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Friday, December 17


Christopher Encapera responds to Jim Kushiner's comments on Jerry Fodor, the mind, and consciousness, then helpfully suggests further reading:

The "problem" of consciousness and rationality is quite perplexing to the modern mind, and reveals the (often unexamined) Epicurean commitments of the philosophers, scientists, and artists who grapple with the implications. You see it arising in fascinating movies like Steven Spielberg's AI, or popular novels like Michael Crichton's Timeline. I recommend the writing of J. R. Searle and his "Chinese Room" argument to anyone who wants a good introduction to the modern conception of mind, and the problem of rationality arising out of the material.

This problem is often obscured by the claim that computation can account for rationality, thus, a sufficiently complex computer can think. Searle’s 1990 article "Is the Brain's Mind a Computer Program?" published in 1990 in Scientific American is excellent, but appears not to be on the web—but you can find many summaries and responses with a simple search in Google.

To me, to deny the soul, is to deny a bare fact—a bit like a drowning man trying to deny the water. Mr. Fodor's statement is an insight into the truth that "the whole world cannot contain a single human heart". We can not even imagine what it is like to place the infinite into the finite—we can only respond with wonder and worship...

10:29 AM


A reader, David Layman, responds to a comment by Amy Laura Hall posted in this space a few days ago:

Prof. Hall's comment (slightly condensed) goes as follows: "What do we have children for? A Mennonite colleague asked that right to my face at a conference... He explained to the group that, in the Mennonite tradition, children are born for martyrdom. ...[Hall's commentary:] you have children so that they can bring witness in a cruciform way to Christ's love,.. ."

I am Mennonite, raised in the "Old Mennonite" tradition (now considered mainstream). My wife was raised "Old Order Mennonite" (closer to the Amish). We both come from big families (8 and 12 respectively). We continue to be active in a relatively conservative Mennonite Church. Neither of us have ever heard this idea.

Our tradition says that we simply accept whatever God brings into our families. My wife also says that in her Old Order community, which does not do evangelism, having large families is their form of "missionary work."

I suppose that in the early Anabaptist tradition, the persecuted communities needed to explain why they should continue having children. In such a social setting, Hall's idea might have emerged.

Although we give lip service to *The Martyr's Mirror," a text that was almost as venerated as the Bible in many traditional Mennonite homes, the ideal of becoming martyrs is just that, an ideal—at least in American Mennonite circles.

9:56 AM


Patrick O'Hannigan gives a close, helpful reading of that foolish Newsweek cover story on the nativity narratives out on his blogsite, The Paragraph Farmer. These Christmas and Easter cover stories are di rigeur it seems, appearing each season, employing the best classical masters of painting on the cover and other sorts of artists for the stories. O'Hannigan links to comments by other observers, including Hugh Hewitt and Al Mohler (comments linked twice in this space in the past week). He also works in a link for Eskimo Pies.

9:27 AM

Thursday, December 16


Terry Mattingly compares President Bush's official talk with that of past American presidents in his weekly column for the Scripps-Howard News Service. Peggy Noonan brings her experiences as Reagan's speechwriter to the Gerson-Bush story in today's column for the Wall Street Journal. She also makes a bold and helpful suggestion to the Democrats—announce your readiness to defend public displays and celebrations of Christmas and Hanukkah from anti-religious zealots. Hear, hear, Ms. Noonan! (We'll go back to our merriment now. No sense waiting around for that wonder of wonders to happen.)

1:12 PM


Jonathan Witt, author of the very clever The Gods Must Be Tidy! from our expanded July/August issue on Intelligent Design, has erected a new blogsite, Wittingshire. Recent posts include thoughts on the just-released extended edition of Peter Jackson's film of Tolkien's The Return of the King, a note on modern architecture (with examples), and, of course, much insightful debunking of Darwinism.

11:52 AM


We apologize to our readers who could not access Mere Comments from Monday night through mid-morning Wednesday. Our webhosting service moved all of our site files from one server to another without informing us and without much care. They failed to keep some of the path information from the old server and this meant some of you weren't seeing anything new on Mere Comments after Monday evening. Part of our online Touchstone archives were also disabled.

We believe everything is working again. Please do let us know if you encounter any probems.

10:52 AM

Wednesday, December 15


The battles over Nativity scenes and the words “Merry Christmas” are heating up, at least according to some stories. (I wonder: maybe post-election, religion is more noticed by the media? Are the incidents higher than last year?) Anyway, here is one story, by Allen G. Breed, selected by the Wall Street Journal's “best of the Web” as having one of those headlines they sarcastically list under “This Just In”: Christians Aiming to Boost Religion

Emboldened by their Election Day successes, some Christian conservatives around the country are trying to put more Christ into Christmas this season.
After a detailed round up of stories (e.g. Target banning the Salvation Army) and critics of Christians, the writer gives some goofy examples of people nervous about the issue:
In Kansas, The Wichita Eagle ran a correction for a notice that mistakenly referred to the Community Tree at the Winterfest celebration as a "Christmas Tree." And the mayor of Somerville, Mass., apologized after a news release mistakenly referred to the Dec. 21 City Holiday Party as a "Christmas Party."

But to many, the threats and demands that stores put up "Merry Christmas" signs are no laughing matter.

"Why not simply require stores owned by Jews to put a gold star in their ads and on their storefronts?" the Rev. Jim Melnyk, associate rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Raleigh, wrote in a letter to the editor.
Thanks, Rev. Melynk, that helps.

4:03 PM


For those of you afflicted with relatives, friends, family who raise questions about Christianity and Christmas as inspired by the annual “reporting” of Newsweek and Time magazine, we can offer you some sanity by pointing you to Al Mohler's Crosswalk article of 12/9.

Of the two, the Newsweek article is more problematic by far. TIME's article, "Secrets of the Nativity," is written by reporter David Van Biema, a skilled writer who often covers religious stories for the magazine. Even as the article opens with questions about the identity of the wise men, the nature of the star, and whether or not Jesus was born in Nazareth, rather than Bethleham. Van Biema goes on to report: "In the debates over the literal truth of the Gospels, just about everyone acknowledges that major conclusions about Jesus' life are not based on forensic clues. There is no specific physical evidence for the key points of the story."
The usual suspects are trotted out to cast doubt. The arguments in Newsweek are stunning: Matthews says Jesus was born in a house. Luke says in a stable manger. Obvious contradiction. Of course, Matthew says no such thing. Anyway, Dr. Mohler will sort it out if you're interested. One surprise: a “fake but accurate” line pops up, something noted by the Wall Street Journal today in Mohler's column.

3:37 PM


Stratford Caldecott, editor of Second Spring, writes about “Theories of Evolution” in the current issue. He includes a very interesting quote from Jerry Fodor:

”Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious. Nobody even knows what it would be like to have the slightest idea about how anything material could be conscious.”
I especially like that last line. Think of what he is saying this way: we live in three dimensions (four, really, including time). I have seen visual presentations of string theory in which multiple dimensions are painstakingly explained and portrayed graphically. I can sort of get an idea of a few more dimensions, extrapolating from my own 3-D existence and even 2- and 3-D graphics. So we can have “the slightest idea” about extra dimensions, even if not fully grasped. We perceive at least the glimmer of a shadow (I know, that's a funny way to put it.)

Fodor, on the other hand, seems to say that the distance between matter and consciousness is so great that we don't have a place from which to extrapolate much at all. Well, just who is Jerry Fodor? I checked on the web and found this:
From 1959 to 1986 Fodor taught at MIT, first as instructor and then as Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities, and as Associate Professor in the Departments of Philosophy and Psychology. From 1969 onward he has been Professor in the Departments of Philosophy and Psychology. In 1986, he became Distinguished Professor and in 1988 Adjunct Professor at CUNY Graduate Center. Since 1988, he has been State of New Jersey Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University. According to Fodor, "the basic question in cognitive science is, How could a mechanism be rational? The serious answer to that question is . . . that it could be rational by being a sort of proof-theoretic device, that is, by being a mechanism that has representational capacities - mental states that represent states of the world - and that can operate on these mental states by virtue of its syntactical properties. The basic idea in cognitive science is the idea of proof theory, that is, that you can simulate semantic relations - in particular, semantic relations among thoughts - by syntactical processes." Fodor first defends this idea in his 1975 book The Language of Thought. He also defends a strong version of faculty psychology, according to which the mind consists of informationally encapsulated, 'low-level' perceptual modules which feed information to 'higher-level' non-modular cognitive processes, in his 1983 book The Modularity of Mind. According to Fodor, only modular cognitive processes can be studied scientifically. Fodor is also an ardent critic of connectionist models of cognitive phenomena, arguing that they cannot account for the rationality of thought. This criticism is bolstered by Fodor's endorsement of the strict separation of psychology from neuroscience. According to Fodor, the neurological properties of the brain are irrelevant to its cognitive properties.
Did you get all that? Well, that last bit would seem to say that there is a gulf between the mere matter of the brain and self-consciousness, which is in line with Stratford Caldecott's citation.

Speaking of which, Second Spring should be of interest if you are interested in the “arts, sciences, society, technology, theology, liturgy, ecclesial movements, symbolism and metaphysics, history and the world of work.” Léonie Caldecott, Stratford's wife, co-edits the journal. She published an article on fantasy writer Phillip Pullman, Paradise Denied, in Touchstone. Stratford's Touchstone articles include one on Tolkein, The Lord and Lady of the Rings, and one on comicbook superheroes, Supermen and Virtues.

Second Spring is published twice a year by the G. K. Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture. Check it out. (Link is above)

1:04 PM

Tuesday, December 14


In addition to the interview mentioned this morning (see below), Amy Laura Hall had an exchange with Christianity Today this past summer. It accompanied a cover story for the issue, "When Does Personhood Begin," by Bob Smietana, reporting welcome reconsiderations of in vitro fertilization and other reproductive technologies by a growing number of Evangelical scholars, ethicists, and medical professionals.

2:23 PM


Writing for Christianity Today's Weblog, Ted Olsen summarizes Sunday's Washington Post coverage of Michael Gerson's address to reporters at a conference sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Gerson, a Wheaton grad who has worked as President Bush's chief speechwriter the past four years, disavows many of the media's pet theories about Bush and God. Olsen recommends reading the entire Washington Post story.

1:46 PM


A refreshing (and surprising) voice has emerged from the mainline Protestant academy. Her name is Amy Laura Hall, and she teaches Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School. The Matthew's House Project has republished an interview with Hall from The Other Journal. In the interview, Hall reflects on Evangelical comfort with reproductive technologies and contraception, the "nuclear" family vs. the biblical one, Norman Rockwell's images of children vs. those by the photographer Anne Geddes, the ubiquitous What to Expect When You're Expecting books on childrearing, and the Mennonite view that they have children to produce martyrs for the faith.

Some readers may find The Matthew's House Project of interest. It's an ecumenical enterprise based here in Chicago. They hold a series of talks in the coffeeshop of a northside Borders, and host a website publishing both classic literary and original writing on themes of faith, culture, society, and the Christian imagination, "grounding our participation in culture in our experiences of the local church."

11:27 AM


Touchstone subscriber Jenna Young saw our blog last week about a reading group in Pennsylvania that was using our Creed and Culture book. She is interested in finding out if there are any readers in the Detroit Metro area who would be interested in something similar. She is happy to take on the responsibility for coordinating a Detroit-area group of Touchstone readers. Here is her contact information:

Jenna Young
1313 Maryland
Grosse Pointe Park, MI 48230

9:40 AM

Monday, December 13


St. John Cantius, a “traditional” Roman Catholic parish here in Chicago, last Saturday evening offered its first-ever “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.” I am told they were hoping 200 might come. But the church, which holds at least 800, was full. The services and music at St. John's is of a high caliber and worth the trip for those living anywhere in the Chicago area. A Christmas CD by their Saint Cecelia Choir is available and can be ordered by phone: 1-888-298-5157. Or check their website for more information.

Also, on the Orthodox side of things in Chicago, the superb Saint Romanos Capella, directed by Peter Jermihov, will be singing 19th and 20th-century masterpieces that juxtapose Eastern and Western musical traditions. The choral event, “The Theotokos and the Mother of Light, Let Us Magnify in Songs!” will be held on January 15 and 16 in Chicago and Des Plaines. For more information check their website for updates and contact information.

Speaking of Orthodox music, for Orthodox readers and others interested, there is an interesting experiment taking place via internet radio, which seems to be the latest thing (to me at least). Including a wide variety of Orthodox music--recorded by both professional and local church choirs--plus some commentary and an occasional selection of lectures, Ancient Faith Radio may be of interest. You need some type of music player, like iTunes or Realplayer, I believe. It is available 24/7 and can be downloaded and set to play whenever you like.

Finally, those who appreciate Gregorian Chant (like me) may be interested in a 3-CD series, “A Celebration of Faith in His Name,” depicting the Life of Christ, sung and produced by the Gloriae Dei Cantores Schola. It is well-performed in the acoustically-rich Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, Massachusettes. The CDs-“The Coming of Christ,” The Beloved Son,” and “I Am With You,” are accompanied by full texts and translations, with notes, and are distributed by Paraclete Press, (phone) 1-800-451-5066.

3:35 PM


The following is a commentary by contributing editor Frederica Mathewes-Green, recorded for a radio program for future broadcast (the title above is mine):

The other night a couple of dozen young professionals and college students, mostly Eastern Orthodox Christians, crowded into my house for dinner. We played a current events party game. We divided the group in two and assigned one side to favor, and the other to oppose, five controversial issues.

At the end of the discussion we went around the room and voted. One after another, these twenty- and thirty-somethings said that one issue was more important to them than any other. They were strongly opposed to abortion.

Abortion was the stealth factor in the recent election. It hadn't been in the spotlight for a while. Many people may have thought it went away. Yet some polls show the pro-life position is quietly growing, especially among young people.

Perhaps opposition to abortion was underestimated because pro-choicers began to believe their own propaganda. Perhaps they assumed pro-lifers were poor and uneducated, knee-jerk opponents of women's rights. They didn't make room for people like me.

I was the first feminist in my dorm, thirty years ago. I fought for abortion rights. But then I came to see that abortion is wrong. I learned that in the most common method the unborn child is sucked into a tiny tube. Well, you can picture the results. Advocates of abortion rights may see it as a medical procedure. My stand against abortion is a stand against violence, and I voted for the only candidate who gets this.

Same with my friend who works at a big-city newspaper. He was very angry about the war, and for awhile swore he'd vote against Bush. But in the end the abortion issue, and related biotech fears, caused him to pull the Republican lever. Another friend, a college professor and life-long Democrat, says his party ought to stand for the weak, the poor, and the threatened. That includes unborn children. He crossed over to vote for Bush.

Here's an example of the kind of change we hope to see. The recent budget bill included a provision allowing medical personnel to refuse to participate in abortions. It didn't restrict abortion. It just protects nurses and other medical workers who have conscientious objections to the procedure. It's an index of how out-of-touch pro-choice advocates are that they acted like this was a catastrophe. If the abortion business depends on forcing people doing them against their will, it was in trouble already.

Another priority is to see that pro-life judicial candidates get a fair hearing. We don't want to be told their opinion is so unacceptable they'll be tossed out before they get a chance. We believe this issue has to do with fatal child abuse. So we won't compromise on it, even if we have to put up with some other party positions we don't like. At my party one pro-lifer spoke strongly in favor of gun control, and many advocated environmental protection and government aid to the poor. When I asked, "How many of you are *both* pro-life, and against the death penalty?" most of the hands in the room went up.

Democrats would be wise to learn who pro-lifers really are. We're not snake-handlers running barefoot through the holler. We're your co-workers and neighbors, your doctor, your auto mechanic. We've been here all along. We haven't been too outspoken, because you made it clear that our views were not welcome. Well, now it's time for liberals to do what they're best at. Open your minds. Overcome stereotypes, prejudice and fear. Take a pro-lifer to lunch. You'll find we're not so different from you, after all.

--Frederica Mathewes-Green

1:33 PM


Maegan Carberry has a column in today's "Red Eye" edition of the Chicago Tribune called "Sex ed: Don't preach, just teach." She writes

Experimenting with drinking and other so-called vices is just part of growing up for many teens. Not all of them experiment, but many of them do.

It's part of a broader type of education that is arguably just as essential as math or English--life education.
I don't know why those responsible for teaching teens don't take the same attitude toward tobacco. Because it's clearly dangerous? Isn't there already enough evidence to show that promiscuous sex, premarital sex, especially among high school students, does make for healthy citizens? Some of this "experimentation" results in abortion, and thus, a dead child. (And abortion has effects on mothers down the road oftentimes). Some results in sexually transmitted diseases. Some certainly results in teen depression and mental health problems. Studies also link such experimentation with a decreased bonding later when they finally do get married. So divorce is also a byproduct. And a byproduct of divorce when their are children involved are broken homes and all the negative effects studies show such children often experience.

Now that I think about it, the schools don't even teach kids how to take crack cocaine and manage its effects, how to deal with arrest, bail, trial, jail time, and missed homework. But wouldn't all that be a "broader type of education" just as essential as math or English? But sex is the one thing that you may not make moralizing statements about, apparently.

10:55 AM


Tonight, Dec. 13, at the Fountain Plaza in Wahsington Square Park, New York City, there will be a candlelight vigil "protest of the genocide in Darfur, Sudan." Simon Deng, a survivor and former slave, will be a speaker. Accordin to a Freedom Now World News press release, some 350,000 people have died in the past 18 months. For more information contact Maria Sliwa, 973-272-2861. Sponsoring organizations are quite diverse.

10:02 AM

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