Category Archives: philosophy

Omar Khayyám


Appropriately, I begin this series with the patron of this blog, ‏‏غیاث الدین ابوالفتح عمر بن ابراهیم خیام نیشابورﻯ, in proper Persian transcription, Ghiyāth ad-Din Abu’l-Fatḥ ‘Umar ibn Ibrāhīm al-Khayyām Nīshāpūrī.  In the West, though, he’s most commonly known as Omar Khayyám (in the Victorian era, when Edward FitzGerald’s famous translation of Omar’s poetry became wildly popular, the custom for indicating long vowels in Persian transcription was to use the acute accent; nowadays, the macron is preferred; hence, “Khayyám” vs “Khayyām”).

Omar is best known in the west as the author of the Rubáʿiyát.  This is the plural of rubáʿi, which simply means “quatrain” (a verse of four lines).  The rubáʿi was a very popular genre of verse in Persia, and hundreds of rubáʿiyát are attributed to Omar.  Beginning in 1859, the English poet Edward FitzGerald translated a number of the rubáʿiyát attributed to Omar, publishing them under the title The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (for keen-sighted readers, I’m not being inconsistent.  The apostrophe, representing the glottal stop, should properly be between the first “a” and the “i” in rubáʿiyát–thus, it’s pronounced “roo-BAH-ee-yaht”, not “roo-BYE-yaht”.  However, FitzGerald left it out, for whatever reason.  Thus, when I print the title as he gave it, I’m following suit; but when discussing the genre as such, I’m leaving the glottal stop in).  Over the remainder of his life, FitzGerald produced five editions of the Rubáiyát.  This book became immensely popular in the Victorian age, and while less well-known now, it is still moderately popular, and has never been out of print.

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Universalism: Is It Coherent?

Recently we looked at universalism in relationship to Scripture and Tradition, and we saw that neither of these sources of authority conclusively condemns the hope of  universal salvation.  In short, while we can’t argue that universalism is definitively true based on these sources, neither can we say it us ruled out, either.  Universalism is therefore a possible and non-heretical option.  Whether it is reasonable or likely is an issue for philosophical and theological discourse, which has been the overall approach of this series.

I have certainly posted plenty of things philosophical in this series on universalism, and I think I’ve dealt with all the most important issues.  I would like to look at one somewhat ancillary issue, though.  This is inspired by a recent blog discussion I had (which I also referenced in the last post).  At one point, an interlocutor going by the handle seven sleepers, in taking issue with my stated opinion on universalism, said, “Side note: If you ditch hell, you lose heaven. Pretty obvious that to lose one is to lose the other.”  My response there was, “No, it is not, in fact, obvious, nor is this assertion even logical. It is merely an assertion.”  In this post I’d like–very briefly!–to unpack my thoughts on this.

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Talking Body

Last time we looked at whether God could have created truly free beings that either could not or would not sin, and concluded that likely He could not do so.  In short, truly free beings must have the possibility of sinning, and given enough time, at least some are almost certain to do so.  A third question we posed and saved until later, to wit:

Given the assumption (which I accept) that God made the spiritual world and the incorporeal intelligences (what we call angels, etc.), why did He make embodied intelligences–i.e. us, as well as any other intelligent species that may exist here on Earth or elsewhere in the cosmos?

This question seems to be on a tangent from the questions about the ability of beings to sin, but there is a subtlety involved, which I’ll get to a few posts down the road.  In the meantime, I want to look at possible answers.  After all, the various Christian accounts of creation, orthodox, Gnostic, and other, all agree that God began creation by making the incorporeal–bodiless–intelligences that we call angels, demons and (perhaps) other types of spirits.  Embodied intelligences (such as ourselves), and for that mater, the material cosmos as a whole, were not created until after the spirit realm.  In most traditional religions, though, the spirit realm is thought of as being “higher”.  The question, then, is if this is so, why did God bother with the “lower” realm–our realm–and with us?  Weren’t we a bit of a come-down from the angels?

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Blinded by the Light

Last time, I said I wanted to look at the following three questions:

  1. Could God have made beings incapable of sin?
  2. If not 1, could He have made beings capable of sin but who would never sin in actuality?
  3. Given the assumption (which I accept) that God made the spiritual world and the incorporeal intelligences (what we call angels, etc.), why did He make embodied intelligences–i.e. us, as well as any other intelligent species that may exist here on Earth or elsewhere in the cosmos?

Here I want to look at 1 and 2.

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Legends of the Fall: Let’s Get This Party Started!

‘Cause it can’t always be Gaga–forgive me, Mama Monster!  😉

My series “Legends of the Fall” has been on hiatus for a considerable time.  Finding time and motivation, as well as deciding where I wanted to go with it, have slowed me down.  Moreover, the blog itself has been on semi-hiatus for about a year as life has gotten in the way.  Fiddling around on it and musing a bit today, I had a few ideas as to what I can do.  I won’t say I have a definitive conclusion to the series–what human can claim to understand the Fall?  I do think I have a direction in which I want to go with the series, though, and now is as good a time as any to start hashing it out.

In the next few posts I want to restart the series by asking the following questions:

  1. Could God have made beings incapable of sin?
  2. If not 1, could He have made beings capable of sin but who would never sin in actuality?
  3. Given the assumption (which I accept) that God made the spiritual world and the incorporeal intelligences (what we call angels, etc.), why did He make embodied intelligences–i.e. us, as well as any other intelligent species that may exist here on Earth or elsewhere in the cosmos?

I think that important conclusions can be drawn from number 3 especially.  We’ll get to that in time.  Some of the issues involved in these questions have been touched on before in the course of this very long series, but I think it will be useful to visit them afresh, as well as looking at new angles.

Thus, get ready for new posts, and let’s get the party started!

Part of the series “Legends of the Fall

Arguments Against Universalism: Justice Must Be Served, Part 3–An Eye for an Eye?


Last time we discussed whether infinite retribution for even the worst of finite sins is just.  Our answer to that was, “No.”  Here, though, we’ll look at a more fundamental question:  Is retributive justice itself truly just?

In the first post of this discussion, we looked at the various types of punishments for transgression, and what purposes they try to achieve:

  1.  Restitution seeks to redress a loss.  For example, if you steal from me, you must give the money back.
  2.  Prevention or containment seeks to prevent a crime from happening again.  If you’re in jail for bank robbery, you can’t rob another bank (at least until you are released).
  3.  Deterrence seeks to prevent crime in the first place.  If I know I’ll go to jail for bank robbery, I’ll be less inclined to rob banks to begin with.
  4.  Rehabilitation seeks to retrain or reform a criminal so that he or she can become, in the words of the cliche, a “productive member of society” who will not be inclined to be a repeat offender.
  5.  Retribution is the notion that certain responses are inherently appropriate for certain offenses.

All of these models of punishment are more or less intuitively obvious.  Certainly a criminal should make restitution for his or her crime; prevention and deterrence are fairly obvious motivations for punishment; and while rehabilitation had been controversial for various reasons, it still is fairly logical on its face.  Retribution–that a person deserves a certain punishment because of what he or she did–is, however, more mysterious.  It seems to be uncontroversial and intuitively right; and yet it seems to defy easy analysis.

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Arguments Against Universalism: Justice Must Be Served, Part 2–Just Desserts


Not that kind of dessert; but I couldn’t resist the visual pun!  🙂

Back here we began the discussion of the traditional argument in favor of Hell (and thus against universalism) which asserts that God is just in condemning to Hell the souls of those who are not saved (by whatever specific criteria that is determined).  In that context, we looked at the functions of punishment for transgression, and we came up with the following:  restitution, prevention, deterrence, rehabilitation, and retribution.  After discussing these various motivations for punishment, I concluded with this:

Hell certainly won’t rehabilitate the damned, since they are said to be damned eternally, incapable of reform.  It won’t give the saved restitution–if someone murders me, no amount of Hell he experiences will bring me back to life.  Further, whether I go to Heaven or Hell is traditionally said to be dependent on my own spiritual state.  In short, Heaven is not a “restitution” to me for getting murdered.  If I’m in a state of mortal sin, I’d go to spend eternity in Hell with the one who murdered me.  Prevention and deterrence are not operative here, either.  Fear of Hell might keep a living person on the straight and narrow.  However, after the Last Judgement, when everyone is either in Heaven or Hell, neither prevention nor deterrence has any further purpose.  The saved can no longer sin, so there is no necessity to deter them from evil.  Even if the damned were “let loose” from Hell, the saved can no longer be harmed in any way, so there’s nothing the damned can be prevented from doing to the innocent.

Thus, the only logic of Hell can be that it is a just retribution.  If an eternal Hell exists, retribution is its sole logical purpose.  Thus, in looking at this  issue, the question is not “Is eternal damnation just?” as such, but “In what way and to what extent is retribution, or more precisely retributive punishment just?”

Thus in trying to determine if it is just for God to damn certain people for eternity, we actually have two questions.  The first and most obvious is, “Is eternal punishment for one’s sins just?”  This is the question I’ll discuss in this post.  However, the very question brings up another, subtler question, to wit:  “Is retribution a just motivation for punishment at all?”  That question I will deal with in the next post in this series.

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Arguments Against Universalism: Justice Must Be Served, Part 1–Retribution


Back here, having addressed arguments against universalism that miss the point, I said,

In the next two posts in this series I’ll look at arguments for Hell that at least address the issue.  I’m dividing them into the more traditional arguments that God directly punishes sinners, who deserve what they get, and more modern arguments that take a more psychological approach and locate Hell in the viewpoint of the damned themselves.

Thus, I want now to look at the former of these notions:  that God directly punishes sinners, with the corollaries that they deserve that punishment; or to put it another way, that eternal damnation is in fact just.  In order to do this, before even discussing “just”, we have to begin by unpacking the meaning of “punishment” itself.  After all, if a person has transgressed moral law, there are several different responses society can have, all loosely lumped under “punishment”.  These responses are distinct, though, and are very different in what they attempt to achieve.  First, there is the notion of restoration or restitution.

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Quote for the Week


Most physicists use quantum mechanics every day in their working lives without needing to worry about the fundamental problem of its interpretation. Being sensible people with very little time to follow up all the ideas and data in their own specialties and not having to worry about this fundamental problem, they do not worry about it. A year or so ago, while Philip Candelas (of the physics department at Texas) and I were waiting for an elevator, our conversation turned to a young theorist who had been quite promising as a graduate student and who had then dropped out of sight. I asked Phil what had interfered with the ex-student’s research. Phil shook his head sadly and said, “He tried to understand quantum mechanics.”
So irrelevant is the philosophy of quantum mechanics to its use, that one begins to suspect that all the deep questions about the meaning of measurement are really empty, forced on us by our language, a language that evolved in a world governed very nearly by classical physics. But I admit to some discomfort in working all my life in a theoretical framework that no one fully understands. And we really do need to understand quantum mechanics better in quantum cosmology, the application of quantum mechanics to the whole universe, where no outside observer is even imaginable. The universe is much too large now for quantum mechanics to make much difference, but according to the big-bang theory there was a time in the past when the particles were so close together that quantum effects must have been important. No one today knows even the rules for applying quantum mechanics in this context.

–Steven Weinberg, Dreams of the Final Theory (2011), Ch. 4. Quantum Mechanics and Its Discontents

Destiny; or, Were You Meant to Read This Post?

Aside from the title, the video above doesn’t have much to do with the post, but that’s never stopped me before.  This post, in fact, is the latest installment in my series on free will.  The main focus of that series hasn’t been on examining free will as such.  Rather, the main thrust has been to see if a finite but immortal being could make an irrevocable choice.  This is relevant to the idea of universalism.  This is because the concept of the eternity of Hell is that the damned have in effect chosen their state and, so it is asserted, will never change their minds.  Aside from merely asserting this to be the case, there didn’t seem to be any logical reason for this to be.  After looking at several aspects of the problem, my final conclusion was that there’s no clear answer either way.

This post goes off on another tangent, though, and is more connected with my series on the Fall.  For reasons that will become clear in posts that I’m planning as a continuation and (possible!) completion of that series–the longest-running series on this blog–I think it’s necessary to look at another aspect of free will.  What I want to do is to ask the question:  Is our free will compatible with the foreknowledge of God?  In short, if God knows what we’re going to do before we do it–from all eternity, in fact–are we truly free?

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