, like them, he went first to Limbo and only later, after Christ’s harrowing of Hell, to Purgatory and Paradise.

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Aldous Huxley on the modern media

From Brave New World Revisited:

In regard to propaganda the early advocates of universal literacy and a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or it might be false. They did not foresee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democracies — the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.

Huxley wrote this in 1958 — so I think it’s safe to say even he didn’t fully foresee how very nearly infinite that appetite would turn out to be.

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The Consolation of Philosophy

What is philosophy, you ask?
They say it’s learning how to die.
But should you chance to flub that task,
Don’t fret: You’ll get another try –
And then a third, and so on, till
You get it right — you surely will!
It’s guaranteed, so don’t despair!
Philosophy is more than fair.
Her students may be plagued with doubt,
But not a one has yet flunked out.


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Lehi’s people

What was the ethnic background of Lehi, the ancestor of the Nephite and Lamanite people in the Book of Mormon? Whether you regard Lehi as a historical figure or as a fictional character invented by Joseph Smith, there ought to be an answer to that question.


In one sense, the question is easy to answer. Alma 10:3 explicitly states that “Lehi, who came out of the land of Jerusalem, … was a descendant of Manasseh, who was the son of Joseph who was sold into Egypt by the hands of his brethren.”

From this we might assume that Lehi, a descendant of Manasseh who had nevertheless “dwelt at Jerusalem in all his days” (1 Nephi 1:4), was descended from those Manassites who, together with members of the tribes* of Ephraim and Simeon, fled from the Northern Kingdom to Jerusalem during the reign of Asa, as described in 2 Chronicles 15.

The strange thing, though, is that Lehi apparently didn’t know he was a descendant of Manasseh. He found this out only after he had left Jerusalem. Having obtained the brass plates from Laban, “Lehi, also found upon the plates of brass a genealogy of his fathers; wherefore he knew that he was a descendant of Joseph, yea, even that Joseph who was the son of Jacob, who was sold into Egypt . . . And thus my father, Lehi, did discover the genealogy of his fathers. And Laban was also a descendant of Joseph, wherefore he and his fathers had kept records” (1 Ne 5:14, 16).

So, leaving aside the actual facts of his ancestry, which were unknown to him, what did Lehi think he was? What ethnicity did he identify with culturally and in practice?

The most obvious guess would be that Lehi thought of himself as a member of the tribe of Judah — as a “Jew,” to use a somewhat anachronistic term. During the 300 or so years separating the time of Lehi from the immigration of his Manassite ancestors into Jerusalem, it seems likely that the Northern immigrants would have become completely assimilated into Judah and lost their distinct tribal identities. Certainly Manasseh was already considered a “lost tribe” by the time of Lehi.

However, there are certain suggestions in the early chapters of the book (prior to the discovery of Lehi’s Manassite ancestry) that Lehi and his family did not self-identify as Jews. Lehi’s son Nephi, referring to his rebellious brothers Laman and Lemuel, says that they “were like unto the Jews who were at Jerusalem, who sought to take away the life of my father” (1 Nephi 2:13). And in the next chapter, as Lehi explains the plan to obtain the brass plates, he says, “Laban hath a record of the Jews and also a genealogy of my forefathers, and they are engraven upon plates of brass” (1 Nephi 3:3). There is more than one way to interpret such passages, but in my opinion the most natural reading is one which implies a distinction between Lehi’s family on the one hand and “the Jews” on the other.


Another possibility which suggests itself is that Lehi was of Egyptian extraction and that, while he lived in Jerusalem and worshiped the Hebrew God, he did not know that he himself had Hebrew blood. It seems probable that some of the Israelites might have “gone native” while in Egypt and have been left behind by the Exodus — and this would have been especially natural for descendants of Ephraim and Manasseh, who were half-Egyptian by blood and could thus have “passed” more readily among the indigenous population.

When Nephi reports the discovery of their genealogy on the brass plates, he never mentions which tribe they belong to, saying simply “it sufficeth me to say that we are descendants of Joseph” (1 Nephi 6:2). Manasseh is only mentioned much later, in passing, by one of Nephi’s distant descendants. But while he displays a rather un-Israelite lack of interest in tribal affiliation, Nephi does make a point of mentioning that his ancestor was “that Joseph who was the son of Jacob, who was sold into Egypt” (1 Nephi 5:14). This emphasis is more consistent with an Egyptian discovering his Hebrew roots than with an Israelite learning that he belonged to a different tribe than he had supposed.

We also know that Lehi spoke and wrote Egyptian as well as Hebrew. Nephi says that his father’s language “consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians” (1 Nephi 1:2). A thousand years after Lehi, his descendants were still using both Egyptian and Hebrew, though in modified form (Mormon 9:32-33). Laban seems also to have had the learning of the Jews via the language of the Egyptians; his brass plates, which contained parts of the Old Testament, were written in Egyptian characters (see Mosiah 1:3-4).

Against this Egyptian hypothesis, though, we have the following words of Nephi to his brothers, spoken before they had obtained the brass plates and discovered their Josephite ancestry: “Moses . . . spake unto the waters of the Red Sea and they divided hither and thither, and our fathers came through . . . the Lord is able to deliver us, even as our fathers, and to destroy Laban, even as the Egyptians” (1 Nephi 4:2-3). It’s hard to reconcile such language with the hypothesis that Nephi was himself an Egyptian.


To summarize the data to be explained:

  • Prior to receiving the brass plates, Lehi apparently knew he was an Israelite but did not know to which tribe he belonged. In the Exodus story, the Hebrews, not the Egyptians, were his “fathers.”
  • However, he seems not to have considered himself a “Jew.” (Laban’s servant also speaks of “the Jews” as if he were not one of them.)
  • Although he did not know his own ancestry, he knew that his kinsman Laban knew. (Was their family history some kind of secret to which Laban was privy but Lehi was not? Why?)
  • Even after learning that he was of the tribe of Manasseh, Lehi seems not to have been interested in this specific tribal identity so much as in his status as a descendant of Joseph.
  • Egyptian was apparently the main language of both Lehi and Laban, although they also spoke Hebrew (see Mormon 9:33). The fact that Laban’s copy of the writings of Isaiah and other Hebrew prophets was an Egyptian translation is strong evidence that he was more comfortable with Egyptian than Hebrew.

My own best guess would be that Lehi was an Egyptian, but that there was an unsubstantiated family tradition that they were actually of Hebrew blood. (In this he would be similar to the many modern-day Mormons who believe, without direct genealogical evidence, that they are descendants of Ephraim.) What he read on the brass plates was not so much a revelation as a confirmation of what he had already suspected. Why this confirmation was a secret kept by Laban is anyone’s guess.


* WordPress’s PC spellchecker suggests that “the ethnic groups of Ephraim and Simeon” would be more sensitive.

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Evidence against free will?

What would count as evidence against free will?

I’ve said before that there can be no evidence for or against free will because it is a doctrine about the ontological status of things that don’t happen. A person with free will might very well do precisely the same things as a person without free will — the only difference being that the former could have done otherwise. But what “could have happened” is invisible to us; we can only observe what actually happens. Therefore, a person with free will and a person without free will are empirically indistinguishable. I’ve said before that this means all we can do is assume that we have free will (or not), and that it makes more practical sense to assume that we do. But what it would actually mean, if it were true, is that free will vs. determinism is a fake question, a distinction which makes no difference. If it is indeed true that the one belief is more practically useful than the other, then the two beliefs must be empirically distinguishable, at least in principle.


My argument that there can be no evidence for or against free will could also be used to argue that there can be no evidence for or against the proposition that nature is governed by laws. The sun rose in the east today, but could it have risen in the west instead? We believe that the sun and the earth move in accordance with fixed laws of gravity and that it is impossible for them to do otherwise — but isn’t it also possible that they are free, that they just happen to choose to behave in a uniform way but could just as easily choose otherwise? G. K. Chesterton somewhere discusses the possibility that every single day God freely chooses to tell the sun (or rather the earth) to “do it again.” Have we no empirical grounds for favoring Kepler/Newton/Einstein over Chesterton? After all, we only observe what happens, not what could have happened.

I’ve been conflating absolute proof with mere evidence. There can be no conclusive disproof of Chesterton’s “do it again” hypothesis, but we can and do have evidence against it. Suppose an astronomer predicts precisely where and when the sun will rise tomorrow. If the sun and earth are bound by the laws the astronomer thinks they are bound by, what is the probability of the prediction coming true? 1. If they could behave otherwise, what is the probability of the prediction coming true? Unknown, but necessarily less than 1. You can do the Bayesian math and see that, whatever prior probability we assign to the Chesterton hypothesis, it should be revised downward if the astronomer’s prediction comes true. Therefore, every successful prediction is evidence that things could not have happened otherwise. (How strong that evidence is cannot be calculated, though.)


When it comes to human behavior, things are less straightforward, since no one claims to be able to predict it. Determinists say it is predictable in theory but, due to the fantastic complexity of the human brain, not in practice. Indeterminists say it in not predictable even in principle. The two theories do not therefore make distinct predictions.

However, if someone were to make a detailed and accurate prediction of human behavior, comparable to the predictions of astronomers, that would be evidence for determinism and against free will. The more specific the prediction, the stronger the evidence (though, again, we cannot assess exactly how strong).

Prophecies like those featured in Greek tragedy would be relatively weak evidence against free will. One gets the impression that Oedipus and his parents were free to do many different things, but that some unseen power was seeing to it that, whatever they chose to do, the final result would be the same. (It could be compared to a chess master’s prediction that, whatever his novice opponent may choose to do, the master will still win in the end.) Much stronger evidence can be found in the Gospels, where Jesus says to Peter, “Before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice” — and then, despite knowing the prophecy and being unwilling to do any such thing, Peter proceeds to fulfill it. If the story is true, it offers strong evidence against free will, since specific details of Peter’s behavior (which Peter, apparently erroneously, believed were under his control) were successfully predicted. No wonder the poor devil “went out and wept bitterly” at this revelation that he was, despite appearances, a robot!


What, then, would count as evidence for free will? Well, any failed prediction of human behavior. Granted, that seems like a very strange thing to say. If I am unsuccessful in predicting the behavior of a given system, that doesn’t mean the system isn’t governed by rules — it just means it isn’t governed by the particular rules I thought it was governed by. But, logically, that is evidence (very weak evidence) that it isn’t rule-governed at all — just as the fact that I wasn’t born on February 12 is evidence that I wasn’t born in February at all.


The problem is that none of this evidence is at all quantifiable, so it remains impossible to say whether, on balance, there is more evidence for free will or against it. In the end, then, there’s still nothing to do but to make an assumption one way or the other.


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Title suggestions for Gregory Clark’s next book

UC Davis economics professor Gregory Clark is the author of A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (2009) and The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility (2014).

For his next book, I offer the following title suggestions absolutely free of charge:

  • The Old Man and the See: The Graying of America’s Catholic Population
  • Green Hells of Africa: How Environmentalism Fuels Third-World Violence
  • Islands in the Steam: A Study of 19th-Century Amish Communities
  • A Moveable Beast: How Dog Domestication Went Global

Further suggestions are welcome in the comments.


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