Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Perpetual Virginity of Mary

Catholic Apologist Robert Sungenis engaged in a debate with Protestant theologian Eric Svendsen regarding the meaning of the greek "heos hou" (english: "until") in Matthew 1:25.

The reason for this debate is that Svendsen reads this verse as proof against the perpetual virginity of Mary. Unfortunately, the Catholic is clearly in over his head, as Dr. Svendsen wrote his PhD thesis exactly on the use of this greek term in the New Testament. The critical point that Sungenis and Svendsen both miss in this exchange is that it is really rather irrelevant precisely what the word "until" means in this context. As the commentators on the New American Bible point out, the evangelist is concerned to emphasize that Joseph was not responsible for the conception of Jesus. Matthew isn't concerned here with Mary's perpetual virginity. Which ever way one reads "heos hou," this particular scripture doesn't relate to the point of their debate.

Let's instead look at Luke 1:34. Here, the evangelist is concerned with Mary's virginity. Setting the stage, Luke tells us that Mary was already betrothed to Joseph. Then, the angel tells her that she will conceive a son. Now, any young woman who is engaged to be married and is then told that she will conceive a son is naturally going to assume that this will come about through normal relations with her husband after she is married. Instead, Mary says "how can this be, since I have no relations with a man?" What kind of question is that! A more familiar translation of this text is "I do not know man." Now, I'm no greek scholar -- I didn't even join a fraternity in college -- but I have noted that in every translation I have ever seen of this verse, the verb is in the present tense. I reasonably conclude that in the greek it is also in the present tense. Now, a present tense objection to a future prediction only makes sense if the present state is expected to be ongoing. In other words, Mary specifically says that it's not just that she is a virgin right at the point of the angel's visit, but that she expects to remain a virgin throughout her life, even after she is married.

Given Mary's word that that is her intent, and no record in the New Testament indicating anything else (Jesus's relatives, called "brothers" having been widely dealt with by Catholic scholars) we can reasonably conclude that she fulfilled her plans. Furthermore, the continuing tradition of the Church, especially strong in Ephesus, where Mary lived out the remainder of her days after the resurrection, that Mary remained a virgin, really lays the burden of extraordinary proof on anyone who would deny the teaching. A difficult parsing of an adverb in a passage having nothing to do with Mary's perpetual virginity is not going to provide extraordinary proof, and hou!

I hope this clears the air a little.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Make DC's Vote Count

In this most recent presidential election the District of Columbia voted 91% for Senator Kerry. Time after time the Democratic candidate can count on DC's 3 electoral votes, and can completely ignore the District's otherwise disenfranchised population. Four years ago, one of DC's electors cast a blank ballot to protest DC's structural impotency to govern even its own affairs. This brave action gives me an idea how DC could make its voice count in the presidential election.

The concept is simple: instead of voting for presidential candidates or parties, DC should vote for actual electors. Barbara Lett-Simmons (the faithless elector in 2000) is a reasonably well-known name to DC's electorate. The club of people involved in DC politics is relatively small. Witness the recent re-election of DC's ignominious former mayor Marion Barry back to the city council. DC residents would certainly recognize the names of electors on the ballot.

What good would this do? It would allow DC residents to send a more specific message to the Democratic candidate. For example, one could imagine a candidate from DC's Statehood party (the second largest political party in DC, with the Republicans a distant 3rd) promising to cast a blank ballot, as did Ms. Lett-Simmons. A candidate from the Green party might promise to vote for the Green candidate unless that would decide the election, in which case he would vote for the Democrat. Or, a candidate might promise to withhold his vote until the Democratic candidate promised to push for DC representation in Congress and increased home rule.

Most people in America don't realize that DC residents do not have a representative in Congress. Most Americans don't realize that DC can't even spend its own money, raised with its own taxes, without permission from Congressmen that they are not allowed to vote for. A candidate for elector might promise to vote for Marion Barry for President unless the Democratic candidate gave a speach endorsing DC Statehood.

DC residents have very few platforms for making their voice heard, they should not be throwing away this platform with 80-point margins; they should be using their vote to speak truth to power.

I hope this idea will help.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Improbably True

Recently the Wizard of Odds tried to explain a poker problem with a curious tidbit. Suppose you know two women, A and B, who each have exactly two children. Woman A says "I have at least one son," while Woman B says "I have a child named Jacob." It turns out that there is about a 67% chance that Woman A has a son and a daughter, and a 33% chance that she has two sons. Conversely, there is a 50% chance that Woman B has a son and a daughter, and a 50% chance that she has two sons. How could this be? It seems like "I have a child named Jacob" gives you the same information as "I have at least one son." The wizard tries to explain that the distinction somehow relies on the words "at least," but this doesn't seem especially satisfactory.

I've spent some time puzzling through this result, and I think I can explain it a little more clearly. First, you have to understand how it is that Woman A has a 67% chance of having a son and a daughter. If we ignore details such as identical twins and the fact that there are about 106 boys born for every 100 girls, and the odd case of transgendered children, we find that there are four equally likely combinations of children for woman A:

1. Two girls
2. An older girl and a younger boy
3. An older boy and a younger girl
4. Two boys

Three of these four possibilities are allowed by the statement "I have at least one son." In two of these three equally likely cases Woman A also has a daughter, leaving a 67% chance that Woman A has a son and a daughter.

This is actually misstating things a little bit. There is 100% chance that any real Woman A has exactly the children that Woman A has. More precisely, we are stating that if you had a geneological database of sufficiently large size, and selected from that database all women with exactly two children, and then from that list, selected only those who could truthfully say "I have at least one son," you would find that about 2/3 of those women thus selected would have one son and one daughter.

Let's look at Woman B's case, now. We think that the statement "I have a child named Jacob" is equivalent to "at least one of my children is a boy." We are, of course, assuming that the number of girls named Jacob is vanishingly small. The curious thing is that if we went through our same database and selected all the women who have exactly two children, and from those, the number who have a son named Jacob, we will find that about half of them have one son and one daughter, and about half of them have two sons. The reason for this is that each boy has roughly an equal probability of being named Jacob. We ignore the fact that it is unlikely that a woman would name two sons Jacob, although this does slightly skew the results.

Basically, a woman with two sons is twice as likely to have a son named Jacob as a woman with only one son. So, if we start with our set of possible candidates for Woman A, in which 2/3 of the entries have a son and a daughter, and randomly assign names to all the sons in that set, the women in that set who have two sons are twice as likely to have a son named Jacob as the women with only one son. So, if the probability that a boy is named Jacob is X, we have 2X*1/3 as the probability that Woman B has 2 sons, and 1X*2/3 that Woman B has a son and a daughter. These values are both X*2/3, meaning that they are approximately equal. 50% of the set of candidate Woman Bs have two sons.

I hope this clears up some of the confusion.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

What is Esperu?

Esperu is the imperative form of the verb "to hope" in Esperanto. It is pronounced "es-PAIR-oo" with the 'r' slightly trilled. I have discovered that as long as I have hope, I can endure almost anything.

I'm not quite sure I get the "blog" concept, but I've decided to try it out. Please forgive my fumblings if I don't quite get the paradigm. I hope that I can produce something useful and interesting.