A Perfect Bore

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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

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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

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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.)

Counterpoint

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.

A Hidden Treasure

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1954, workers in Bangkok were moving a plaster Buddha to a new temple when the ropes broke and it fell to the ground. Some of the surface broke away, revealing gold beneath.

They had accidentally rediscovered the Phra Phuttha Maha Suwana Patimakon, a 5.5-tonne gold statue that had remained hidden for nearly 200 years. It had been made in the 13th or 14th century and then covered with stucco sometime in the late 18th century to preserve it from thieves.

The rediscovery occurred near the 2500-year anniversary of Gautama Buddha’s passing and was widely regarded as a miracle. The statue was moved to a new large building in 2010.

(Thanks, David.)

Simple Terms

In 1860 Manchester layman J. Gill wrote “a sermon in words of one syllable only”:

He who wrote the Psalm in which our text is found, had great cause to both bless and praise God; for he had been brought from a low state to be a great king in a great land; had been made wise to rule the land in the fear and truth of God; and all his foes were, at the time he wrote, at peace with him. Though he had been poor, he was now rich in this world’s goods; though his youth had been spent in the care of sheep, he now wore a crown; and though it had been his lot for a long time to hear the din of war and strife, peace now dwelt round the throne, and the land had rest.

The whole thing is here. “This Sermon … is offered to the public with the view of showing that at least big words are not necessary for the conveyance of great truths to the minds of the people,” he wrote in a preface. “[I have] an ambition to prove that, in the advocacy of religious truth, very plain, simple, and old-fashioned words have not yet lost their original force and significance.”

Visual Aids

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Dispensationalist pastor Clarence Larkin illustrated his books with intricate charts interpreting prophecy and explaining God’s action in history.

“[T]he charts had to be thought out and developed under the direction and guidance of the Holy Spirit,” he wrote in Dispensational Truth (1920). “In this the Holy Spirit did not confuse the Author by suggesting all the charts at one time. When one was completed another was suggested. And upon more than one occasion when a problem arose the answer was given in the night or at awakening in the morning.”

The Dilemma of Timeless Knowledge

  1. God timelessly believes K and is infallible.
  2. Nobody now can do anything about the fact that God timelessly believes K and is infallible.
  3. Nobody can do anything about the fact that if God timelessly believes K and is infallible, then A will kill B on Saturday (what is next Saturday to us).
  4. So nobody now can do anything about the fact that A will kill B on Saturday (what is next Saturday to us).
  5. So A will not kill B freely.

From Linda Zagzebski, Philosophy of Religion, quoted in W. Jay Wood, God, 2011.

Express

Politician and amateur theologian John Asgill raised some eyebrows in 1700 — he claimed that Christians needn’t die to enter heaven. In his resurrection, Christ had broken the Law of Death, and God had sent a chariot of heaven to collect him directly. The faithful could simply follow him — dying was no longer necessary:

I shall not go hence by returning unto the Dust … But that I shall make my Exit by way of Translation, which I claim as a dignity belonging to that Degree in the Science of Eternal Life, of which I profess my self a graduat, according to the true intent and meaning of the covenant of Eternal Life revealed in the Scriptures. And if after this, I die like other Men, I declare my self to die of no religion.

The Irish House of Commons expelled him for blasphemy, and he died, distinctly earthbound, in a debtors’ prison in 1738. Daniel Defoe wrote, “When Men Pore upon the Sacred Mysteries of Religion with the Mathematical Engines of Reason, they make such incoherent stuff of it, as would make one pity them.”

(From Philip C. Almond, Afterlife: A History of Life After Death, 2016.)

Miracles and Agents

Jones tells a mountain to hop into the sea and it does so. Has he performed a miracle?

Well, no, writes University of Birmingham philosopher George Chryssides. If Jones repeats his feat, then he’s revealed an underlying causal principle that’s amenable to study just like the rest of the natural world. If he doesn’t repeat the feat, then there’s no support for the idea of a link between his command and the mountain’s movement — we know only that the two events coincided, not that one caused the other.

“In order … to determine the answer to the question, ‘Did Jones move the mountain?’ … we must ascertain whether similar effects would follow similar putative causes,” Chryssides writes. “Either an allegedly miraculous event is a violation of scientific law, in which case it could not be performed by an agent, or else it is performed by an agent, in which case it could not be a violation of scientific law.”

(George D. Chryssides, “Miracles and Agents,” Religious Studies 11:3 [September 1975], 319-327.)