Top 10 uncogitated posts of 2013, part II

Here are the final five posts that should have been in 2013.

5.  Neuroscience and the Soul.  This year I mentioned a peer-reviewed philosophical journal put out out by the Evangelical Philosophical Society, Philosophia Christi.  If you have ever felt uneasy about the certitude with which neuroscientists, naturalist philosophers, and science populizers have pronounced the nonexistence of the soul, the irrelevance of essences, or the fully deterministic nature of human behavior, then the Summer 2013 issue of Philosophia Christi is for you.  It features ten or so excellent articles, by contributors who take time to interact with the work of prominent philosophers of science and mind, including Jaegwon Kim, John Searle and Daniel Dennett.

Mouse neurons, or Piers Morgan’s? (Wikimedia)

Eric La Rock draws deeply from scientific facts to propose a fuller account of consciousness called “emergent subject dualism.”   J.P. Moreland undermines the foundation of naturalistic top-down causation, and commends interactionist-dualism.  Daniel Robinson situates the stakes of neuroscience well within contemporary culture.  Be warned though, this is heavy reading!  If you proceed, it will acquaint you with the top Christian thinkers who are addressing metaphysical naturalism, materialism, and all those ideas which have subjected people alternately to despotism, decadence, or despair.

4.  Two posts from 13.7:  Cosmos and Culture.  This NPR-hosted forum is my favorite popular science blog to “pick on,” so to speak.  I discovered it this spring while googling in the aftermath of the epic William Lane Craig versus Alex Rosenberg debate.  Any references to substantive Christian metaphysics or perspectives on science are pretty scarce.  Some contributors are self-professed atheists, but all I think are at least deeply committed to keeping science divorced from traditional theism, even if they flirt all the time with spirituality.

Adam Frank wrote a post called, “Let’s Get Creative And Redefine The Meaning Of Religion.”  Reflecting on it, I realized that Thomistic ontology can be overlaid onto anyone’s worldview.  If one thinks that “science,” Captain Crunch, the material world, or any other thing is the maximally greatest being (MGB) in all possible worlds, then I would suggest that that is their conception of “God.”  Then, I would commend adding the quality of agency, that is the capacity for intentionality, to that MGB.  Then we’re having a discussion about theology.

Digging back to 2012, I discovered that Alva Noe reviewed Alvin Plantinga’s book Where the Conflict Really Lies.  And while I haven’t read the book, I have a sense enough from other reviews and interviews to say that Noe didn’t engage it adequately.  Particularly, he offered an illustration comparing the necessity of an epistemic warrant for science to the need to justify improbable theories as to why a “check engine” light is on.  Basically he’s saying there is no need.  This dodge falls flat.  The facts that the mechanic exists, that the car exists, and that the mechanic knows how to go about fixing the care are in need of explanation!  The dismissal seems to be another instance of equivocating “I don’t need God to do X,” where it’s not clear whether Noe intends the need to be epistemic or ontological.

Despite the disappointment, writers like Frank and Noe offer provocative reflections on the nature and limits of science.  I’m still hoping they will one day successfully engage with thoughtful theism.

3.  Francis Beckwith’s Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft.  I read this book in the first half of the year, and writer and apologist Kurt Jaros has reviewed it chapter by chapter at Values and Capitalism.  The big take away for me comes from Beckwith’s brief discourse on moral ecology, the idea that a citizen of a democracy has a vested interest in policy that shapes her surrounding culture’s morality.  This is because even if she is able to model good morals to her children, an overwhelming presence of moral degeneracy among her neighbors will still adversely impact her and her children.  It’s the kind of rousing call like in The Lord of the Rings film, where Merry and Pippin convince the apathetic Ents to go to war, because their fate is tied to the world around them.

One chapter provides an invaluable reference on the origin of the idea of the separation of church and state.  That phrase itself is not explicitly in the Constitution; rather it comes from a private correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists, that was conscripted for jurisprudence in the 1940s.  Every proponent of religious freedom should learn the facts contained therein, given that groups like Freedom From Religion Foundation use the wall of separation to intimidate and silence public exercise of religious freedom.

Another chapter, detailing the history of religious freedom in America, draws heavily on the Catholic experience.  There is an analogy between Catholics in the past and evangelicals, broadly defined, today.  Each have been persecuted minorities in their respective times.  Lovers of freedom would be wise to learn from the relevant history Beckwith provides.

2.  Ryan T Anderson withstands Pierce Morgan and Susie Orman’s bigotry.

From Merriam Webster:

Bigot : a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially :  one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance

I discovered this phenomenal YouTube video months after it first aired in the spring.  For an extended segment of The Piers Morgan Show, Ryan Anderson, editor of The Public Discourse and co-author of an academic and a popular work defending traditional marriage, endures lame challenge after lame challenge, and booing from the audience to boot.  Susie Orman serves as an unfortunate prop to make the same sex marriage issue personal.

Toward the end, Morgan accuses Anderson of being on the wrong side of his age demographic.  At the tender age of 31, he is in the minority among his peers in his opposition to government recognition of same sex marriage.  All told, Anderson’s appearance is a perfect study in composure and sticking to the facts in the face of ad hominems and vitriol.  Mr. Anderson, you are the real deal.  I salute you!

1.  William Lane Craig featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Dr. Craig garnered unprecedented attention in the world of academia when he was highlighted in a major story in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The piece opened by introducing him as the man who at the mere mention of his name makes New Atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, snarly and defensive.  “Why are you publicizing him?” Dawkins demands.  The story goes on to detail, in a fairly balanced way, the ambitious long range intellectual project first undertaken at Biola University to disseminate scores of thoughtful, committed, first-rate Christian scholars into the ranks of universities around the world.  The author notes that this kind of effort is simply unparalleled by other communities.

*****

And so it is with great excitement, as we head into 2014, that I myself will be partaking in some of that Biola goodness as I start earning a Master of Arts in Christian Apologetics.  I’ll be busier come January, and I can’t say for sure what things will look like at this blog.  Dear reader, God bless you in the new year!

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One god less

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Have you encountered the “one god less” rhetorical appeal before?  It goes something like this: “You don’t realize it, but you are an atheist too.  You already reject thousands of other gods.  I just believe in one god less than you do.”

Never mind that the correct grammatical form is “fewer,” not less. The slogan is clever but a poor truth claim. It treats the existence of deity as a quantitative rather than a qualitative issue. The appropriate question is not whether any number of deities exist, but is deity a quality of any part of reality?

In his debate with Alex Rosenberg last February, William Lane Craig laid bare the absurdity of metaphysical naturalism, which I identify here with materialism.  On such a view, science cannot find God.  But neither can it find persons!  Craig highlighted eight problematic implications of materialism.  Among them: first-person perspectives are illusory, individuals don’t persist through two moments of time, and no one actually thinks.  This last one follows from the premise that material cannot exhibit intentionality; it can’t inherently be “about” or “of” anything.  The conclusion contradicts our everyday experience; we think about things all the time.  The reality of mind is at odds with materialism.

Rosenberg deflected Craig’s metaphysical critique during the debate.  However, being more candid in the post-debate exchange, he did address a relevant chapter of his popular book, The Atheist’s guide to reality. The chapter is titled “The Brain Does Everything Without Thinking About Anything at All.” It recalls a book by Floyd Ferris, a fictional government scientist in Atlas Shrugged.  That work is amusingly titled, Why Do You Think You Think?

When it comes to building a worldview, the materialist is confined to a set of insufficient explanatory options. I’ve recently found that Thomas Nagel and Alvin Plantinga, each coming from very different places, seem to be saying as much in their own respective works (Mind and Cosmos and Where the Conflict Really Lies).

Indulging the mystique of exotic sciences like quantum mechanics and brane cosmology, lay materialists illicitly attribute intelligence, awareness, and causal potency–hallmarks of personality–to their favorite model of reality.  No amount of quantitative work can make up for a lack of qualitative analysis.

Back to “one god less.”  Why should it not follow that belief in a negative number of gods is more true belief in zero gods? If the materialist seriously entertains this question on a qualitative basis, she runs the danger of believing the existence of one God more.

The shell game of postmodernity

This week I’m drawing disparate threads together from recently digested media.  Hopefully these will inspire some critical thoughts on worldview, whether it be your own or of those around you.

In anticipation of the first Hobbit movie, my wife and I re-watched The Two Towers and The Return of the King.  This insightful quote by Gandalf struck me:

The old wisdom that was borne out of the West was forsaken. Kings made tombs more splendid than the houses of the living and counted the names of their descent dearer than the names of their sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry or in high, cold towers asking questions of the stars. And so the people of Gondor fell into ruin. The line of Kings failed, the White Tree withered, and the rule of Gondor was given over to lesser men.

Can you think of a place like this?  Perhaps the ivory tower of the academy.  Or better yet, Europe.  This image captures the predicament of the post-industrial world.  There is a concerted effort among elites of the “West” to unlearn its culture and traditions.  The great project of social democrats in Europe, Canada, Japan, and beyond has built an edifice that’s more a civilizational masoleum than a regime to edify humanity.  This is the modern welfare state.

Rather than be bothered with commitments of marriage, the raising of children, and the fruits of free enterprise, people are more concerned with securing their siestas and thirty-five hour work weeks, to the exclusion of the dwindling numbers of youth annually pouring onto the unaccommodating labor markets.

And even those jobless youth lap up the same tired ideas.  I recently caught a few episodes of Portlandia, the sketch comedy that pokes fun at a city where the young move “to retire.”  The program, often crude and in keeping with the laughing-at zeitgeist of The Daily Show, illuminates nonetheless.  In gentrified cores of our cosmopolitan metropolises an army of grown kids paste pictures of birds on objects to self-soothe and are more concerned for the welfare of animals than of children.

This inversion of priorities gets to some of the news of the day.  We have a citizenry that is more concerned about feeling good than getting it right.  And so the silly story that Obama’s pardoned turkey ended up being euthanized anyway.  It speaks to the lesson that liberal intentions don’t guarantee results.  Take heed the next time a politician proposes to spend some trillions to end poverty, restore jobs, or save the environment.  That which was to be prevented will probably pass, and we’ll only have more debt to show for it.

All the while, the ethic uniting the masses of the well-intentioned is tolerance, or as is often seen on California bumper stickers, the relativistic imperative to “Coexist.”  But everyone’s got a dogma in the fight.  Just look at the controversy of Republican Senator Marco Rubio’s GQ interview.  Being asked what he thought the age of the earth was, he ducked with “I’m not a scientist, man.”  In this day, scientism–a narrow view where science is the only deliverance of truth–is a cudgel secular liberals deploy against any threat to getting absolutely everything they want.

Yes, the 24-7, self-reinforcing materialist culture is ascendant.  To quote another sage of Middle Earth, “What can men do against such reckless hate?”

There are baby steps.  In the hopes of starting an apologetics study group in my church community, I’ve been scouting William Lane Craig’s On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision.  The second chapter launches a reductio ad absurdum, a negative apologetic that comes from asking, what would be the implication of God’s nonexistence?  Dr. Craig notes Jean-Paul Sartre’s concession that life without God has no meaning.  Yet, he took up for himself Marxism.  The choice was subjective and merely arbitrary.   Without an objective point of reference, no life lived can be both happy and consistent in its worldview.

The great work of reshaping society to foster lives both happy and consistent remains before us.  Humanism will only find its logical end in a re-commitment to the sanctity of marriage and a valuing of children.  The partnerless Julia will discover her Obama-daddy culture to be utterly unsustainable.

There is a parallel reformation in showing that fulfilling livelihoods come not from the cold top-down transactions of the welfare state, but from an embracing of free markets under the rule of law.

There are those who will try hard to thwart this course correction.  A culture of relativism enables ultimate shell game.  If we point out the shell that holds objective truth, whether it be policy or morality, the Phrygian-capped ideologue can deny it or question whether there is even a game going on.  The task for the civic-minded will be to figure how to effectively expose and counter such silly moves.

The authority of science

Cosmologist Sean Carroll garnered considerable buzz recently with his contribution to the Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity.  Launching off of an interview with Carroll, LiveScience made a big splash with the headline: “Will Science Someday Rule Out the Possibility of God?”

A few days later, an AP story mined societal anxiety about growing fraud in science.  And in the year-end issue of my local university campus newspaper, the science columnist made an earnest and zealous attempt to distinguish scientific “education” from religious “indoctrination.”

Examining the language and underlying assumptions in popular science writing reveals an often narrow and uncritical school of thought that has an outsized, unwarranted, and perilous grip on our culture.

Let’s start with the LiveScience article on Sean Carroll.  If we take it seriously, and try to discern from its own contents whether science will “rule out the possibility of God,” we’ll be disappointed to find only an abundance of ungrounded suppositions and a string of logical fallacies.

The surest presupposition that pops up is a philosophical hard naturalism or materialism.  It is simply assumed that the natural world or matter/energy are all that is.  Accordingly, only “domains of science” are considered serious fields of inquiry.  “Theologians,” to say nothing of philosophers, are cast as attempting to “seize upon” as yet-unanswered sticky points and rhetorical flips.

A deeply rational theist like William Lane Craig–a cosmological rock star of sorts–couldn’t get billing in a pop science piece like this.  To do so would turn off those readers who’ve placed faith in science’s ability–given enough time–to answer everything; a faith in science-of-the-gaps if you will.

Folks like Carroll and LiveScience offer succor for those who hope to  ignore any kind of truth that is not empirically derived.  But there are non-empirical truths each of us take for granted everyday.  There are properly basic beliefs, such as the belief that one did not spontaneously come into being five minutes ago with memories implanted to give the false impression of living prior to that time.

And individuals have faculties beyond the senses.  The faculty of morality comprehends objective moral truths, and the faculty of reason allows one to know “A” is not identical to “not A.”  These ways of knowing reside entirely outside the “domain of science.”

Yet, science writing subsists on a de facto “verificationism,” a trust only of propositions that can be empirically verified.  Of course, the foundational proposition of verificationism fails its own test.

On top of naturalism and verificationism, the LiveScience writer treats theories like the multiverse as settled matters rather than metaphysical conjectures.  This kind of assumption thrives in columns that can’t take the space to unpack the ideas they reference.

And then there are the fallacies in the article.  Consider this passage:

Other versions of quantum gravity theory currently being explored by cosmologists predict that time did start at the Big Bang. But these versions of events don’t cast a role for God either. Not only do they describe the evolution of the universe since the Big Bang, but they also account for how time was able to get underway in the first place. As such, these quantum gravity theories still constitute complete, self-contained descriptions of the history of the universe.

This passage is simultaneously a tautology and an appeal to authority.  Notice cosmologists must “cast a role” for God.  The theory cannot escape the constraints of the theorist’s inborn bias.  And for the writer to qualify the theories “as such” only  undermines the idea the theories are actually “self-contained.”

As the piece progresses toward its end, the stubborn question of ultimate meaning is dismissed as a failure to see the universe itself as unique and not in need of an answer.  But Carroll offers no real reason beyond a lyrical twist.  Dr. Craig likens this cessation of reason to the taxicab fallacy: once the questioner reaches his destination (that God is not required), he dismisses the cab of critical inquiry, namely by abandoning the principle of sufficient reason.

There is an attempt to invoke the testimony of a psychologist to explain away religious phenomenon as arising out of psychological need.  This is classic genetic fallacy.  How one might come to have a belief has no bearing on the truth of the belief.

The consequences of letting such suppositions and fallacies thrive in the thought life of scientists and their admirers are considerable.  Look at The Aggie‘s piece on education and indoctrination.  The author fills a column with generalized disdain for the excesses of “evangelical religion,” perhaps not realizing that he is harboring a zeal equally in need of its own justification and defense.

A remarkable irony emerges when the columnist pegs “indoctrination” to Western culture.  It was in large part the values of Western Antiquity and the Bible that supported the critical thinking needed to produce modern science.

The collegiate composition is alarming in its take away that “Religion has no place in schools, and science has no place in churches, synagogues or mosques . . .”  This reminds of the woefully dismissive bumper sticker that reads, “I won’t think in your church if you don’t pray in my school.”  Simply a false dichotomy.  Sometimes it’s the laboratories and the halls of the academy that could use a little more critical thinking.

The Aggie column concludes with a call for an education that will produce “un-indoctrinated” citizens.  Here we have the error of Locke, that humans are tabula rosa and there is some pure Science that can properly inform the citizen.  The prescription also bears a whiff of the tyranny of tolerance.  All ideas are equally valid except the one that proposes to be true to the exclusion of others.  As with verificationism, it’s a paradigm that defeats itself.

We are in an age where science is upheld, unrealistically and with poor justification, as some final arbiter of knowledge.  Though some think we live in a postmodern society, the underpinning beliefs are still very modern indeed.  Just looking back to the twentieth century, we know all too well the tragedies modernity begot: eugenics, gulags, genocide, rampant pollution, spiritual alienation.  What a downer.

But the search for hope is unyielding.  Like a hokey Star Trek episode, the LiveScience article concludes by waxing lyrical, quoting an evolutionary psychologist: “We’re not designed at the level of theoretical physics.”   Not even a scientist can avoid language invoking the agency of a creator.  He goes on to say that things like interpersonal relationships are what matter on the “human scale.”

Is there some grand, unifying worldview that best satisfies questions both on the cosmological and the “human scale?”  Look no further than the many ready witnesses who make a reasoned, coherent and consistent case for a God who is revealed in the Bible and intervenes decisively in human history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Democracy of the dead

What is democracy of the dead?  No, it has nothing to do with zombies voting Democrat.  Although recently a dead dog did receive a voter registration form.  What I’m referring to comes from that emir of aphorisms, G.K. Chesterton.  Consider this idea from Orthodoxy (also available as a free PDF):

Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.

That those many souls who came before us might not have been complete fools is a refreshing perspective in our age of progress for progress’ sake.

Chesterton–himself now among the dead–enriches our idea of tradition with literary wit.  Meanwhile, Thomas Sowell  provides us a more rigorous understanding, by way of broad philosophical survey in A Conflict of Visions.  Looking to English arch-conservative Edmund Burke, Sowell posits “the constrained vision” : a philosophy that directs human society to seek “cultural distillations of knowledge” within the confines of a “tested body of experience.” The idea is not a mere impulse to conserve tradition, but an acknowledgement that wisdom flows down naturally and systemically through culture, from one generation to the next. Between Chesterton’s democracy of the dead and Sowell’s constrained vision, we glimpse what may be the most appropriate definition of conservatism.

Not everyone is so fond of tradition. There are those invested in seeing each generation break free from the tyrannical chains of its ancestors. Consider this inscription at the Jefferson Memorial:

I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.

Progressives should be quite fond of Thomas Jefferson’s thinking here. He speaks of humanity’s “progress” and how it will “advance” from a “barbarous” state.  Just as he took scissors to his least favorite parts of the Bible, there are those today all too eager to make their own redactions to the traditional moral fabric.  Take New Atheist Sam Harris.

In a 2011 debate on the foundations of morality, Harris dismisses the God of the Bible as a mere “Iron Age god of war.” His epochal delineation recalls the popular formulation that certain Abrahamic belief systems may have been tolerable enough for goat herders or a pastoral society, but are utterly unsuitable for our modern age.  A bit later in the same debate, Harris insists that anyone today could come up with a moral code superior to the Mosaic law if given five minutes’ thought.  So much for his estimation of past wisdom.

Whether inspired by the Enlightenment or the New Atheists, there’s no question modernist arguments hold serious sway over the contemporary mind.  But postmodern sensibility won’t tolerate the sweeping assumptions.  For all the aspersions the modernist might cast on the dead of generations past, the postmodernist would be right to call him “judgmental.”

The critique is rooted in history.  From gas chamber genocide to the threat of thermonuclear annihilation, the distinctives of the twentieth century disabuse us of the naivete that mankind is steadily rising above some past state of barbarity. To characterize people long-gone as “barbarous” or less thoughtful than those living today is to ignore a twin loss of epistemic and moral confidence the world has yet to recover from.

Where does that leave us?  We were never without hope.  Harris’ debate opponent, philosopher and Christian apologist William Lane Craig insists on the way: backward, not forward.  Modernity is overly confident in its presuppositions.  Postmodernity is quite useful at deconstructing worldviews, but not so helpful with building up a shared body of knowledge.  If we want to access the lasting truths about human existence, how to live, and how society was meant to be, we need to recover a premodern worldview.

Just think.  We’re all here kicking and alive today.  All those dead and buried folks of past generations must have gotten something right.

In light of abundance

I caught this Facebook conversational snippet originally as another reblog. I talked about it briefly with my wife, which yielded some clarification. That’s more oft the result than not :-)

(Update: for your convenience, here’s the conversation from the original blogger.  Pardon the language.)

 

The literal devil’s advocate here has mistakenly assumed that Satan gave humans our moral and rational faculties. But I think God created Adam and Eve with those faculties already in place.

 

William Lane Craig recently defended the Abundance theory of creation on his Reasonable Faith podcast. According to this idea, God created man to extend the opportunity to partake in the kind of loving relationships that the persons of the Trinity were engaged in. And in order to love, you need some sort of ability to make moral choices.

Indeed, God’s mandate to not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil precedes the snake’s challenge of temptation.

And inasmuch as the the snake was able to persuade Eve through words to eat the fruit, she must have had some pre-existing rational faculty.

So Satan did not usher in for man the ability to think critically or know right from wrong. What he did do is help humanity commit it’s first sin, it’s own act of rebellion.

With the fruit eaten, man’s overall knowledge did grow. But not all knowledge is equally helpful for persons to know. Some truths are quite damaging to our souls.

 

Univocal language

In recent episodes of his Reasonable Faith podcast, William Lane Craig hits hard at physicist Laurence Krauss’s assertions that the universe came from nothing.  It turns out Krauss’ “nothing” is basically vacuum space filled with a sea of crackling energy.  Among other things, it has properties regarding stability of decay and the potentiality of begetting matter. But anything with properties and states of potentiality, even if devoid of matter, is not nothing! This is not the first time a naturalist has deployed a definitional bait-and-switch in the hope of dispatching the annoyingly transcendent Deity.  Each time Dr. Craig refutes these kind of metaphysical transgressions, he reminds us of the necessity of univocal language; that is, the importance of using words whose meanings do not change from one sentence to the next.

One arena that could benefit from this clarity of meaning is the question of rights.  Last month, Greg Koukl highlighted on his radio show a string of stories illustrating the tragic trajectory of human rights.  First, he reported this BBC this headline: “Dolphins deserve same rights as humans, say scientists.”  And then followed the cetacean saga where PETA sued Sea World under the premise that the 13th amendment, protecting against slavery, applies to killer whales.  The thread linking these stories is the desire to assign legal personhood on the basis of what Koukl called functionalism.  When a living being achieves a certain functionality, say certain brain wave complexity, then it deserves rights and protection.  The flip side is that some beings, like human fetuses, may not attain to the criteria, depending on who assigns them.  Koukl illustrated the case powerfully with reference to the recent Journal of Medical Ethics article on “after-birth abortion.”

Without an objective grounding to our moral values, there is total confusion as to rights.  Are they really human rights, or are protections conferred only when certain experts declare personhood?  Can Flipper and Koko the gorilla come along for the ride?  It’s complicated enough just in the realm of Homo sapiens.  Justice Ginsberg, much to her discredit, isn’t on the same page as the rest of us when it comes to human rights.  It seems on her view that the year your constitution was written has considerable bearing on how good it is.  And then, there is the obfuscation that comes from sensational media train-wrecks, as we’ve seen with the privileged, 30-year-old Georgetown law student and rising victimhood star Sandra Fluke.  Fortunately, there are still those who can elucidate the absurdity of when rights go too far.

Whether we’re talking about the origin of the cosmos or the foundation of human rights, or just wondering if “quinoa is good,” our debates and discussions will be much smoother when we use our terms univocally.

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