Hook Of Mormon

Mormon church lifts ban social media, discovers that internet chat rooms are great places to recruit. People like the anonymity. It’s easier than having “a couple of gangly teenagers” in your living room. “Whereas traditional Mormon missionaries convert, on average, six people during their 18-to-24-month service, the online apostles in Provo have averaged around 30 converts per missionary per year” (4,100 words)

The Mathematical World

On the philosophy of mathematics. Two essential characteristics distinguish mathematics from other sciences: Complete abstraction, and the claim to discover absolute truths. But is mathematics anything more than a set of internally consistent rules — and therefore, at some level, a tautology? Or are those rules determined by external realities? Short answer: the latter. Symmetries and ratios exist in nature, for example (2,400 words)

Mom In Hell

Theodicy. How might you be happy in Heaven, if someone you loved — your mother, for example — were in Hell? “If people only cared about themselves, then it would make sense, but we care about other people too. And it’s just flat-out impossible for most people to be totally happy while knowing that someone they love is being tortured eternally in the most horrific concentration camp in the cosmos” (580 words)

Life As A Humanistic Discipline

Highly intelligent discussion of Bernard Williams’s Essays and Reviews, 1959-2002. “For Williams, philosophy is not like science. In science, the big breakthroughs come from brilliant thinkers, but everybody else can usefully get on with collecting data. In philosophy, you are not only not adding data if you are making banal and repetitive arguments; you are getting in the way of those who are trying to make sense of our world” (2,120 words)

The Six Of Coins

How to tease meaning out of a tarot card. “The Six of Coins is about a lopsided balance. The man on the card has two beggars before him. He is only giving money to one, and yet the scale he holds is balanced … If you are the beggar (and we are all, all of the time, the beggar in front of someone), who are you holding your hand out to for help? And what behaviour are those people going to reward?” (1,520 words)

Noah Is A Hot, Wet, Cinematic Mess

Russell Crowe plays Noah as “a sort of two-fisted Buddhist for whom all life is sacred”. He is “recognisably Hollywood” but also “scarily Old Testament.” Aronofsky’s “entertainingly lurid” film is “the most eccentric Old Testament adaptation to come out Hollywood since John Huston’s The Bible“. And, with all due respect to The Ten Commandments, it is “the most Jewish biblical blockbuster ever made” (1,580 words)

Sacred And Profane

Reflections on the FBI’s siege and storming of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas in 1993, leaving 73 dead. Tragedy could have been avoided if the FBI had taken the religious values of the Davidians seriously. Negotiators thought they were dealing with a crazy cult, as in Jonestown. But the Davidians were more like 19C Mormons: Fairly regular people with studious habits and deeply-held radical beliefs (6,100 words)

Interview: Tim Crane On Metaphysics

Conversation about the nature of metaphysics. It is “the most general enquiry into the nature of reality”; it pulls apart the ideas underlying science, knowledge and consciousness. “When you say one thing causes something else, so one thing makes something else happen, what is that? What is causation? Is there such a thing, what does it involve? This has been a central question of metaphysics since Aristotle” (7,000 words)

The Sacred In Art

Believers may wonder whether non-believers can “truly comprehend the meaning” of religiously inspired art. Non-believers should turn the question round and ask: What is it that is “sacred” about sacred art? There is as much transcendence in a Rothko painting or a Neruda poem as in a Bach cantata or a Dante verse. Great art is about finding meaning and purpose in life, even — or especially — if we ourselves put it there (2,800 words)

Review: Plato At The Googleplex

Rebecca Goldstein’s “piquant” book consists of “chapters of scholarly discussion” followed by “fictional accounts of Plato appearing in various contemporary venues” — at Google headquarters on a book tour; in a panel discussion at the 92nd Street Y; being interviewed on cable television. Plato is “brought marvellously to life” and “philosophy is vindicated” against the “jeerers” of the “scientific era” (1,850 words)

Interview: Jorge Luis Borges

From the archives: A conversation about the philosophical inspirations of Borges’s writings. Interesting throughout. “If you’ve read what I may be allowed to call ‘my works’ you’d find that there is a very obvious symbol of perplexity to be found all the time, and that is the maze. I find that a very obvious symbol of perplexity. A maze and amazement go together, no? A symbol of amazement would be the maze” (2,040 words)

Terry Eagleton: The Jeremy Clarkson Of Philosophy

Eagleton “came to fame in the 70s as the Oxford English don who was also a self-confessed revolutionary socialist, or, if you prefer, as the revolutionary socialist who was also a self-confessed Oxford don”. His “verve and cogency” conceal a lack of depth. He is “the Jeremy Clarkson of philosophy, giving high-performance ideas a quick spin, but making a point of not taking anything very seriously” (1,195 words)

Peter Singer Talks About Right and Wrong

Clear, wide-ranging interview touching on charitable giving, animal rights, euthanasia. On zoos: “We need to turn the zoos around so the major purpose of them is not to provide people with an opportunity to look at animals, but to provide those animals with an opportunity to lead reasonably good lives”. On killing babies: “I do sometimes think that, in hindsight, it might have been better if I never addressed that topic” (2,880 words)

John Cornwell: Confession’s Steep Price

Only 2% of American Catholics go to confession “regularly”. Three-quarters never go at all. The “dark box” invented in the 16C “helped foster a very private, and very modern, sense of interiority and guilt”. in 1903 Pope Pius ordered that children also should go to confession each week, a move that may have encouraged worse sins than it ever absolved: “A third of all of the crimes of abuse occurred in a confessional setting” (1,560 words)

Japanese Bishops Take On The Vatican

Japan’s bishops tell the Vatican that Catholic teachings on sex and marriage are wrong, at least for Japan. “It is perhaps important to recall that the only time in the gospels that Jesus clearly encounters someone in a situation of cohabitation outside of marriage (the Samaritan woman at the well) he does not focus on it. Instead, he respectfully deals with the woman and turns her into a missionary” (1,230 words)

Why On Earth Won’t They Let Us Play?

Discussion of David Graeber’s recent article about play, What’s the Point If We Can’t Have Fun? It is tempting to blame the influence of modern economics for the reluctance of social scientists in general to accept play as a valuable adult activity: Our role is to work. But the bias probably goes back to the rise of dissection in the 13C, which encouraged scientists and philosophers to see the body as a machine (3,620 words)

Bernard Williams: Essays and Reviews 1959-2002

Williams was “lucid, cultivated and entirely serious” as philosopher and critic. He would “perceive and expose the hidden assumptions in every argument, while understanding the goal that the argument was seeking to achieve”. He was a minimalist in the tradition of Hume. “He saw the impossibility of systems and grand narratives, and at the same time wanted to uphold our ordinary ways of thinking” (Metered paywall) (990 words)

42 Reflections On The Meaning Of Life

Notes from “a newly minted 42 year old” about life, the universe and everything. Much wisdom in a small space. “The closer you get to the boundaries of social acceptability in any conversation with a new acquaintance, the more interesting that conversation will be. This is a great rule to bear in mind if you want more interesting conversations. But never, ever seek to apply this rule when drunk” (1,800 words)

Ghosts Of The Tsunami

Extraordinary essay on the Japanese way of death. In the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami, which killed 20,000, survivors “described sightings of ghostly strangers, friends and neighbours, and dead loved ones. They reported hauntings at home, at work, in offices and public places, on the beaches and in the ruined towns. The experiences ranged from eerie dreams and feelings of vague unease to cases of outright possession” (7,180 words)

Faith Starts To Fade

Review of recent books on atheism and religious belief. “There seem to be three distinct peaks of modern disbelief, moments when, however hard it is to count precise numbers, we can sense that it was cool to be a scoffer, trendy to vote No. One is in the late eighteenth century, before the French Revolution, another in the late nineteenth century, just before the Russian Revolution, and now there’s our own” (4,740 words)

A God-Shaped Hole

Why Christians can recognise Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot as a classic, despite its message of abandonment and despair. It is “the lament of a one-time believer who once took the promise of faith seriously. Beckett’s is a voice that anyone conversant in the stark desert landscape of the Bible — anyone who has, so to speak, sat picking scabs with Job or eaten locusts with John the Baptist — will recognise in a heartbeat” (1,068 words)

Sam Harris’s Museum Of Mistakes

Demolition of Sam Harris’s Free Will. It is “a remarkable little book, engagingly written and jargon-free, appealing to reason, not authority”. Now for the bad news: It is also “a veritable museum of mistakes, none of them new and all of them seductive — alluring enough to lull the critical faculties of brilliant thinkers who do not make a profession of thinking about free will”. Harris and others “need to do their homework” (10,000 words)

How Do Believers Choose Their Beliefs?

Religious beliefs can be explained as signalling systems for binding communities together. But why choose one belief over another? The reason is: No reason. “There are several properties for a costly signal. One is that it must be arbitrary: it should not be a trait or behaviour that is selectively advantageous, or many different varieties or organisms will trick upon it. So an honest, costly signal is an arbitrary signal” (1,400 words)

The Best Arguments For God’s Existence

The New Atheists — Coyne, Dawkins et al — are criticised for attacking religious belief at a popular and simple level, while ignoring the arguments of more sophisticated theologians. But what more can the theologians bring? “The difference between theologians and believers is not their differential acquaintance with the truth about God, but the greater acquaintance of theologians with the history of theology” (2,900 words)

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