Friday, May 13, 2011

now at wordpress

Another last post - I'm moving to a new site at the daunting WordPress. Not that blogger has failed me particularly - I rather feel that I've failed it in not being able to attract readers. Anyway, we'll see what a new start can do.

I'll try to rescue all the stuff from my old blogs, which will no doubt be closed down eventually.

Friday, May 6, 2011

major economic changes

that's me, buried under the other patches

We used to have a two-speed economy [and before that, just an economy], but that was too neat and simplistic, so we moved to a multi-speed economy, but that sounded downright dangerous, and why the need for speed? Now we have a patchwork economy, which is colourful, but also nice and homely.

Monday, April 25, 2011

introducing the ussr

 three patron heroes of the ussr

The following planned to be my debut video posting, but I've had a crisis of confidence and probably won't post it as a video. I actually think I would be best if I just got someone to interview me for videos.

Hello, welcome to the USSR, with me, Luigi Funesti Sordido - perhaps. I'm here to provide you with some pabulum I hope, and some diverting and delightfully edifying discourse on a variety of topics. This first discourse is introductory, in which I'll explain the USSR and its great significance. The USSR stands for the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics, of which I, Luigi Funesti Sordido am the founding secretary and sole member, and clearly this society is founded on Urbanity, Scepticism and Romanticism, or at least the founder's conception of those concepts.

So let me take these terms in reverse order. Romanticism, to me, is a simple idea or state, in which the thing focused on becomes, at least temporarily more than the sum of its parts, being invested with emotion, imagination, ideality, even transcendence, dare I say. This is often called the 'swoon' effect, and it can be brought on by a woman's smile, a memory, a mathematical equation, a landscape, a piece of music, a journey, a joke, a reading, a conversation, almost anything. It's a moment or a feeling charged with wonder and delight, and is often associated, however vaguely, with sex, in that I strongly suspect that the parts of the brain that light up or are revved up by this state are also involved in feelings of sexual passion and lust.

So romanticism isn't much associated with rationalism, though I wouldn't want to call it irrational which has all sorts of negative connotations. Perhaps non-rational is the term to use, but I think that romanticism provides a strong emotional current that can partly power our lives, and I think there's a lot to be said for it, and I think it should be encouraged.

Now scepticism is another matter. A popular notion of scepticism has arisen in recent years, associating it with sceptical groups, podcasts, magazines and  celebrity sceptics. This is quite a different version of scepticism from the old philosophical notion, which was a position of radical doubt, including doubt of the status of all knowledge and even existence. The modern notion, which I don't reject, as I find it quite useful, is based largely on science and the nature of evidence – that it must be verifiable, testable, repeatable and so forth. In some respects it's odd that this focus on evidence has come to be identified with the term 'scepticism', but be that as it may, this is the way I'm using the term, along with a residual sense of the philosophical usage, which involves a kind of state of eternal uncertainty, that all knowledge is conditional, even ephemeral, and just a bit untrustworthy. My sense of scepticism has been shaped by a number of intellectual heroes from the past. First, Socrates. Whether Socrates is generally regarded as a sceptic I'm not sure, but my Socrates is a sceptic.

We know of Socrates' reputation but little about his actual ideas. The Socrates of Xenophon seems little more than an idealised version of Xenophon, and the Socrates of Plato can't really be differentiated from Plato's ideas. For some time it was generally thought that the Socrates of Plato's early, less conclusive dialogues might be the most accurate depiction we have, a depiction of someone concerned with the most basic concepts – basic in the sense of fundamental but also in the sense of 'everyday'. The concepts of ordinary, not necessarily well-educated or philosphically-minded citizens, concepts they used to get by in their daily interactions. Socrates questioned the assumptions behind these everyday concepts and exposed their contradictions. Perhaps the two key sayings associated with this version of Socrates are 'I know nothing, but my advantage over others is that I know that I know nothing', and 'the unexamined life is not worth living'. Clearly, this is good sceptical stuff – not so good on the positive theory-building, but excellent for the negative ground-clearing.

Another sceptical hero is Michel de Montaigne, one of the greatest of all practitioners of the essay, whose motto was 'What do I know?'. Montaigne often used himself as the subject of his essays, not so much out of egotism but because the self and its mind were, to him, subjects of the most immediate knowledge, via direct perception [think of Descartes a couple of generations later]. Everything else was that much more uncertain. He was also far from being an abstruse 'academic' philosopher, always choosing to write in an accessible but highly discursive style, letting his thoughts take him where they might.

I'll mention one last sceptical thinker, though there are many to choose from. David Hume represents in some ways a bridge between the old established philosophical concept of scepticism, with its largely negative, undermining overtones, and a more positive and modern concept, emphasising evidence and scientific methodologies in the establishment of sure knowledge. Hume was a major figure of the eighteenth century enlightenment, and an inheritor of the seventeenth century scientific revolution in Britain, spearheaded by the likes of Boyle, Hooke, Newton and Halley. He was also as outspoken a critic of religion as it was safe to be in an age where even the leading scientific figures swore by their faith.

Hume's opening remarks in his essay, 'The Sceptic', beautifully capture, to me, the essence of an initially negative, but healthy scepticism:

I HAVE long entertained a suspicion, with regard to the decisions of philosophers upon all subjects, and found in myself a greater inclination to dispute, than assent to their conclusions. There is one mistake, to which they seem liable, almost without exception; they confine too much their principles, and make no account of that vast variety, which nature has so much affected in all her operations. When a philosopher has once laid hold of a favourite principle, which perhaps accounts for many natural effects, he extends the same principle over the whole creation, and reduces to it every phænomenon, though by the most violent and absurd reasoning. Our own mind being narrow and contracted, we cannot extend our conception to the variety and extent of nature; but imagine, that she is as much bounded in her operations, as we are in our speculation.

These remarks are as relevant today as they were when first written: happy 300th birthday, David Hume.

So, that's scepticism, a major focus of the USSR. Urbanity I've left to last. Urbanity is of the city, it's what we like to imagine our cities are about, sophistication, diversity, eclecticism, imagination, pragmatism. One of the features of the great urban centres is that they're in some sense the same, in their mix of cultures and periods and styles, in their boldness and their staleness, in their recognisability and their anonymity, in their inspirational yet frightening and overwhelming nature. To be on top of that, or to seem to be, to be riding the wave of it all with a more or less affected nonchalance, is to be urbane. So urbanity, in the context of the USSR, is the tremulous overarching force that connects scepticism and romanticism and combines them into some sort of coherent and workable form. Perhaps.

So that introduces and pretends to explain the new ussr, as opposed to the old one, that bunch of Ultra Silly Soviet Ratbags. Next time, perhaps, our first edifying discourse...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Edward Gibbon and the neo-Platonists

Since it's been a while, I thought I'd better post before I disappear into the aethernet.
I've been reading, inter alia, Edward Gibbon's thoroughly readable Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It wears very well for an eighteenth century work. I wish he'd reveal his sources though. 
Gibbon, though conservative in outlook in many respects, was an enlightenment figure in terms of science and religion. His take on the neo-Platonists is still quite relevant today, and worth quoting at length. Gibbon was referring to the period just before, and during, the reign of Constantine in the early fourth century of the Christian era. He points out that, with the emperors of this time being drawn largely from the military, and with the preoccupation being with the 'barbarians' at the frontiers, and with internal strife between the different camps created by Diocletian, science, knowledge and the literary arts were largely neglected. 'The voice of poetry was silent,' he writes. Even the practical arts and sciences, such as law and medicine, were at a low ebb. And into this stagnant pool plops the great millstone of neo-Platonism.

The declining age of learning and of mankind is marked, however, by the rise and rapid progress of the new Platonists. The school of Alexandria silenced those of Athens, and the ancient sects enrolled themselves under the banners of the more fashionable teachers, who recommended their system by the novelty of their method and tha austerity of their manners. Several of these masters, Ammonius, Plotinus, Amelius and Porphyry, were men of profound thought and intense application; but by mistaking the true object of philosophy, their labors contributed much less to improve than to corrupt the human understanding. The knowledge that is suited to our situation and powers, the whole compass of moral , natural and mathematical science, was neglected by the new Platonists; whilst they exhausted their strength in the verbal disputes of metaphysics, attempted to explore the secrets of the invisible world, and studied to reconcile Aristotle and Plato on subjects of which both these philosophers were as ignorant as the rest of mankind. Consuming their reason in these deep but unsubstantial meditations, their minds were exposed to illusions of fancy. They flattered themselves that they possessed the secret of disengaging the soul from its corporal prison; claimed a familiar intercourse with demons and spirits; and by a very singular revolution, converted the study of philosophy into that of magic. The ancient sages had derided the popular superstition; after disguising its extravagance by the thin pretence of allegory, the disciples of Plotinus and Porphyry became its most zealous defenders. As they agreed with the Christians in a few mysterious points of faith, they attacked the remainder of their theological system with all the fury of civil war. The new Platonists would scarcely deserve a place in the history of science, but in that of the church the mention of them will very frequently occur.

Way to go, Eddie!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Joshua, the amelekites and history

At 1 Kings 6:1 we are told that 480 years had passed between the Exodus and the fourth year of King Solomon. The date is schematic [twelve generations of forty years], and, as we have seen, it balances the Israelites' length of time in Egypt [430 years at Exodus 12:40]. If we took it literally, it would put the exploits of Joshua back at c1420-1400 BC: it is not, however, a correct figure.
Robin Lane Fox, The unauthorized version: truth and fiction in the Bible

I'm trying to get my head around ancient history, starting with events described in the Old Testament, but probably mythical. That's to say, the bloody events described mainly in the book of Joshua. In the Hebrew Bible [he's a much more minor figure in the Torah] Joshua became the leader of the Israelites after Moses. Bible chronology isn't entirely reliable, as my quote indicates, but scholars are more or less agreed that he flourished between 1450 and 1370 BCE. That's to say, that's the period in which he's calculated to have lived, had he lived at all.

The Joshua of the Bible is an almost monotonously victorious general. His first victory was over the Amelekites – the first of many slaughterings of a people destined to become the archetypical enemy of the Jews. Next he crossed the Jordan, with Yahweh parting the waters as before at the Red Sea, and was bloodily victorious in battle against Jericho, Ai [after a brief glitch, see Joshua 7: 3-26], Gibeon, Makkedah, Libnah, Lachish, Gezer, Eglon, Hebron, and Debir. Chapter 10 of Joshua ends on a high note:

So Joshua smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the LORD God of Israel commanded. And Joshua smote them from Kadeshbarnea even unto Gaza, and all the country of Goshen, even unto Gibeon. And all these kings and their land did Joshua take at one time, because the LORD God of Israel fought for Israel.

To most modern consciences, this is sickening stuff, and the fact that we have not a shred of external evidence that this Yahweh-sanctioned splattering spree ever took place, or that Joshua or Moses ever existed, hardly makes it more palatable. But if we put our feelings aside, what evidence do we have, either from archaeology, or from external records, of these Biblical places and peoples and their histories? For it should always be emphasised that the Bible is by no means a history book, and every supposedly historical statement found therein should be treated with the utmost scepticism.

The only extra-Biblical reference I've found regarding the Amalekites so far comes from one Nachmanides, a mystical Jewish scholar of the thirteenth century, whose own gleanings would have come from the sacred texts. This isn't to say that the Amalekites were purely fictional – it's very likely that they were an aboriginal group in southern Canaan or Palestine – but the name should give us pause. The Amalekites are named for Amalek, mentioned in two genealogies [Genesis 36:12 and 1 Chronicles 1:36] as a grandson of Esau, Jacob's brother. Jacob and Esau, though, are as mythical as Adam, so at this point I've reached a dead end so far as the Amalekites are concerned.

We can say more that's extra-biblical about some of the other places I've mentioned. A lot of archaeological work has been done at the site of Jericho, unearthing more than twenty successive settlements going back 11,000 years. The results have proved extremely problematic for the Bible-is-history pundits, because unfortunately the author of Joshua provided details of the battle which are subject to empirical testing

Saturday, February 5, 2011

early christianity and natural philosophy

Although the course of the moon... is known to many, there are only a few who know well the rising or setting or other movements of the stars without error. Knowledge of this kind in itself, although it is not allied with any superstition, is of very little use in the treatment of the divine scriptures and even impedes it through fruitless study; and since it is associated with the most pernicious error of vain [astrological] prediction it is more appropriate and virtuous to condemn it.
Augustine of Hippo, On Christian doctrine.

One of the themes of David Lindberg's essay, 'Early Christian attitudes toward nature', is the love-hate relationship of early Christian intellectuals towards the Greco-Roman culture around them. Tertullian, and to a lesser extent Augustine, are clear examples. The quote above captures this nicely. There's this view, which might almost be called a pretence [just to be presentist about it] that knowledge is useless unless it illuminates 'scripture', as if scripture is the given, like a giant maypole that everything else must be tied to and dance around. What always fascinates me about this is the dogmatism of the early Christians. Many of these folks - not just Tertullian and Augustine, but such leading lights as Origen, Ambrose, Athanasius, Arius and many others - though they argued interminably amongst themselves, were united in this kind of maypole view, and yet the texts and tales they based their unshakeable faith upon were quite newly minted. The same thing happened, of course, with the the advent of the Islamic religion some centuries later. If we were able to grasp more thoroughly the psychological forces behind these sweeping forms of group-think, I think we would be able to make major advances in guarding ourselves against them.
It seems that concepts about nature were pushed to the back burner during this early period of Christian fervour from the second to the fourth century. The very influential figure of Paul of Tarsus set the tone with remarks like this addressed to the Colossians:
Be on your guard; do not let your minds be captured by hollow and delusive speculations, based on traditions of man-made teaching centred on the elements of the natural world and not on Christ.
However, not all the early Christian intellectuals followed this advice, and Plato, the neo-Platonists, Pythagoras and other pagan speculators were mined for material that would provide support to Christian metaphysics. At the same time, the new religious orientation provided an opportunity to scoff at the 'blindness' of pagan thinkers. Commentators like Tertullian and Basil of Caesarea were very keen to provide evidence of their mastery of the most abstruse pagan thought while insisting on its uselessness and upon the need for simple faith.
Augustine was generally a little more sympathetic to what was called 'natural philosophy', but still he had serious reservations, as the quote indicates. In his Confessions he describes curiosity as a disease – one that he himself was curiously prone to. It should be added that this attitude wasn't born of Christianity. Suspicions about pursuing knowledge purely for the sake of it were rife in highly stratified pagan society. Plato's Republic discouraged abstract thought in society as a whole – it should only be pursued by an intellectual elite. Such an attitude to knowledge would've been commonplace in his time, and for a long time afterwards - in fact right up to the enlightenment period really, and beyond. And the idea of natural philosophy as the handmaiden of religious faith, as an aid to the comprehension of the deity's glorious creation, an idea more or less encouraged by Augustine, is still found more than 1300 years later in the thought of Isaac Newton, and further on in the approach to science of Georges Cuvier and Robert Owen in the nineteenth century.
The point is that although all of these thinkers gave priority to their faith, they still made contributions to an understanding of the world which, whether or not they might be considered baby steps, led us away from enthralment to religion. That's no doubt a 'presentist', internalist perspective. Augustine, in spite of being a 'dyed in the wool faith-head', took pride in his own knowledge of 'profane' matters, and was embarrassed at the ignorance of his fellow believers:
Even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian.... talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.
Augustine himself wrote a work called The Literal Meaning of Genesis, in which he analysed the first three chapters of Genesis, covering the biblical creation story through the lens of his very considerable knowledge of natural philosophy as it was understood and practised in the Graeco-Roman world of that time. It was accepted, for example, that the earth was spherical. Eratosthenes had quite accurately calculated its circumference more than 500 years before Augustine's time. There's little evidence that Christians of the patristic period rejected such knowledge. Certainly, in medicine and other practical sciences we find a mixture of empirical knowledge, superstition and ideas of supernatural possession, just as we find in pagan thought and practice. However, with Christianity's transformation into a state religion, concepts of orthodoxy and heresy became paramount, and the freedom of intellectuals to think freshly about the natural world became severely curtailed. And that seems to have been the situation for a long long time.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

presentism and the conflict thesis

Even the most well-founded, well-argued, and well-intentioned ideas about science and religion are liable to later change or eventual rejection. The same is true for historiographical positions, including, of course, the complexity thesis itself.
David Wilson, 'The historiography of science and religion'

Wilson's essay in the Science and Religion collection is certainly more thought-provoking than the previous one, though the view is much the same - that a conflict thesis has operated largely among non-historians, and particularly among scientists, but that historians of science have largely come round to a 'complexity thesis'. Again, though, its many examples point to a complexity of understandings of both science and religion between individuals, and often within particular individuals, particularly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The fundamental philosophical issues are not discussed.
Having said that, Wilson does highlight some important themes. Particularly pertinent is the issue of 'presentism'. Wilson explains it in contrast to contextualism. I'll provide a lengthy explanatory quote from early in the essay:

Although historians have espoused various approaches to the past, it will make our subject more manageable if we concentrate on the polar opposites around which views have tended to cluster. One approach has been to examine past ideas as much as possible in their own context, without either judging their long-term validity or making the discussion directly relevant to present issues. Another approach has been to study past ideas from the perspective of the present, taking full advantage of the hindsight provided by later knowledge to judge which ideas have proven to be valid. The second approach has apparent advantages. It does not exclude current knowledge that can assist us in the historical task. It also keeps present issues to the fore by insisting that historians draw lessons from the past that are relevant to current issues. However, historians have tended to regard the second approach as precariously likely to lead to distortion of the past in the service of present concerns. Dismissing this as 'presentism', therefore, historians of science have come to favor the first, or contextualist, approach.
 Presentism isn't a term I've heard before, but the problem is familiar enough. we find it in fiction too, of course, when we find modern writers of historical romances getting not just the tone but the whole seventeenth century context wrong - sometimes deliberately. Or we have new dramatic interpretations of such perennial faves as Jane Austen which 'tease out' feminist undertones claimed to be found in the original. It raises the obvious question of whether we can ever really recapture the context of the times [I think of Borges' character writing an exact replica of Don Quixote which critics find disturbingly other than the previous version]. Here, though, the distortions of presentism are said to feed into a progressivist view of science and knowledge, what historian Herbert Butterfield called 'the whig interpretation of history' [he published a book with this title in 1931]. 
Were I a historian, I would heed the warnings, while also recognising, for example, that the rigorous exclusion of non-natural explanations in the sciences [meaning, essentially, a tightening of the definition of scientific praxis] has been a great boon in the advancement of knowledge over the past few hundred years, an advancement that has been truly sensational. We should indeed guard against what Maurice Mandelbaum called 'the retrospective fallacy', in which we lose sight of the groping, uncertain nature of the past as it was lived for those who felt it as present and future. For that would be to destroy empathy and to judge harshly. Many great past scientists 'transcended' their times, but only to a limited extent, and to see them as our contemporaries would be to do them a great disservice. Sometimes, in reading them or reading about them, we wish we could free them from the context of their times and show them how times have changed, partly as a result of their own achievements. That's only human, but it's fantasy, after all. 
So, it's true that the earliest practitioners of what we 'retrospectively' call modern science were not atheists, secret or otherwise, and that they were seeking to comprehend the glory of their god's creation, but I'm not so sure that it's a 'presentist' distortion to point out that they were, in fact, contributing to a loosening of the grip of theology and religion upon our modern understanding of how the world works, to a degree that, a few hundred years later, that grip is but a memory trace in the collective scientific consciousness. Or is that going a bit too far? 
Again the point I'm making is that there's plenty of complexity in the relations between and among scientists and believers, but science and religion have ceased to mix sociably since science has refused to, or forgotten to, keep to its circumscribed territory, and has shrugged off its dress-up as some deity's hand-maiden.