Letters

Giant Birds

Gregory S. Paul’s op-ed “How Giant Birds Help Disprove the Existence of a Good God” (FI, June/July 2018) was a great counter to would-be intellectual William Lane Craig’s comments about predation in the wild. However, I would add to Mr. Paul’s arsenal.

Craig wrongly thinks that predation is the only way to keep populations in check. However, overcrowding in rats where there is an abundant food supply (recall Craig’s caribous were overgrazing) creates conditions of, inter alia, profuse homosexuality (so much for homosexuality not being “natural”), cannibalism, infanticide, disease, increased infant and maternal mortality, and lowered birth rates.1 It’s unclear how much of this was going on with Craig’s caribous, but he does admit that at least some of them were “diseased” and “dying of starvation,” so perhaps the introduction of wolves merely served to make conditions more convenient for humans and had nothing to do with finding “ecological balance” as Craig maintains.

Overcrowding in cats leads to deadly infighting and rampant disease, while overcrowding in baboons has similar consequences to the rats and cats. Overcrowding causes vervet monkeys to avoid one another, which in turn lowers birth rates and decreases social activities such as sharing and hunting. At least one study has shown that in animals where dominant males mate with several females, high population density may not cause but leads to violent takeovers and the wholesale slaughter of resident infants.2

All these mechanisms serve to naturally reduce population densities, and none of them has anything to do with predation. Paul argues that infanticide cannot be a good thing—and I would largely agree—but I would qualify his proclamation by adding that nature is neither good nor bad, but rather indifferent to suffering, and there cannot be an omni-benovelent god that is indifferent to suffering.

1. John B. Calhoun, “Population Density and Social Pathology,” Scientific American 2006 (2) (February 1962), pp. 139–146, 148; and references cited.

2. John F. Eisenberg, “Mammalian Social Organization and the Case of Alouatta,” in Michael H. Robinson and Lionel Tiger, editors, Man and Beast Revisited (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Pres, 1991), p. 135.

Jon Guy

Newcastle, Wyoming

Secular Surge

Re: “Secular Surge,” by James A. Haught, FI, June/July 2018. Reading Haught’s Free Inquiry pieces is always such a reassuring pleasure; the ultimate in candy for the choir. For those of us in smaller-town America, it is gratifying to learn that somewhere, the sun is shining bright, the band is playing, and secular hearts are light. If only Haught, himself a newspaper editor, could guarantee that news of the secular surge—if it’s not fake news—is getting to all newspapers and that most are publishing it.

Tell the politicians, too! We’re tired of hearing of this massive evangelical voting bloc to which all politicians must kowtow. Apparently, the “Nones” are more numerous!

Finally, will somebody please tell the president about the “Nones”? Does anyone believe that he is a devout Christian? Or religious at all? If he had known of the rise of the “Nones,” he might well have courted their votes instead. The truly baffling question is: How could my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania—one of the world’s greatest, most liberal universities—have produced a Donald Trump?

Tony Pasquerello

Mansfield, Ohio

Holocene Epoch

Re: “The God of the Holocene Epoch is Dead,” by Daniel C. Maguire, FI, June/July 2018. The God of the Holocene … Something should be added. I very much liked—I was going to write enjoyed, because it was so well written, but that seems inappropriate—the article by Daniel C. Maguire. I must add something crucial: the threat of nuclear war.

I am a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, and I would urge readers to visit our website: www.preventnuclearwar.org.

Climate change is terrible, but we have to do something also about an equally terrible threat. By the way, non-physicians are encouraged to join PSR.

I forgot to mention that climate change will do a lot of things that will enhance the possibility of nuclear war: less food production, migration of people, fighting over water and food.

Carl Saviano, MD

Northampton, MA

Ranking the Presidents

Re: “Separation of Church and State: Ranking the Presidents,” by Bill Lehto, FI, June/July 2018. Thank you for your informative and thought-provoking magazine.

I was somewhat surprised to see that President Jimmy Carter made neither list as he has been very open about his personal faith and his activity in his Baptist church. One of the historical distinctions of Baptists has been a statement about the separation of church and state in their statement of foundational doctrines, and this is something that would have guided him in his political career. I would be interested to know on what side you might have placed him.

Sam Berg, DMin, RMFT

Regina, Saskatoon, Canada

Bill Lehto’s response:

Carter is an interesting case. He proclaimed himself a born-again Christian in the 1976 presidential primary and was certainly one of the most religious U.S. presidents. During his presidency, there were no policy changes directly affecting the separation of church and state one way or the other, but some of his conversations following his presidency give us some insight on his views.

In a 2004 conversation published in Baptist Today, Carter proclaimed, “I believe in the separation of church and state. I think the Southern Baptist Convention leaders have gotten deeply immersed in politics as partners with the Republican Party. And even if they were partners with the Democratic Party, I’d still object to it.”

And in a 2012 interview withChristianity Today International, Carter said:

I’ve always been fully committed to separation of church and state. I didn’t permit worship services in the White House as had been done earlier. … At the same time, there’s no way I could ever separate my Christian belief from my obligations as a naval officer, as a governor or as President, or from my work now. I can’t say my commitments as President were free of my beliefs. … My commitment to peace was an aspect of my Christian faith. Also, basic human rights are obviously compatible with the teachings of Jesus Christ.

So as with George W. Bush, Carter sees his religious beliefs as interwoven in his value system. But unlike George W. Bush, he didn’t make his religious views a centerpiece of his decision making and was careful not to allow his religious beliefs to directly affect policy creation. I think if my list had included all of the U.S. presidents, Carter would have been somewhere on the side of advocates for the separation of church and state.

Infinity

In “Infinity: Just One Damn Thing after Another” (FI, June/July 2018), Kenneth Nahigian unnecessarily complicates the concept. He brings in a version of Zeno’s Paradox, that an arrow goes halfway to its target an infinite number of times, so can never reach its target. Zeno was a philosopher, not a mathematician, living in an era before the concept of a limit (the basis of calculus) was discovered independently by Newton and Leibniz. They showed that infinite sums can converge to a limit. In Zeno’s case, we can begin with one half, then add half of that (one fourth) and keep adding halves. This infinite series has the limit 1, which is the Zeno target.

Philosophers and theologians have misused the concept of infinity, meaninglessly claiming that an infinite god with infinite power has lived an infinite amount of time. Infinity is a useful construct created by humans and need not exist in reality. Infinity, like gods, is not sensible (known through the senses). Mathematically there are many types of infinities, just as people believe in many gods. My mathematics students have sometimes falsely treated infinity as if it actually existed as a real number, and such misuse often got them into trouble. And so it is with many god believers who treat a deity as a real person.

Regardless of current disputes about infinity, I’m happy that we can freely discuss our views without meeting the same fate as Giordano Bruno in 1600. He taught that the universe was infinite with an infinite number of worlds like ours. It was considered heretical for finite man to discover the nature of the infinite, which was so clearly allied with the nature of God. Bruno was burned at the stake, one of the last victims of the Inquisition.

Herb Silverman

Charleston South, Carolina

It is true that some mathematicians, before an understanding of infinite series was developed during the eighteenth century, disdained such thoughts. It is also true that no one will ever fully compute pi, and it is true that Zeno presented several “paradoxes,” one of which Kenneth Nahigian relates in his essay. But the concept of infinite limits is the basis of both differential and integral calculus! In particular, the arrow “paradox” of Zeno, stating that an arrow in flight must first travel half the total distance, then half of the remaining, half the remaining, and on and on translates into the series for the total distance to be covered as: distance = 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16 + … , the three dots indicating an infinite continuation of the sequence. However the limit of this series = 1, i.e., the total distance! If the time to travel 1/2 was, say, four seconds, the series for the time would be written as time = 4 + 2 + 1 + 1/2 + 1/4 + … seconds;  limit (time) = 8 seconds. Surprise, surprise!!! Just what one would expect! That is, the use of infinite sequences produces the same result as objective reality would predict.  

Such mathematics, begun by Newton and Leibnitz, axiomatized by Cauchy, further put on firm ground by Weierstrass, is an understanding not realized in Zeno’s time. In fact, it is noted that Archimedes (approximately 250 BCE) almost invented calculus, but, knowing that he did not understand infinite calculations, used the more ancient method of exhaustion, which was sort of an infinite process that produced approximate results. Archimedes finished the calculation by using indirect reasoning, twice, to show that what we would call today “the limit” was in fact correct.

One final example: of course, 1/3 = 0.333333 . . , again continuing infinitely. The decimal representation could be written as:  .3 + .03 + .003 + … , and if one didn’t know what fraction it was, using the methods of an infinite limit one could determine that this infinite series totaled to—you guessed it—1/3.

There are still many unanswered questions regarding infinite sets. However to deny our ability to deal with infinity, to be an infinity denier, is irrational. But, did you know that there are an infinite number of rational numbers, but there are more irrational numbers?  

Ken McCaffrey

Brattleboro, Vermont

Kenneth Nahigan’s article on infinity discusses Zeno’s arrow paradox.  This paradox is that in order to reach the target an arrow must first reach the half way point to the target, but in order to reach the halfway point to the target, it must reach half the half way point and so forth. Zeno argued that since there are an infinite number of terms to be summed, the arrow can never reach the target.

In his article, Nahigan argues that only quantum physics can rescue us from this dilemma, but as I’m sure he knows, there is a much more straight forward answer that was proposed before quantum physics was thought of and which works just fine in a continuous, non-quantized universe. It is based on the surprising fact that it is possible for a series with an infinite number of terms to sum to a finite result.

Without looking at the math, the idea is that as the distances in the series get shorter, half + quarter + eighth and so forth, the time needed to traverse each of those distances also gets shorter. The sum of that infinite series of times is finite, and not surprisingly it turns out that this sum is the time the arrow takes in the real world to reach its target.

Mike Bridges

Via email

Kenneth Nahigan’s response:

What a delight to read this array of intelligent rejoinders to what I thought of as a “cotton candy” piece! Herb Silverman, Ken McCaffrey, and Mike Bridges are all correct that the sum of the series of distances, as represented by the arrow’s half-point passages, is perfectly finite. Zeno may or may not have realized this—hard to say what that old stoic of Elea was thinking. (Of course Zeno used the example of Achilles chasing after a tortoise, but it amounts to pretty much the same thing.)

The point was not that the sum is infinite, but that the series contains an infinite number of terms. Each term represents an actual event in objective time and space. So by the time the arrow hits the target, a literal infinity of events occur!

You can resolve this in two ways: 1. Admit a real infinity; or 2. Deny the perfect continuity of time and space. I was nudging toward the second resolution, but the first is good; take your pick.

By My Own Hand

Re: “By My Own Hand: Suicide Can Be a Wise and Gentle Choice,” Lowrey R. Brown, FI, August/September 2018. I was disappointed with the argument for death with dignity presented by Lowrey R. Brown In the August/September issue. When she quoted the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence, I hoped for a minute that she would address the argument advanced by Supreme Count Justice Neil Gorsuch that the Declaration forbids suicide, because it posits that life is inalienable. The wording, “that all men … are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights, and that among these are life …” is easily compatible with the Catholic dogma that your life is a gift from God, and a gift cannot be refused. But Lowrey missed the opportunity to dispute that.

A truly secular argument would be that men (and women) were created by evolution, and that men (and more recently women) in modern democratic societies have endowed themselves with rights that limit the power of the state over them. Our right to life remains insecure, however, as long as judicial kiling (aka the death penalty) is still inflicted by the state, despite the Catholic Church’s objection. Executions are the main evidence that our lives still belong to the state. As Max Weber wrote, the state has a monopoly on legitimate violence. And it defends that monopoly by insisting that it has the duty to kill anyone who assists in the killing of another, even with the most loving motives.

Homer Edward Price

Sylva, North Carolina


Giant Birds Gregory S. Paul’s op-ed “How Giant Birds Help Disprove the Existence of a Good God” (FI, June/July 2018) was a great counter to would-be intellectual William Lane Craig’s comments about predation in the wild. However, I would add to Mr. Paul’s arsenal. Craig wrongly thinks that predation is the only way to keep …

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