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.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

more on the history of Jesus

how old was this corpse?

But thou, Bethlehem, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel.
Micah 5:2

I try to limit myself to reading six books [slowly] at a time, but I must admit that two books occupying me at present are not on the six-list, which is all a bit of a worry. One is the collection of essays I've been criticising, and the other is a new addition to my library, Robin Lane Fox's The unauthorized version: truth and fiction in the Bible [1991]. I've had a few things to say already about Fox's monumental work of scholarship, Pagans and Christians [1985], which provided a fantastically detailed background to the world that Christian belief was disgorged into, as well as a rich account of the differences between 'pagan' and Christian belief, and how the different beliefs interacted. However, I found the work heavy-going at times because of my unfamiliarity with much of the material. I have no such problem, so far, with The unauthorized version, the first chapter of which throws fascinating light on the two creation stories in Genesis, and the jumbled nativity stories in the gospels [largely as result of ensuring that Jesus of Nazareth should be connected, in birth, with Bethlehem, to fulfil the prophecy from Micah]. The second of these themes covers much the same ground as my two-part, and unfinished, post 'how real was their Jesus?', but of course Fox is a much more thorough scholar than I am. Still, he only focuses on a few problems, such as the census, the different birth datings of 'Matthew' and 'Luke', the star and the maji, Jesus's age at his death, and the date of the crucifixion. He doesn't enter into the problem of the massacre of the innocents, the genealogies, the miracles and so on. Some of these are hardly worth refuting of course, but I'm surprised that, as a historian, he didn't get stuck into the massacre of the innocent legend [maybe later?], and 'Matthew's' penchant for linking Jesus's story to Old Testament prophecy - though he did mention one that I wasn't aware of. Matthew is at pains to mention that the star guided the cognoscenti to Bethlehem, and I wrote about modern astronomical exploration of this star recently, but I didn't realize that Matthew may well have been providing a link to Numbers 24:17 - 'a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel', again revealing that gospeller's concern to present Jesus as a king rather than a god.
Considering the endless disputation over such matters, Fox does occasionally surprise with definite conclusions. He's convinced he's found the right dating of the crucifixion - at the end of March in the year 36, the last year of Pontius Pilate's governorship. He works it out by the Passovers in the gospel of John, as well as from the described incarceration of John the Baptist, at which point Jesus's 'ministry' began [Mark 1:14]. John the Baptist was jailed for criticising Herod Antipas's marriage to Herodias, and his consequent abandonment of his first wife, events described in Josephus with enough detail that a date can apparently be put on it. There are three distinct Passovers mentioned, and Fox believes they were consecutive, covering, essentially, the three years of Jesus's ministry. However, he inclines to the belief that Jesus was older than popular mythology has it, leaning heavily on a passage in John [8:57], and inclining also, it appears, to the view that the star of Bethlehem was in fact Halley's comet, definitively dated as appearing in Rome in 12BCE.
Anyway, it's all good fun, and just what the doctor ordered as far as I'm concerned.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

'The conflict of science and religion' - a critique

bulldog Huxley


For nearly a century, the notion of mutual hostility [the Draper-White thesis] has been routinely employed in popular science writing, by the media, and in a few older histories of science. Deeply embedded in the culture of the West, it has proven extremely hard to dislodge. Only in the last thirty years of the twentieth century did historians of science mount a sustained attack on the thesis, and only gradually has a wider public begun to recognise its deficiencies.
Colin Russell 'The conflict of science and religion'

Colin Russell's contribution to the book of essays I've been reading was a dismal one, as I will show. His bias struck me as so clear and manifest that I had to check out his bio. He's very much an elder, born in 1928, and he's been admirably prolific in the promotion of science and its history, especially in chemistry, his chosen field. However, as I suspected, he was at one time president of Christians in Science, and vice-president of the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship. Always useful to have these things out in the open.

From the quotation above, taken from early in the essay, one might expect a laying out of the deficiencies of the conflict thesis, but it doesn't happen - apart from the usual stuff about the religiosity of Boyle, Newton, Pascal, Gassendi, Faraday and so on, none of which is dwelt on in any detail. It might've been useful for example, to be made aware that Blaise Pascal, a mathematical wunderkind, gave up doing mathematics because he believed the severe migraines he suffered from were his god's punishment for indulging in such a frivolous pastime. We now know, though, that Pascal's sufferings were due to a deformed skull, probably resulting from a forceps delivery. If only Pascal had been armed with such scientific knowledge, instead of the religious 'knowledge' he thought he had direct from his god, his own personal history would have been much altered.

Russell tries to be systematic in his undermining of the conflict thesis, giving six 'problems' with it, which I'll summarize.
1. The conflict thesis hinders the recognition of other relationships between science and religion.
2. It ignores the many documented examples of science and religion operating in close alliance.
3. It enshrines a flawed view of history in which 'progress' or [in this case] 'victory' has been portrayed as inevitable.
4. It obscures the rich diversity of ideas in both science and religion.
5. It engenders a distorted view of disputes resulting from causes other than those of religion versus science.
6. It exalts minor squabbles, or even differences of opinion, to the status of major conflicts.

So let's look at these problems. As to [1], what about these other relationships? It's true that, in earlier times, much scientific work, and science-talk, was conducted within a religious framework. The writings of Francis Bacon provide a good example. Nowadays, though, science and religion have little to say to each other, and I don't see any harmonious relations in the offing. Again, Russell avoids looking at science and religion as 'ways of knowing' [he doesn't ever attempt a definition of either], he just talks about relations between scientists and believers, which is an entirely different matter. The same goes for [2], he really means scientists and believers operating in close alliance, by avoiding all the issues.
Problem 3 is of course familiar, and more or less identical to what Marilynne Robinson says in her talk, in which she accuses 'new atheists' of having a defunct enlightenment view of science, in which mystery after mystery will fall like so many dominoes before the winds of scientific explanation. Exactly how flawed is this view, though? The scientific explanatory framework does seem to be cumulative. The mystery of lightning gets explained by theories which gradually become more comprehensive, covering electricity, magnetism, the behaviour of matter inside stars and so forth. Scientific analysis has also proved fruitful in categorising the kinds of supernatural concepts that are found to be viable for religious practice, and in detecting patterns in religious thinking. I don't think victory over religious modes of thought and practice is inevitable, but I do think it is desirable, because religious ways of thinking profoundly interfere with a comprehensive understanding of how the world works - precisely because it provides an alternative, competing view, which is inadequate and stunting, but highly appealing to some.
Problem 4 speaks of diversity, but scientific diversity is necessarily circumscribed by the need for hypotheses to pass certain crucial and stringent tests. Religious or theological diversity has no such tests - which is precisely why heresies are dealt with so harshly. Orthodoxy can only maintain itself through repression, and through the gaining of popular support [often through a kind of demagoguery that whips up a frenzy of opposition to 'heretics']. Russell, though, is again largely speaking of personal approaches to religion. He does claim that it was only the Catholic Church, and then not uniformly, that sought to condemn Galileo, while the Protestants had no problem with heliocentrism. This may well be so - and after all, accepting heliocentrism doesn't really concede much, for scriptures really have little to say about the relationship between the earth and the sun, but the problem really is whether scriptures are acceptable as a way of knowing how the world works. It's the methodologies being developed by Galileo and other pioneers that were the real challenge to the religious, and this was a challenge perhaps barely recognized at the time. Russell uses much the same argument regarding the response to Darwin [though without the sharp division between Catholic and Protestant], but he has nothing whatever to say about the challenge to human 'in God's image' specialness that Darwin's theory represented. It's hard to understand how so central a point could be so completely overlooked.
Problem number 5 is one well-recognized, I think, by many observers. The rise of anti-scientific fundamentalism, particularly in the US in recent decades, cannot be attributed wholly to religious belief, few of us are unaware of this. The causes are complex and multi-faceted, and have much to do with a new-found 'tradition' of insularity, and the indoctrination of children. However, religion has always provided a haven for this kind of inward-looking community spirit, which is why cults are perennially attractive to the culturally alienated.
Problem number 6 is perhaps a matter of opinion. Russell it seems wants to minimise the issues involved because he wants to see a harmonious relationship between religion and science, something that he has perhaps managed in his own life. However, I suspect that he has achieved this by ignoring much that looms large in those with a different perspective. I cannot say more as I don't have any idea what Russell is left with in his religion if he accepts the findings of biology, genetics, cosmology and the methodologically rigorous analysis of texts presumed to be sacred.
In his conclusion, Russell presumes that he has proven the 'warfare model' to be manifestly inadequate, and he gives the example of Thomas Huxley as an explanation for its continued success:
By establishing the conflict thesis, [Huxley and his friends] could perpetuate a myth as part of their strategy to enhance the public appreciation of science. Thus, Huxley could write, with a fine disregard for what history records: 'Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules; and history records that wherever science and orthodoxy have been fairly opposed, the latter have been forced to retire from the lists, bleeding and crushed if not annihilated; scotched if not slain'.
This is surely the shout of science triumphant, and I'm pretty sure that Russell quotes it with a sneaking admiration in spite of his criticism. And the question of whether Huxley really did disregard history, in its broad sweep, is far from decided.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

science and religion again

Andrew Dickson White - early proponent of the conflict thesis

The Draper-White thesis, as it has come to be known, was enormously influential. For the past century it has been the predominant view of the relationship of science and religion among scientists and laymen alike. It wedded a triumphalist view of science with a patronizing view of religion. Popular misconceptions doubtless underlay the widespread presumption that religion was opposed to science. Grounded in faith, religion seemed bound to suffer when confronted by science, which was, of course, based on fact.
Gary Ferngren, 'Introduction', Science & religion: a historical introduction

Being dirt poor, I can't afford to buy the latest texts, assuming there are any, on the topics that most interest me, such as the science/religion conundrum [conflict, compatibility, incompatibility, complementarity, complexity], and I still have difficulty reading long screeds online, so it was with some interest that I uncovered a text at my local library, Science & religion: a historical introduction, which was published not so very long ago, in 2002 [actually, all but one of the essays was written before 2000]. I realized, of course, that the book wouldn't take into account the resurgence of interest in this subject due to the publication of such 'new atheist' works as Breaking the spell and The god delusion, but I was hoping for some really stimulating discussion about these two 'ways of knowing'. I have to say that after reading the intro and the first essay, I've been sorely disappointed.
My expectations were too high perhaps. These are essays by historians of science and religion, not by scientists or philosophers. They're really looking at the way the relationship has played out in the public arena, rather than the central philosophical and theological issues involved. Still, I detect an irritating bias. I'll probably write a few posts as I read my way through the essays.
The quotation at the top of the post gives an indication of the approach, which I suspect will persist throughout the book. Triumphalist and patronising - where have I heard that before? More importantly, terms such as 'popular misconceptions' litter this introduction and the following essay. The conflict thesis persists due to 'popular misconceptions' or it persists 'in the popular mind', condescendingly referred to in contrast to the sophisticated mind. There is no attempt to present these popular misconceptions for our examination, there's just a lot of telling and no showing. More to the point, the conflict thesis is presented as warfare between personalities, and so it's easy for the historian to show that, in fact, there isn't just warfare, there's tension, there's accommodation, there's mutual ignorance, there's collaboration, there's a whole variety of positionings which amount to a complexity thesis which more accurately reflects the relationship.
All of this, though, seems utterly irrelevant to the issue. At no point in the introduction or the first essay [by Colin Russell - and he's much more biased in his approach than Ferngren] do the writers address the basis of the conflict between religion and science. They make no acknowledgement whatever that, personalities aside, the aims of science in general clash with the aims of religion as explanations of how things are. The community benefits of religion, the sense of group or tribal identity generated by these beliefs are well understood by most non-believers, but what gripes us is that the beliefs that the religious share are very unlikely to be true, and they clash head-on with scientific theory and scientific evidence. The closest that either of these two writers come to even considering this fundamental issue is in the last sentence quoted above -  Grounded in faith, religion seemed [and forget about the past tense] bound to suffer when confronted by science, which was, of course, based on fact.
Too right, but then this possible starting point is abandoned, and particular struggles or accommodations are focused on again. No attempt is made to examine what faith is, and of course no notice is made of the fact that faith is used precisely to justify belief in stuff that isn't backed up by any evidence - that there's an afterlife, for example, or that a dissident preacher who may or may not have lived 2000 years ago was the offspring of the supernatural creator of the world/universe/multiverse. Along with many people, I just don't accept that science and the rules of evidence have nothing to do with these claims. Most believers don't believe in this separation either - they're often intensely concerned with finding proof, of the power of prayer, of the existence of life after death, of miracles and so forth.
Anyway, what I've read so far has only underlined for me the considerable limitations of taking a purely historical approach to this subject, with little thought for the philosophical. As to Colin Russell's infuriating first essay, I'll deal with that next time.

By the way, here's a much more informative, and plausible, account of the conflicts between science and religion, especially in the US.

Friday, January 21, 2011

something to crow about



It took scientists the better part of the twentieth century to fully develop the mathematics for describing such quantum activity of the electromagnetic, and strong and weak nuclear forces. The effort was well spent: calculations using this mathematical framework agree with experimental findings to an unparalleled precision [eg calculations of the effect of vacuum fluctuations on the magnetic properties of electrons agree with experimental results to one part in a billion].
Brian Greene, The fabric of the cosmos 


In my internet to-ings and fro-ings I recently came across a piece from 1991, written by a creationist, warning a Catholic educational institution of the dangers of having invited that apostle of scientism, Carl Sagan, to speak at a seminar or conference. It was interesting to me that the term was being used twenty years ago, and of course it was also interesting to note who was using it. All of this relates to a recent post in which I noted the term 'parascience', apparently used by Marilynne Robinson to indicate the prideful stories scientists tell each other to keep up morale. The implication seemed to be [nay, more than seems] that science was generally getting too big for its boots and becoming tediously self-important.
The thing is that too many non-science, and genuinely anti-science people have willfully cut themselves off from the extraordinary advances that have been made. There is really a lot to crow about, and the results are so self-evident that little propaganda is required, all that's needed is a clear statement of the facts. Take this little piece from the latest issue of Cosmos magazine, accompanying a tech-blue photo of the installation:
Housed within a 10 storey, 70,000 square metre building, the US National Ignition Facility in Livermore, California, is the biggest and highest-energy laser in the world, designed to produce limitless, self-sustaining energy. On 8 October 2010, all of its 192 giant lasers were combined to form a single beam - 10 billion times stronger than an average household light bulb - and sent through almost 1.6 kms of lenses, mirrors and amplifiers into a fingernail-sized capsule filled with hydrogen fuel. The reaction delivered an explosion of neutrons so powerful it produced a tiny man-made star.   
Now think of a nineteenth century technogeek reading this. What would impress her most? Well, there would be the Big Numbers - a 10 storey building just to house some piece of techno wizardry? Wow. 10 billion times the average household light bulb? Sounds impressive, but it wouldn't mean much to someone of the nineteenth century, as there was no such thing as an average household light bulb then. Patents had been taken out throughout the second half of the nineteenth century for various kinds of incandescent bulbs, but mass-produced, standardised globes were very much a thing of the future. And 1.6 kilometres of lenses, mirrors and amplifiers - hard to conceive in the nineteenth century, even for a science nerd.
Two words would also completely discombobulate such a nerd - laser and neutron. The laser might well rank as the most powerful technological development of the twentieth century. There's lots of competition of course, but the laser is right up there. And like so many modern developments in physics, technological or theoretical, its development can be traced back to Einstein, who wrote a paper in 1917, 'On the quantum theory of radiation', which conceived of probability coefficients, since known as Einstein coefficients, for the absorption, spontaneous emission and stimulated emission of electromagnetic radiation. Such an invention was inconceivable of course without the revolutionary developments in quantum mechanics of the early twentieth century. As for neutrons, their existence wasn't confirmed until the 1930s, some ten years after they were theorized by Ernest Rutherford.
All of this new knowledge and these new developments are combining in experiments which actually reproduce the activity inside stars, an activity about which nothing was even known in the nineteenth century. A nineteenth century geek would be totally flabbergasted.
The general point I'm making is captured largely in the quotation at the top of this post. Quantum mechanics and relativity have transformed our understanding of the physical world more comprehensively than any other scientific developments in human history. Not enough people fully understand the monumental achievement of these developments, together with the massive advances made in our understanding of the living world, from the theory of natural selection through to molecular biology and genetics. The theories underpinning these developments have been experimentally confirmed to the nth degree, and they present a complex and comprehensive account undreamed of in previous centuries. I don't deny that there can be such a thing as scientific hubris and triumphalism, but even if it isn't always justified it's surely understandable, and the fact is that many of those most critical of science, those most loudly bemoaning such supposed triumphalism, are in denial, or are just plain ignorant, of the giant strides we've made.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Aristotle, his god and the primum mobile





absurd but influential, apparently

Despite his conviction that the world was uncreated, Aristotle did believe in a divine spirit, or God. But the attributes he assigned to his God, whom he called an 'Unmoved mover', would have been strange, and perhaps repugnant, to anyone raised in one of the three traditional monotheistic religions. Obviously, Aristotle's God was not the creator of our world, since it is uncreated. Indeed, he is not even aware of the world's existence and, therefore, does not, and could not, concern himself with anything in our world. Such a deity could not, therefore, be an object of worship. The only activity fit for such a God is pure thought. but the only thoughts worthy of his exalted status are thoughts about himself. Totally remote from the universe, Aristotle's God thinks only of himself.

Edward Grant, 'Aristotle and Aristotelianism', in Science and Religion: a historical introduction, edited by Gary Ferngren


I've long had a thing for Aristotle, especially his ethical and political philosophy, but it's all been from quite meagre gleanings. He seemed to have a common-sense empirical approach, and I like to think of him as a this-wordly philosopher through and through, making big assumptions such as that his primum mobile was just a way of kick-starting the universe, after which it could be abandoned, with all the focus being on a kind of physicalist approach thenceforward. If the above quotation is to be trusted, though, Aristotle's metaphysics are a lot weirder than I'd assumed. I was under the impression that Grant's term 'unmoved mover' was a direct translation of primum mobile, which I always took to mean 'first mover', but I'm beginning to realize my error. In fact the term primum mobile [first moved] is a medieval construction used in astronomy and having nothing to do with Aristotle's metaphysics [though it may have been indirectly drawn from him]. So enough of that concept and let's look at Aristotle's god, at least as revealed in the quotation.
How this god could even be described as a 'mover' is a mystery. He didn't create the world, he's unaware of the world, so of what theological use is he? Why even posit his existence? Clearly we would have to investigate Aristotle's metaphysics much more thoroughly to answer these questions. One possible answer is that it was impossible, in those times, for a thinker worth his salt not to have a theology or a metaphysics of some kind. So Aristotle invented a metaphysics that was beside the point. Not consciously perhaps, but just to get it out of the way, to focus on this world, a world entirely untouched by his god. Whether this answer is plausible would depend on a greater familiarity with his metaphysics, which I may or may not achieve. I actually spent some time in Borders bookshop the other day perusing a book called Aristotle's Metaphysics, a contemporary commentary [something like this one, but costing more than $50] on the works under the title of The Metaphysics [not a term Aristotle used himself]. That's essentially why I'm writing this post today.
I do find that Aristotle's strange god, as presented in the quotation, provides a salutary lesson, and an amusing one. You can create in your mind all sorts of supernatural beings, even ones that are completely irrelevant to the generally agreed purpose of supernatural beings - to give purpose and meaning to the world, or to reality. In fact, Aristotle's god is irrelevant to everything except himself. There seems something important here about theological pointlessness, but maybe not. In any case, I might just return to Aristotle's metaphysics in a later post, when I've learned more about it.

Monday, January 17, 2011

on the end of philosophy, mainly


As for the school of Gothic novelists, they didn't have anything to do with anything except their own gloomy and morbid imaginings: they were probably all opium fiends who got hopped up from daylight until moonlight and kept ravens and indulged in unhealthy thoughts. Life these days, I thought, was Real and filled with Purpose and Endeavour and Downtrodden Masses, and all that Gothic stuff was just made up.
Charmian Clift, 'On Gothic Tales'

Well, it seems that the people of Southern Sudan have voted overwhelmingly to secede from the north and to form their own nation. Obviously it's going to be a hard road to hoe, but hopefully the struggle will be relatively peaceful in the foreseeable future. This site has some useful maps giving an at-a-glance view of the ethnic, religious and language mix of the region. Australia has it so much easier in terms of governance.

Common sense atheism has a stimulating post, with comments, which touches on issues of scientism I've also been touching on in the last few posts. Of course, I'm not a philosopher, and I really don't understand the Bayesian rule [which in any case is a development of mathematics, and specifically probability, rather than philosophy], but I do know that this way of thinking of philosophy - that it's aim should be to kill itself with a thousand cuts, gradually cutting off its various issues and handing them over to science one by one - has been around for quite a while. I myself seem to remember reading something from Max Black around thirty years ago, something to the effect that problems kind of pass through the digestive system of philosophy to come out as science. But no, that probably wasn't it at all.

he says no to atheistic scientism - amen to that 

Anyway, I tend to side with the blogger, Luke Muelhauser, here. When have philosophers ever solved a philosophical problem? At best they've helped to make it more clear and distinct. And of course at worst they've done the opposite. Many issues once held in the sights of philosophers have passed over into the sciences, which have often made rapid progress towards solving them. They're no longer philosophical issues, but issues within a scientific framework - cosmology, neurophysiology, genetics and so forth. I expect that the best developments in the future, in ethics, in philosophy of mind, in philosophy of science, will come, as they have been coming, from practical developments in cognitive psychology, in AI research, in astrophysics, etc. And I agree also with Luke that those developments won't involve a dualistic approach. But what would I know?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

on supervenience

Pour qu'une chose soit interessante, il suffit de la regarder longtemps.
Gustave Flaubert

Amongst a number of other no doubt fascinating potted insights at this site, Joshua Greene gives us a condensed version of supervenience. The issue of human mind and consciousness was harped on by Marilynne Robinson in her RSA talk, and at one point she ridiculed what she would describe as the reduction of the mind to that glob of grey matter inside the skull. As everyone knows, this has long been a contentious point between materialists, or to use Greene's term, physicalists, and their opponents, be they dualists or some other ists. Greene's supervenience concept - which doubtless has been around for ages - is that mind is supervenient on the brain. We can't have minds without brains, but that doesn't mean they're identical. You can have a brain without a mind, but more importantly, they operate at different levels. Greene gives the example of a computer image made up of pixels. The image was generated using pixels, but the image also exists on another, human, psychological level, imparting emotion or ideas. Altering the number of pixels might change the resolution but it won't generally alter what the image intends to convey - that 'information', if you like, operates on another level. It is supervenient on the process by which the image was generated.
Greene provides this general definition of supervenience:
Supervenience is a relationship between two sets of properties. Call them Set A and Set B. The Set A properties supervene on the Set B properties if and only if no two things can differ in their A properties without also differing in their B properties.
He then 'concretises' this piece of abstraction rather well - though you can see just by the definition how it works for the mind/brain conundrum, including the asymmetry of the relationship. Essentially the world can be seen as operating on different levels, but there's a basic level upon which everything else supervenes. This is the 'hard' level that physicists work on, and explains why physics is the most fundamental science. When physicists talk about developing a 'Theory of  Everything' [TOE] they don't of course mean this quite literally, though in a sense they do - what they mean is the possibility of developing a theory of that upon which everything supervenes.
As this isn't a new approach, no doubt philosophers have been pulling it apart for some time, though on the face of it, it seems very helpful. My strong sense from people like Robinson is that their emphasis on human brilliance and the specialness of human consciousness is really not so much to urge scientists to get their finger out and start studying this stuff, but to put a god-shaped spanner in the works, to almost sneakily claim that there's something that can't be explained, something that's god's doing. Most religious beliefs are self-aggrandising, or 'human-aggrandising' if you will. Certainly this is true of the Judeo-Christian religion, in which only humans are in the image of the creator-deity, and therefore get to lord it over other creatures and to revel in their own specialness and brilliance. Perhaps if Robinson were to focus a bit more on other species and their minds [bearing in mind my quote at the top of this post], she might start to get a clearer view of consciousness as an evolving property, and she might be more impressed with the differently evolving cognitive qualities of pigs and elephants and cetaceans and other beasties. I'm not sure though that she really wants to do that.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Roger Scruton and the atheist 'fashion'


I note that the British Medical Journal, which has spent some time investigating the controversial study of some years ago [published in the Lancet in 1998, and since retracted] linking childhood vaccination to autism, has recently come out strongly against the study [which has not been replicated by other studies], claiming, in particular, that it downplayed the already-present symptoms of autism of some of the children. There were in fact only 12 children in the study. It's reported here.

Now to the last speaker in the public talks I've been critiquing. Roger Scruton is a very well known British philosopher, of a conservative bent. Apparently he plies his trade as a philosopher in the same faculty as A C Grayling, who describes Scruton as a good friend with whom he disagrees about virtually everything. So it amuses me to surmise that he would have heard many times over what I'm going to say in criticism of his position.
By the way, the RSA actually stands for the royal society for the encouragement of the arts, manufactures and commerce, and it describes itself as a charitable organisation which encourages enlightenment thinking.
Scruton at the outset describes himself as someone who lost his faith as a youngster, but who found it again late in life through a circuitous and painstaking journey. So we're dealing with another believer. He then, referring again to Robert Elsmere, claims that the new atheists present atheism as a liberation, in which you gain much and lose nothing - contrary to the experience of Elsmere. A couple of responses to this - many atheists are acutely aware of how difficult it is, in terms of family relations, social status, even danger to one's own life - to openly declare yourself an atheist. From the awful experience of Ayaan Hirsi Ali to the awful experience of local religious sect members, horror stories abound. At the same time, for many, atheism is a liberation. It should be remembered that 'new atheism' didn't spring from nowhere, it emerged as a response. A response to one of the most troubling developments of the late twentieth century - that's to say, the rise and rise of a new, more aggressive, more primitive, more intolerant and belligerent form of religious belief, or dogmatism. Richard Dawkins would have felt it most in the rise, particularly in the US, of an antipathetic, indeed an enragedly hostile, attitude towards the theory of natural selection [or any other evolutionary theory], a theory he has spent his professional life expounding and promoting as the most profound and successful theory in the history of biology. I for one can well understand his extreme frustration, and it's hard not to imagine, even for believers like Scruton, that these kinds of rigid, aggressively primitivist belief systems are something of a prison-house, especially for women as they always seem to be profoundly patriarchal.
So, yes, liberation is a theme for atheists, but they don't see it, by and large, in simple-minded terms - at least I don't. I've attended a few atheist meet-ups, and they often feature traumatized members or visitors who have lost a great deal in coming out against the family or community faith.
Scruton points to two major features of religion. One is the set of metaphysical beliefs that point to an understanding of the world as a created, purposive entity rather than an accidental, random one. And the other, which he characterises as much more important - membership of a community of like-minded believers, and the sense of cohesion and identity this brings. He also asserts that the idea that you can be set free from religion is naive 'because it doesn't engage with that part of the human condition from which religion springs'. Now again, I can't speak for other atheists, but I know that I am very much concerned with understanding the causes and nature of religious belief, and I'm massively aware of the fact that religious beliefs or spiritual beliefs are very much at the heart of human being for a lot of people. It would be unthinkable for such people to lose their faith - which is indeed so much a part of their being that they don't even recognise it as faith.
However, it should also be recognised that these people are generally innocent of modern science. In Afghanistan, for example, you'll find virtually no atheists, and you'll also find one of the lowest levels of literacy in the world. There are no debates there, I strongly suspect, around 'intelligent design' and evolution, because the vast majority of the population, outside of some cities, haven't much of an inkling of the theory of evolution. This is important, because there's one feature of modern atheism - one of many perhaps - that differentiates it from the atheism of the nineteenth century, say, and that is the issue of the compatibilism of science with religion. No doubt this was touched on in the nineteenth century with the controversy over Darwin's theory, but today that debate is more complex, sophisticated and urgent. Most of the prominent 'new atheists' today - Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Myers, Coyne and a number of others - are incompatibilists. They see science and religion as being on a collision course, and they see religion as presenting a false understanding of our world, an understanding that is a major roadblock to the scientific view and the scientific approach. To these atheists, no amount of sophisticated metaphysics and no amount of community spirit can justify the holding of what they see as patently false beliefs. Many of the most damaging false beliefs - that children can be possessed by demons, that women who dishonor their families should be stoned to death, that those who don't believe in a particular god, or a particular version of a god, deserve death, and so on - are held to be so by the majority of religious people as well as by atheists, but modern atheists argue that a truer understanding of the nature of humanity will lessen our sense of dependence on or subjection to any supernatural agency, from which these pernicious beliefs ultimately spring.
Now, I think it's true that the rise of fundamentalism and Islamism isn't entirely the fault of religion per se. There are a number of complex forces determining this development, which we should try to comprehend and intelligently combat. Religious indoctrination, though, of the sort evidenced in the documentary 'Jesus Camp', and in the head-bobbing youths in Pakistani madrassas, is a matter of serious concern never addressed or even mentioned by the three speakers I have been critiquing.
Scruton finishes by talking of the sacred, a sense of which most people need in their lives. He talks of Weber's idea of 'disenchantment', of the desecration of sex as a formerly sacred activity, and the general downgrading of the sacred, presumably in western society.
Ah, the sacred, the sacred. How often this one is wheeled out in at attempt to diminish the experience and the aims and ambitions of atheists. Of course it's true that many atheists are contemptuous and dismissive of this catch-all term. The concept of the sacredness of sex and the sacredness of the family has been used by the Vatican to promote a homophobic and mysogynist agenda for centuries. The sacredness of life - almost always exclusively human life - has been invoked to prevent the development of medical procedures and medical research of all sorts, not to mention its sometimes pernicious influence on contraception and the treatment of the suffering and the dying. Scruton doesn't sufficiently emphasise, I think, the self-serving nature of the human concept of the sacred - it's generally about the monumental, dare I say god-like, specialness of all things human. So the concept of the sacred needs to be scrutinised much more carefully, I think - and this is being done by our best evolutionary psychologists. Meanwhile, as person who is highly sceptical of the concept of the sacred, and who doesn't feel this metaphysical need to see myself, or my sexual activity, or my impending end, as a sacred matter, I do feel the need to defend myself against the charge of crassness or superficiality that the 'pushers of sacredness' often make. A few years ago I wrote a no doubt inadequate response to two books I read in tandem - both of which were about pilgrimages of a kind, albeit secular pilgrimages. The two books were Roads to Santiago, by Cees Nooteboom, and Passage to Juneau by Jonathan Raban. They were both deeply reflective and contemplative works, which I found both intellectually and emotionally challenging and satisfying. They both reflected on history, religion, lifestyle, change, questing, the big issues. They were as close to spiritual works as I ever want to come - though of course there are other works of this kind out there, for which we must be grateful. I don't like to use the word 'spiritual' or 'sacred' myself - I think there's far too much baggage attached to these words that I don't want to be a part of. But I've always deeply resented the use of these terms to indicate some sort of superiority of being and feeling. I'm sure we've all met the self-described 'deeply spiritual person' who has about as much sensitivity to others as a doorknob. There are also those those who would eschew such terms as 'spiritual' and 'sacred' but who are deeply empathic to our world and its struggling, failing denizens, human or otherwise.
Finally I should make some remarks about the apparent theme of these talks - 'beyond the new atheism'. For me, what is beyond the new atheism, a term I reject, is more atheism. Modern atheism has certainly been given a shot in the arm by the anti-scientific, anti-modernist move towards religious primitivism in some parts of the world, and it has found a number of new voices, some rather shrill, some very articulate. However, Roger Scruton's description of it as a fashion strikes me as the most profound mischaracterization I've come across in a long time. Atheism is here to stay, and it's here to make itself heard. Not only are the numbers swelling and the percentages rising in the west, but most of the best and brightest are going or have gone 'secular' - not only our best scientists, but our best philosophers, our best lawyers, our best journalists - take any intellectual profession you like, and you'll find the percentage of non-believers will far exceed the percentage in the general population. We're an increasingly questioning society - a good thing, in my view - and religious belief tends to crumble under rigorous - but fair - interrogation.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

a critique of Jonathan Ree's contribution

Don't take up golf.  James Watson


The second speaker in these talks, Jonathan Ree, is a British philosopher and historian, and an atheist who has serious doubts about 'new atheism'. He begins his talk by referencing Robinson, speaking approvingly of her term 'parascience', which is nothing like parapsychology, but refers to the tales scientists tell each other to 'gee themselves up', a kind of scientific jingoism, something like what others have described as scientism chit-chat. The idea is that 'new atheists' are particularly prone to this arrogant scientistic tone and attitude. As Ree puts it, it's rather dualistic - there's either science or ignorance. Yet, again, if you look at the people being dubbed 'new atheists', they are quite various. Certainly, such atheist advocates as Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer and Daniel Dennett are probably guilty, even self-confessedly, of scientism, but others such as Christopher Hitchens and Anthony Grayling are not so easily classified. I do have an interest in this subject, and I generally take the view that science, defined broadly as an open-ended set of methods and techniques and even ways of thinking, which involve discipline and rigour, repeatability, verifiability and testability, can contribute substantially to our understanding of any subject. It's not so much about reducing all ways of knowing to science, but expanding science to comprehend and judge all ways of knowing. Science is, to me, not just a method, but an organic, evolving set of processes. And the subject matter will determine which process or processes out of the set should be applied. If this is scientism, so be it. It's an approach that seems to be working a treat.
Ree next seeks to criticize the new atheists by arguing that there's really nothing they say that wasn't already said in the nineteenth century. So, guess what, they aren't new. An extraordinary insight, that one. Interestingly, this is one of those truisms that isn't quite true. Yes, the philosophical arguments are largely the same, and I haven't heard any of those dubbed new atheists claiming that their arguments are new. But today's atheists are able to present new evidence, the fruits of archaeology, palaeontology, genetics, particle physics, cosmology, precise evidence about when our universe was formed, when and how our planet was formed, our relationship to other species and our evolutionary history, as well as evidence relating to the authorship of sacred texts, the probable where and when of that authorship, and how the events related in those texts are verified or falsified by archaeological and other evidence. The modern atheist lives in a more globalized world, in which more is known about a variety of religions, through the media and through direct contact as well as via the fruits of twentieth century anthropology, not to mention Wikipedia. Religion can be looked at from a broader and more multi-faceted perspective than it was in the nineteenth century.
Of course, the real issue isn't newness but trueness. Atheists, new or old, are saying what they have long said, that we should look to this world for understanding and meaning, not to some putative other-worldly phenomena. Many atheists would like to say that gods just ain't true, and probably feel gyped that they can only allow themselves to say there ain't no evidence. This has nothing to do with scientism, and often nothing to do with science. Jonathan Ree himself points out that his own loss or lack of faith had nothing to do with Copernicus or Darwin or whoever, and that would be the same for me. It had to do with something ludicrous about the whole god-worshipping ritualistic paraphernalia when I was first confronted with it, a sense of profound ludicrousness which has never left me. This hasn't been a rational response, which is why I'm a little wary of those atheists who connect non-belief to a greater rationalism, but neither is it an irrational response. It's something visceral and basic. I'm reminded of Paul Valery's comment, something along the lines of the 'the nonbeliever is always convinced that the believer is being insincere, and vice-versa'. Maybe there is an unfathomable divide between 'believers' and 'unbelievers', or this-worlders and other-worlders, as I prefer to designate them, and maybe this-worlders will always be in the minority. I personally hope not, but I don't hope with a great deal of confidence.
Ree's objection to new atheism, that it isn't new, is also ludicrous - 'new atheist' is a term foisted on people like Dawkins and Dennett and Harris by their opponents, and once the term is grudgingly accepted by the culprits, since there seems no alternative but to accept it with a more or less good grace, the same opponents leap up and down shouting 'there's nothing new about you lot'. It's all very hypocritical and silly.
Ree's description of the novel Robert Elsmere sounds intriguing, but his attempt to use it in support of multifarious atheisms surely fails. He says that Robert Elsmere's objections to his church, his rejection of certain beliefs, would put him on the same level of belief as the 'reformed' Anglican Church of today, and he uses this example to suggest that there are many kinds of atheism. But this isn't true. Elsmere - and I haven't read the book - might have reacted negatively to some aspects of church doctrine, and had a 'crisis of faith' as a result, but if his belief at the end of it all was the same as what the Archbishop of Canterbury believes now, then it's clear that Elsmere never became an atheist. I'm assuming here that the Archbishop isn't an atheist, which is perhaps a big assumption. Atheism isn't many different things. Atheism is something clearly defined. It's a lack of belief in gods. You could perhaps extend this to a lack of belief in supernatural agency, which would bring ancestor spirits, rainbow serpents and even ghosts into the net, but I think it's safer to just leave it at gods. Apart from this lack of belief, atheists are of course as various as all humans are.
Ree's final remark, referring to William James's Varieties of Religious Experience, is another attempt to have a go at the 'new atheist' straw person. He says we should guard against the varieties of religious inexperience, as evidenced by some of these new atheists. What is meant by this piece of rhetoric? I have never experienced religious belief, it's true, just as, presumably, the pope has never experienced non-belief. I'm talking about direct, personal experience here, of course. There are some who've had faith, and lost it, and there are some who converted to a particular faith, from having no interest in matters religious. These are varieties of experience that we all accept and recognise. I feel no need to apologize for having no direct experience of religious belief. I've learned a lot about religion through reading anthropological essays, through talking to people of faith, through observing various rituals, through reading history and sacred texts etc etc. That's the best that I can do to try to understand religious belief. It's true that some atheists are willfully ignorant of religious practice and belief - it takes all kinds. Some new atheists may fit that description. Some may not. It's not a fair criticism of modern atheism. One is reminded, when talking of the religious inexperience of atheists, that recent research has shown that American atheists are on the whole more literate about the Bible than Christians are. So it might even make sense to talk about the varieties of religious inexperience of the professedly religious.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Marilynne Robinson tries her hand at taking on 'new atheism'

Marilynne Robinson - 'the world's best prose writer', according to some geezer

When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours - Stephen Roberts
I'm failing in my course, and would much much rather focus on my favourite topics, so I will. The above quote comes from the common sense atheism blog, and I love it.
I was somehow directed recently to this set of talks, hosted at the website of the RSA [the Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts], and co-produced by New Humanist magazine. I want to respond to the speakers, Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Ree and Roger Scruton, whose collective take on the soi-disant new atheists struck me as very limited and straw-personish. I should hope that New Humanist encourages other voices than these - and I'm sure they do.
The first speaker, Robinson, is a US novelist and essayist, and a committed Christian. She starts out very badly by making the claim that 'new atheists' are generally committed to a kind of post-enlightenment 'science is on the verge of explaining everything' view of the world. She doesn't provide any evidence for this claim. I'm not sure I've heard this one before, though I've heard much criticism of new atheism in terms of scientism and scientific triumphalism. This criticism is often levelled at Richard Dawkins in particular, and maybe there's something in this, but I've read quite a bit of Dawkins's work specifically on science, and he has often commented on the way science raises more questions, opening up ever-new fields of enquiry in a never-ending project. The more we do science the more we find things that are in need of explaining, and there's doesn't seem to be any end in sight. So Dawkins, the favourite whipping-boy of the critics of 'new atheism', takes a view of science which is precisely the opposite of the one Robinson seeks to criticize. I can't think of a single prominent modern atheist - and they're a very diverse bunch - who takes this 'everything's almost explained' view. Names and evidence are required.
After pointing out how 'fantastical' [at least she didn't say miraculous] are the findings of modern science, and arguing, or rather boldly stating, that new atheists don't appreciate this, Robinson goes on to talk about William James, obviously an important philosopher, but talked up here as the American philosopher of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her presentation of James's 'democracy of ontology', in which, according to James, we concede the mystery of everything that we encounter, sounds rather relativistic. Science, as one commentator to this discussion points out, just cannot proceed this way. Here is his comment:
  In the light of the data, we look how plausible each proposed theory/model is (using probability calculus). Redundant statements (i.e. that don't add up to the explanation of the facts) are discarded, and experiments are devised with maximal information value in it (testing limits, or rival hypotheses).
I'm not sure of the detail in this comment, but surely the point is that we have to be much much more hard-nosed in sorting out what we allow in and what we discard from an 'ontology' or a theory in order to produce reliable knowledge. And science is all about the production of reliable knowledge. Quantum theory may be 'fantastical', but more importantly, it is reliable, or it would have been discarded long ago.
Robinson speaks favourably of James's contention that you can reject a particular 'cosmology' because it offends your moral sense - another example of relativism, and Robinson's choice of the word 'cosmology' seems arbitrary here. Why not 'scientific theory'? After all, hasn't the theory of natural selection - along with every other evolutionary theory - been rejected on just those grounds by creationists? And it was largely due to this kind of rejection that 'new atheism' has grown up and come out fighting. No modern scientist and no modern philosopher of science would accept moral feelings or moral qualms as a reasonable basis for rejecting any scientific theory or 'cosmology'. The data has to be respected. And democracy is no basis for accepting or rejecting a theory. If James ever seriously put this forward, then, however pleasant and open it might sound, his philosophy of science is impossibly naive and completely unworkable.
Robinson next goes on to claim that 'new atheism', which she seems to understand as something monolithic, has ignored the issue of human consciousness and human brilliance. Again, Robinson tells us what new atheists think, or don't think, rather than showing us. And again I would counter that new atheists are a very diverse bunch. One of that bunch, Daniel Dennett, is a philosopher who has spent most of his career analysing and probing the nature of consciousness, human and non-human. I'm not sure what Robinson is trying to say, in fact, with this observation. It seems to be something about the specialness of humans, a felt specialness which is at the heart of much religious thinking, with supernatural beings generally being obsessed with the detail of human lives - they know every hair on our heads - thus enhancing our specialness to ourselves. Scientists in general seems unimpressed with this specialness, not because of obtuseness, but because they find 'specialness' - or complexity, extraordinariness, unpredictability [but also regularity] - everywhere, whether they're studying cephalopods, hadrons or plate tectonics. I do think, of course, that human consciousness is amazing, and that our achievement in discovering laws that seem to comprehend the formation and activity of our universe, the formation of complex living entities from much more simple [but in their way still incredibly complex] life forms, and which have enabled us to colonise and dominate the biosphere so effectively, all of this is a wonder. It just doesn't make me think in religious terms - let alone in Christian ones.
So much for Marilynne Robinson's brief and, IMHO, unconvincing contribution to the future of 'new atheism'. I'll deal with the other two next time.