Nowhere Man

In 1819, as a riposte to David Hume’s skepticism of the Gospel history, Richard Whately published Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Bonaparte:

‘But what shall we say to the testimony of those many respectable persons who went to Plymouth on purpose, and saw Buonaparte with their own eyes? must they not trust their senses?’ I would not disparage either the eyesight or the veracity of these gentlemen. I am ready to allow that they went to Plymouth for the purpose of seeing Buonaparte; nay, more, that they actually rowed out into the harbour in a boat, and came alongside of a man-of-war, on whose deck they saw a man in a cocked hat, who, they were told, was Buonaparte. This is the utmost point to which their testimony goes; how they ascertained that this man in the cocked hat had gone through all the marvellous and romantic adventures with which we have so long been amused, we are not told.

“Let those, then, who pretend to philosophical freedom of inquiry, who scorn to rest their opinions on popular belief, and to shelter themselves under the example of the unthinking multitude, consider carefully, each one for himself, what is the evidence proposed to himself in particular, for the existence of such a person as Napoleon Buonaparte: — I do not mean, whether there ever was a person bearing that name, for that is a question of no consequence; but whether any such person ever performed all the wonderful things attributed to him; — let him then weigh well the objections to that evidence, (of which I have given but a hasty and imperfect sketch,) and if he then finds it amount to anything more than a probability, I have only to congratulate him on his easy faith.”

The whole thing is here.


[A]ccording to the standard traditions, being in hell is the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone. As with less horrendous evils, the first question is how such an evil is, or could be, justified. The theological portrayals of hell make this question the most difficult for the theist to address. Ordinary pain and evil, it may be thought, can be accounted for if events in the future ‘make up for’ what leads to them, but the evil of hell leads nowhere; at no point in the future will something of value make up for the evil of hell or will some reward be granted to those who endure the suffering of hell. Hell is apparently paradigmatic as an example of truly pointless, gratuitous evil. Thus arises the problem of hell.

— Jonathan L. Kvanvig, The Problem of Hell, 1993

Engine Trouble

In John Milton’s 1637’s poem “Lycidas,” corrupt clergy are threatened with a obscure punishment:

The hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed,
But swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread:
Besides what the grim Woolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing sed,
But that two-handed engine at the door,
Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.

What is the “two-handed engine”? That’s been a riddle for nearly 400 years. In 1950, Oberlin College philologist W. Arthur Turner collected 10 possibilities, ranging from the nations England and Scotland to “[t]he sheep-hook, which in Milton’s day apparently had an iron spud on the straight end and could be used as a weapon.” Turner himself thought that “the only engine which does meet all the requirements is the lock on St. Peter’s door (or the power of the lock), to which he carries the key.” But there’s still no strong consensus.

(W. Arthur Turner, “Milton’s Two-Handed Engine,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 49:4 [October 1950], 562-565.)

“De Nyew Testament”

We Fada wa dey een heaben,
leh ebreybody hona ya name.
We pray dat soon ya gwine
rule oba de wol.
Wasoneba ting ya wahn,
leh um be so een dis wol
same like dey een heaben.
Gii we de food wa we need
dis day yah en ebry day.
Fagib we fa we sin,
same like we da fagib
dem people wa do bad ta we.
Leh we dohn hab haad test
wen Satan try we.
Keep we fom ebil.

From the New Testament in Gullah. The whole book is here.

First Things First

One may wonder at the oddity of an argument from orderliness. The theist innocently demands a cause for orderliness, forgetting, of course, that ’cause’ presupposes ‘orderliness.’ Without the laws of causality, no causes would be operative. The laws of causality must therefore exist before any cause can operate. Therefore the laws of causality cannot be the result of any cause. These are laws which cannot be caused even by God.

— B.C. Johnson, The Atheist Debater’s Handbook, 1983

In the Beginning

What was God doing before he made heaven and earth? … if (God) did nothing, why did he not continue in this way … forever … ? If any new motion arise in God, or a new will is formed in him, to the end of establishing creation which he had never established previously … then (God) is not truly … eternal. Yet if it were God’s sempiternal will for the creature to exist, why is not the creature sempiternal also?

— Augustine, Confessions

A Perfect Bore

If we assume the existence of an omniscient and omnipotent being, one that knows and can do absolutely everything, then to my own very limited self, it would seem that existence for it would be unbearable. Nothing to wonder about? Nothing to ponder over? Nothing to discover? Eternity in such a heaven would surely be indistinguishable from hell.

— Isaac Asimov, “X” Stands for Unknown, 1984

Podcast Episode 287: The Public Universal Friend

After a severe fever in 1776, Rhode Island farmer’s daughter Jemima Wilkinson was reborn as a genderless celestial being who had been sent to warn of the coming Apocalypse. But the general public was too scandalized by the messenger to pay heed to the message. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Public Universal Friend and the prejudiced reaction of a newly formed nation.

We’ll also bid on an immortal piano and puzzle over some Icelandic conceptions.

See full show notes …

Applied Chemistry

On his May 1997 final exam at the University of Oklahoma School of Chemical Engineering, a Dr. Schlambaugh asked, “Is hell exothermic or endothermic? Support your answer with proof.” Most students based their responses on Boyle’s law, but one gave this answer:

First, we postulate that if souls exist, they must have some mass. If they do, then a mole of souls must have a mass. So at what rate are souls moving into hell and at what rate are souls leaving? I think we can safely assume that once a soul gets to hell it does not leave. Therefore, no souls are leaving. As for souls entering hell, let’s look at the different religions that exist in the world today. Some of the religions state that if you are not a member of their religion, you will go to hell. Since there are more than one of these religions and people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that all souls go to hell. With the birth and death rates what they are, we can expect the number of souls in hell to increase exponentially. Now, we look at the rate of change in the volume of hell. Boyle’s Law states that in order for the temperature and pressure in hell to stay the same, the ratio of the mass of the souls to the volume needs to stay constant. (1) If hell is expanding at a slower rate than the rate at which souls enter hell, then the temperature and pressure in hell will increase until all hell breaks loose. (2) If hell is expanding at a rate faster than the increase in souls in hell, then the temperature and pressure will drop until hell freezes over. So which is it? If we accept the postulate given to me by Theresa Banyan during Freshman year, ‘It will be a cold night in hell before I sleep with you’ and take into account the fact that I still have not succeeded in having sexual relations with her, then (2) cannot be true. Thus hell is exothermic.

“The student, Tim Graham, got the only A.”

(Dave Morice, “Kickshaws,” Word Ways 31:2 [May 1998], 140-149.)

01/28/2020 This is a legend, apparently starting at the Taylor Instrument Company in the 1920s and accumulating some entertaining variations since then. The text of the Applied Optics piece is here. (Thanks, Dan and Pete.)


In 1924 British journalist William Norman Ewer published an antisemitic couplet:

How odd of God
To choose the Jews.

It’s been met with at least six responses. From Leo Rosten:

Not odd of God.
Goyim annoy ‘im.

From Cecil Brown:

But not so odd
As those who choose
A Jewish God
Yet spurn the Jews.

Three anonymous replies:

Not odd of God
His son was one.

Not odd, you sod
The Jews chose God.

How strange of man
To change the plan.

And Yale political scientist Jim Sleeper wrote:

Moses, Jesus, Marx, Einstein, and Freud;
No wonder the goyim are annoyed.