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Blogging again

I’m blogging again, after a few years’ break, at

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Blog terminated

This (here, now, you, me!) is a world in which religion is just grist to the mass media mill, marriage and family are grist to the media mill, our surface opinions and deepest convictions are grist…

We are all hack journalists now; thinking the thoughts and living the lives of hacks.

— Bruce Charlton (qv)

I have decided to stop blogging for the foreseeable future.

I have always been an infrequent poster, and in theory posting just a few times a month shouldn’t be all that different from not posting at all — but I nevertheless find that the very¬†prospect of posting (even if hardly ever realized) affects how I think and live. I am, as Bruce says, thinking the thoughts and living the life of a hack. ¬†Publication has insinuated itself into my mind as the implicit goal of all thought, with the result that even my private reading, thinking, and pondering have become fundamentally unserious, interested more in being clever than in finding the truth.

I am, therefore, monk-style, taking a vow of mass-media silence. I will leave existing entries online, but nothing new will be added. Personal communication is of course still welcome; I can be reached at my address, which is wiltyc.

So long, and thanks for all the fish.


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The Bestseller’s Daughter

What’s up with all the “daughter” books these days? Every time I go to the bookstore now I find myself surrounded by interchangeable-looking novels called The ______’s Daughter. The following list could easily be made much, much longer. As you can see, there were a handful of novels with such titles in the 1990s, but the Daughter industry really took off around 2005 and shows no signs of slowing.

  • The Optimist’s Daughter (Eudora Welty, 1996)
  • The President’s Daughter (Jack Higgins, 1998)
  • The President’s Daughter (Mariah Stewart, 2002)
  • The Bonesetter’s Daughter (Amy Tan, 2003)
  • The Preacher’s Daughter (Beverly Lewis, 2005)
  • The Storekeeper’s Daughter (Wanda E. Brunstetter, 2005)
  • The Sea King’s Daughter (Barbara Michaels, 2005)
  • The Memory Keeper’s Daughter (Kim Edwards, 2006)
  • The Hummingbird’s Daughter (Luis Alberto Urrea, 2006)
  • The Quilter’s Daughter (Wanda E. Brunstetter, 2006)
  • The Alchemist’s Daughter (Katharine McMahon, 2006)
  • The Tailor’s Daughter (Janice Graham, 2007)
  • The Mortician’s Daughter (Elizabeth Bloom, 2007)
  • The Professor’s Daughter (Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert, 2007)
  • The Abortionist’s Daughter (Elisabeth Hyde, 2007)
  • The Chief Inspector’s Daughter (Sheila Radley, 2007)
  • The Gravedigger’s Daughter (Joyce Carol Oates, 2008)
  • The Heretic’s Daughter (Kathleen Kent, 2008)
  • The King’s Daughter (Sandra Worth, 2008)
  • The Thief Queen’s Daughter (Elizabeth Haydon, 2008)
  • The Admiral’s Daughter (Julian Stockwin, 2008)
  • The Virgin Queen’s Daughter (Ella March Chase, 2008)
  • The Ditchdigger’s Daughter (Yvonne S. Thornton, 2008)
  • The Mistress’s Daughter (A. M. Homes, 2008)
  • The Bishop’s Daughter (Honor Moore, 2008)
  • The Pirate’s Daughter (Margaret Cezair-Thompson, 2008)
  • The Horsemaster’s Daughter (Susan Wiggs, 2008)
  • The Apothecary’s Daughter (Julie Klassen, 2009)
  • The Bishop’s Daughter (Tiffany L. Warren, 2009)
  • The Tsarina’s Daughter (Carolly Erickson, 2009)
  • The President’s Daughter (Barbara Chase-Ribound, 2009)
  • The Frontiersman’s Daughter (Laura Frantz, 2009)
  • The King’s Daughter (Barbara Kyle, 2009)
  • The Calligrapher’s Daughter (Eugenia Kim, 2009)

And, no joke:

  • Somebody Else’s Daughter (Elizabeth Brundage, 2009)

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Darwin vs. Jared Diamond

I’ve been rereading Darwin recently (for the first time since my creationist childhood) and came across the following passage in The Origin:

If it has taken centuries or thousands of years to improve or modify most of our plants up to their present standard of usefulness to man, we can understand how it is that neither Australia the Cape of Good Hope, nor any other region inhabited by quite uncivilised man, has afforded us a single plant worth culture. It is not that these countries, so rich in species, do not by a strange chance possess the aboriginal stocks of any useful plants, but that the native plants have not been improved by continued selection up to a standard of perfection comparable with that given to the plants in countries anciently civilised (The Origin of Species, pp. 95-96 in the Penguin Classics edition).

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond argues the native peoples of America, Australia, and Africa advanced less rapidly than those of Eurasia in part because of the relative lack of large domesticable animals on those continents. At first glance Africa would seem to have plenty of horse-like, ox-like, and goat-like animals that could be profitably domesticated, but Diamond assures us that none of them are really suitable — that, for example, the zebra is far more bad-tempered than the horse or the ass and will often bite people.

Though I’m reluctant to take someone as an expert on animals who doesn’t know the difference between an aardvark and a hyena, let’s assume Diamond is right about zebras and other non-Eurasian megafauna. Darwin’s comment on plants quoted above, which would apply just as well to animals, offers a different interpretation. Diamond’s argument is that African animals are inherently unsuitable for domestication, that they were therefore not domesticated by the Africans, and that as a result the Africans remained relatively “uncivilized” (not that Diamond would use that word). Darwin’s logic suggests that the arrow of causation may go in the opposite direction. It’s possible that the Africans were a relatively uncivilized people, that they therefore failed to domesticate many animals, and that African animals were therefore not subjected to thousands of years of artificial selection and as a result remain far below the “standard of perfection” set by livestock of Eurasian origin.

I’m not saying that explanation is any more likely to be right than Diamond’s — assuming that non-Eurasian animals just happen to have been less “domesticable” is no more or less reasonable than assuming that non-Eurasian peoples just happen to have been less “civilized” — but it’s another possibility. Though not in the race-is-skin-deep camp myself, I think Diamond’s project is still the right idea. In the long run, all differences among various peoples, even the genetic ones Diamond so scrupulously ignores, have to be explained in terms of environment, since environment is what drives natural selection.

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Arrogance and humility

A recent post by Bruce Charlton argues that only the religious are capable of true humility.

For Christians the ideal is humility before God. But humility before God is compatible with – indeed often demands – resisting any amount of consensus or social pressure.

However, for atheists there are but two options – selfish arrogance or submissiveness. If an atheist resists social consensus (perhaps a consensus of peer groups, or managers, or society at large) then this can only be on the basis of selfish arrogance.

Well, of course this is not really true – because it may be that the atheist is making a principled stand on the basis of natural law – on the principle of their own convictions of what ought to be right behavior. But these convictions are subjective, and if everyone else’s convictions are different (or if everyone else claims that their convictions are different) then a stand on the basis of principle is indistinguishable from a stand on the basis of personal whim, motivated by selfish or malicious goals. For the atheist, there is no external ground for appeal.

I’m not so sure that the situation is any different for a Christian than for an atheist. I know in theory a Christian’s convictions are supposed to come directly from God, but God’s will isn’t a given any more than the scientific truth is. In practice, one’s idea of God’s will comes either from the doctrine and traditions of a church (a social consensus) or from one’s own conscience (subjective convictions). God is not in any practical sense an “external ground for appeal.” You can’t say, “Well, I think this, and the church says that; let’s see what God has to say about it.” The only way to bring God into the question is to simply assume that one’s conscience, or the church, reflects God’s will. This allows one to be either arrogant or submissive, according to taste, and still claim the moral high ground. (Atheists can of course do the same thing, since “the scientific truth” can mean either the consensus of the experts or one’s personal interpretation of the evidence.)

The atheist arrogantly stands by his personal convictions. The Christian, in contrast, humbly submits to God’s will — which he arrogantly assumes must coincide with his personal convictions. Is there really any difference in practice?

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Secular vs. Christian reasons for being moral

A recent post by Bruce Charlton asks why atheists behave better than they need to. Since he still hasn’t enabled comments on his blog, I again respond here.

Morality, Charlton says, is based on evolved instincts which are largely the same for everyone, which is why most of the core principles of morality are the same in every religion and philosophy. Atheists also have these moral instincts and therefore tend to behave just as morally as anyone else. There’s still a problem, though, says Charlton (following quote proofread slightly):

But the problem is that even when we know (or think we know) the evolutionary reason for altruism, this is not a moral argument. To say that humans have evolved to be this way is not an argument with any force against those who say they do not feel this way; or those who say they aim to overcome their evolved instincts so as to be happier or suffer less. . . .Is this a problem? Yes — because atheists can never draw a line on rational grounds. Look around, isn’t this what we find in mainstream culture? Secular people who are individually good, but who cannot provide any reason why other people should be good. So bad people get free reign, and the rules change, progressively, in a less and less moral direction.

Atheists can philosophize about fine points of morality just as well as any Christian, but when it comes to the larger question of why one should bother to be moral at all, most of the answers are pretty weak. Fortunately most people have a natural desire to be moral and therefore don’t need to be convinced, but that desire is stronger in some than in others, and some people seem to lack it altogether. What do you say to a sociopath — or even to an ordinary person who, in the throes of temptation, is finding that his natural desire to sin is a bit stronger than his natural desire to be moral?

There are a lot of things you could say, of course — you might get caught; what goes around comes around; other people will treat you the way you treat them; if you break Hillel’s silver rule and do “that which is hateful to you,” you’ll hate yourself and won’t really be happy; crime doesn’t pay — all true statements as far as they go. But they’re also all generalizations with many exceptions. They’re not absolutes. It would be perfectly rational for a person to say, “Yes, I agree that immorality usually leads to negative consequences, but in this particular situation I can be quite sure that no one will ever know what I’ve done; and while some degree of guilt may be inevitable, in this case I can be pretty sure that it will be outweighed by the pleasure of the deed.”

In contrast, belief in a just God offers absolute reasons to be moral. If God exists and is just, then there is a 100% chance that every sin will be seen and punished, every good deed acknowledged and rewarded. In fact, such a belief effectively eliminates the whole field of morality by making moral behavior identical with self-interested behavior. If they could be sure of the existence of a just God, saint and sociopath would behave in exactly the same way.

In practice, though, Christianity doesn’t really mean belief in an absolutely just God. God is merciful, he forgives. Many Protestants would even say that any believer who has “accepted Jesus as his personal savior” (or whatever the correct term is) is already “saved” and needn’t worry about being punished for any sins he may commit. Works won’t save or damn a Christian — but of course a saved person will naturally love God and want to please him by living morally. But that’s not really a moral argument, is it? Christianity is in the same boat as secular morality, assuming a natural desire to do the right thing but unable to convince anyone who happens to lack such a desire.

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Calibrated Gematria

In the absence of any well-established letter-to-number mapping analogous to the Greek or Hebrew numerals, English has no one accepted form of gematria. Instead there are any number of competing systems out there, and to choose any particular one of them seems arbitrary — which is a problem, because gematria’s impressiveness depends on it’s not seeming arbitrary. I’ve tried to deal with this problem in two different ways. One is to use the simplest possible gematria code, S:E:G:, which seems less contrived than the alternatives. The other is what I call Calibrated Gematria.

Calibrated Gematria is based on the following assumptions:

  • A gematria code is a good one to the extent that it gives the “correct” numerical value for each word.
  • The only words that have an uncontroversial, objectively correct numerical value are words that refer to the numbers themselves — words such as “one,” “two,” “three,” and so on.
  • Therefore, the gematria of any given language can be “calibrated” by testing it against the set of number words in that language, modifying the letter values so as to maximize the number of such words that have the “correct” value.

Some languages will be more suitable for this than others, and English happily seems to be one of the best. (The fact that “eleven plus two” is an anagram of “twelve plus one” is a good sign, since we would want these two phrases to have the same gematria value.) A nearly perfect Calibrated Gematria is possible for English, whereas my attempts to create something similar for French and Spanish have so far been far less fruitful.

No gematria could be expected to yield the correct numbers for all the number terms in a language, since gematria is based solely on addition and cannot handle multiplication. “Sixteen” (six plus ten) and “twenty-six” (twenty plus six) are doable; “sixty” (six times ten) and “six hundred” (six times a hundred) are not. So even a “perfect” calibrated gematria could only be expected to work for numbers smaller than 30; a code can be contrived that yields the correct value for “twenty,” but one that consistently yields the right value for all number words ending in “-ty” is impossible.

To create a Calibrated Gematria, then, we write out the number words from “zero” to “twenty” and solve them as if they were algebra equations. (Since addition is the only operation gematria can support, we will use ab to mean a + b rather than a ¬∑ b.)

zero = 0
one = 1
two = 2
three = thir = 3
four = 4
five = fif = 5
six = 6
seven = 7
eight = 8
nine = 9
ten = teen = een = 10
eleven = 11
twelve = 12
twenty = 20

Since teen = ten = een (as in “eight-een”), we know that e = t = 0. Those two letters can be deleted.

e = t = 0
zro = 0
on = 1
wo = 2
hr = hir = 3
four = 4
fiv = fif = 5
six = 6
svn = 7
igh = 8
nin = 9
n = 10
lvn = 11
wlv = 12
wny = 20

It becomes clear that no solution is possible. If hr = hir, then i = 0. But if i = 0, then n = 10 and nn = 9, which is impossible. One of the numbers must be sacrificed. Having tried sacrificing various numbers, I find that removing the equation thirteen = 13 causes the fewest problems. If that one equation is removed, all the remaining equations are soluble. Thirteen is, appropriately enough, jinxing the Calibrated Gematria project. I therefore remove thirteen and the equation derived from it (hir = 3) and replace it with jinx = 13. The results are as follows:

e = t = 0
f = v = 8
i = -11
j = -14
l = -7
n = 10
o = -9
s = -11
w = 11
x = 28
y = -1
zr = 9
hr = 3
ur = 5
gh = 19

A larger set of words is needed to derive a complete gematria. Specifically, the letters {a, b, c, d, k, m, p, q} are missing from the set of equations. I add a few other words with uncontroversial numerical equivalents:

ace = 1
deuce = 2
jack = 11
queen = 12
king = 13
dozen = 12
baker’s dozen = 13
plus = 0 (so that “two plus two” = 4 and so on)

Our equations are now sufficient to pin down every number except m, which I somewhat arbitrarily set to -12. This gives the correct value for “number thirteen” (which is important, since “thirteen” itself is a miss) and also makes 26 the total value for the alphabet. The final result is:

a = 6, b = 8, c = -5, d = -24, e = 0, f = 8, g = -10, h = 29, i = -11, j = -14, k = 24, l = -7, m = -12, n = 10, o = -9, p = -13, q = -29, r = -26, s = -11, t = 0, u = 31, v = 8, w = 11, x = 28, y = -1, z = 35

This code gives the correct value for every integer from 0 to 29 (with the one exception of 13) and for any “plus” statement using those numbers. A few other numerical expressions also yield the correct result just by chance:

  • half of ninety-four = 47
  • negative seven times three = -21
  • minus six times three = -18

In a later post I’ll show some of Calibrated Gematria’s other results.

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