Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Sorry for missing the post on Friday. We were staying with the family. With nine adults, one baby and five dogs under a single roof it was rather hectic. Luckily, my parents have Christmas cussed and thanks to their hard work, as always, we had a great time. I hope all readers enjoyed a very happy and peaceful Christmas.

Yesterday, my wife and I took advantage of the parents being able to babysit and slipped off to the cinema. Our choice was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I have to admit that it was a long time ago since I enjoyed a film as much as this. It was faithful to the novel which is a fine yarn in itself. The cast were excellent, especially the four children who were almost the only human leads in it. They had to act without much idea what the finished product would look like. Tilda Swinton was a fine White Witch, sexy and scary at the same time. Finally, the special effects were amazing. You are supposed to suspend disbelief at the movies but here, I hardly had too. I really couldn't believe what I was seeing. They say that fur is the hardest thing to model on computers. This movie has acres of furry animals and they all look absolutely perfect. I was stunned by how much better LWW looked than Lord of the Rings just a couple of years ago. Also, while LOTR was a sprawling epic, this was a small scale film with a high level of intimacy. I never felt the characterisation in LOTR was much good (it wasn't much shakes in the books either). LWW's four children were real people you have sympathy for. I felt so bad for poor Edmund in a way I never did about Boromir or Gollum.

A lot of ink has been spilled over LWW's religious subtexts. Rather nicely, village atheists Philip Pullman and Polly Toynbee have made themselves look very stupid (links to their stupidity). When I first read the books, I was the product of a Christian education and totally missed all the Christian imagery. When I reread the series aged 16 I was a confirmed atheist and, if anything, enjoyed them even more. Of course, redemption is a mainstay of many Hollywood movies, especially action films when there always seems to be a character who started the whole thing off (released the monster, pressed the wrong button, was out for a quick buck) who is redeemed by a heroic death. Likewise, the hero, like Aslan, always saves someone by facing certain death and then, just when we think all is lost, reappearing without a scratch. So don't loose sleep over Narnia. The main emotion I remember as a kid was gut-aching envy for the children who got to go to Narnia while I had to stay at home.

In short, see this movie. It is great family entertainment.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Roger Bacon

According to all the standard biographies, the Franciscan authorities imprisoned Roger Bacon (1214 - 1292) for a long period of time. For those looking for evidence of the conflict between science and religion, this was a prime example of clerical intolerance. They had no doubt that the authorities incarcerated Bacon for his dangerous scientific opinions. For other historians, it was his sympathetic view of both astrology and alchemy that doomed him to a dungeon. Today a fresh look at the surviving sources show that it is difficult to prove Bacon’s imprisonment happened at all, let alone that it was for putting forward dangerous scientific views. The origin of the story is a Chronicle of the Franciscans dating from about 1370, a full century after the alleged arrest of Bacon. This document claims that Bacon was a doctor of theology, imprisoned for unspecified ‘suspect novelties’. We know Bacon never qualified as a doctor of anything, so it is hard to give this account much credence. Furthermore, the controversy in which Bacon was allegedly involved had nothing to do with science. Rather, a sect of extreme ascetics within the Franciscans was stirring up trouble. These men, followers of the apocalyptic prophet, Joachim of Flora (1132 – 1202), were convinced that the world was about to end and that the church should, forthwith, divest itself of all property in imitation of the poverty of Christ. The riches of the medieval church are proverbial and bishops certainly had no intention of living as beggars. Franciscans had sworn to do so but as the order’s wealth and influence grew, even the friars became less inclined to survive only with a staff and begging bowl. If Bacon had been a supporter of these Spiritual Franciscans and, given the enormous piety evident in his writings, this is plausible, he could have got into a great deal of trouble. Thus, if he the story of his imprisonment is true, then it had nothing to do with science and is further evidence that Bacon’s real concern was with Christianity.

In reality, it is extremely hard to find anyone beyond Galileo who was persecuted by the Church for scientific opinions.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Philosophical silliness

As the season to be jolly is rapidly approaching I thought that I might share some of the more entertaining websites whose URLs are being bandied around the Cambridge philosophy firmament. Philosophy is a subject so obtuse that it has a nearly boundless capacity for in-jokes. Many of these are extremely silly. It might be argued that some philosophers really don't need to be deliberately silly as they manage it perfectly well without even trying. However the three sites below are quite entertaining, provided that you have a basic knowledge of philosophy to start with. If you don't, I suggest reading Anthony Kenny's Short History of Western Philosophy before clicking on any of the links below.

Philosophical Power Toys - After the success of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, collectible figurines of your favorite philosopher.

The Deaths of Philosophers - Ancient Romans were obsessed by the idea of a good death. Philosophers should expire in an appropriate fashion too.

Analytical Philosophy Generator - Last, and indeed least, who needs On Certainty?

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Childcare and global warning - scientific fads

Here's an excellent article from the London Times printed last week. It's about why it is unwise to follow the pronouncements of scientists on childcare (or indeed anything else). A fine quotation from the article:

The problem with childcare is that it is too often entrusted to mothers who have
not read Thomas Kuhn's 1962 book The Structure of Scientific
. In that book Kuhn explained that all influential scientists,
which includes social and political scientists, are liars. He put it more
politely than that, yet that was his message. Most people are unconscious
followers of Karl Popper, and they suppose that scientists welcome the testing
of their hypotheses by others attempts to disprove them. So people believe that,
when scientists encounter a fact that clashes with their theories, the
scientists discard the theories.

Alright, he's not 100% accurate about Kuhn (but nothing beats a pithy aphorism). What he is accurate about is the public perception of scientists as somehow beyond reproach. In fact, they have their own interests and represent the interests of the people who pay their research bills. To be even more controversial, I am beginning to think of the whole gobal warming movement as a classic Kuhnian paradigm. This does not mean that global warming isn't happening, merely that all data on climate are showhorned into this paradigm. A typical example is the way that we English have been promised both higher and much lower temperatures in the near future, with both phenomena attributed to global warming. Another example is coastal erosion and subsidence. This has been happening since the beginning of time but now global warming and rising sea levels are usually blamed.

As the article linked above says, old fashioned childcare advice, like all old science, is quietly forgotten. If global warming turns out to be a passing phase, expect it to go the way of the last mega-scare story that never happened. Anyone remember the millennium bug? Be honest, you fell for it, didn't you?

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Menander, Sappho and a comet

A hundred years ago, a parlour game that classicists liked to play was to ask what ancient author, now lost, they would most like to read. Invariably, the answer would be the comic playwright Menander whose works were once highly esteemed but none of which have survived in the manuscript tradition (bar a few quotations and aphorisms). Then, large chunks of Menander, including an entire play, were discovered in the sands of Egypt. There was great excitement that the lost master was now found and the publication of the discoveries eagerly awaited.

Sadly, the result was universal disappointment. Menander turned out to be decidedly second rate. Dull would be the kindest word to describe him. Even the famous aphorisms were seen, in context, to have been in rather coarse humour. Classicists realised that the Byzantines had actually shown good taste in preserving the old comedy of Athens rather than wasting time copying out Menander's drivel.

Today, if a classicist would risk playing the same parlour game they would probably ask for the collected works of Sappho. The loss of her poetry gave rise to all sorts of legends in the sixteenth century that supposed early Christians had trashed them. A few gullible atheists still believe them today. As an old book (on line here) states:
Scaliger says, although there does not seem to exist any confirmatory
evidence, that the works of Sappho and other lyric poets were burnt at
Constantinople and at Rome in the year 1073, in the popedom of Gregory VII.
Cardan says the burning took place under Gregory Nazianzen, about 380 A.D. And
Petrus Alcyonius relates that he heard when a boy that very many of the works of
the Greek poets were burnt by order of the Byzantine emperors, and the poems of
Gregory Nazianzen circulated in their stead.

Julius Caesar Scaliger, Jerome Cardano and Peter Alcyonius were all sixteenth century humanists but no earlier trace of their stories has even been found. As all three had issues with the church, we can dismiss them as late legends and bias. You will not find this stuff in modern discussions of Sappho but the myth lives on. Her poetry is a bit erotic but as we have works of Aristophanes, Horace and other very naughty ancient poets in full, this is not a reason that Christians would have destroyed them. Interestingly, Alcyonius was accused himself of burning the last remaining copy of Cicero's De gloria. It's alleged that he plagurised it and then destroyed the original to cover up the evidence. Modern textual studies of the supposedly plagurised material, however, have absolved him of any blame. Wherever he found it, it was not in Cicero.

Incidently, yet another legendary conflict between science and religion is debunked here (this is a link to Oregonlive.com which requires you to enter your age and zip code). It turns out that the old saw of the pope excommunicating Halley's comet is an invention, reported as fact by My Gullibility himself, Carl Sagan (remembering his fantasy on a theme of the Alexandrian Library). It is extremely ironic that Sagan is revered by sceptics for his "Baloney Detection Kit" from Demon Haunted World. It is just a shame he never used it himself.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Back from Paris

After just a weekend in France, I always find myself reflecting on what they do differently there. I am definitively Francophile and love to visit. Partly its a food thing, partly a culture thing. I must be one of the few genuine lovers of France who also feels very warmly about America.

However, I am always struck by how badly maintained many French churches are. In England, even the humblest parish church is kept in very good nick, especially in smaller towns and villages. The material legacy that the Church of England inherited in the sixteenth century has, after the initial iconoclasm, been carefully looked after. In contrast, many French churches appear moth eaten, badly lit and in need of a good clean. I suppose this is largely to do with money. Despite all the moaning, the Church of England has plenty of it. The French Catholic Church probably doesn't. I expect this is something to do with the appropriations that took place in the revolutionary era. Some large Parisian churches, like the Dome and Pantheon are secular rather than religious building even today (both are really glorified mausoleums to the deserving and not deserving).

Conversely, the great Cathedral of Notre Dame has been given a serious face lift. The west front is spanking new. This is not just a clean-up but a full scale restoration that has caused some controversy. Commentators such as Brian Sewell think that the patina of grime lent the building a dignity that its newly scrubbed incarnation lacks. Here are pictures of the old grimy version and the new clean look. Personally, I'm all for the restoration.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Gays at the Guardian

No time for a proper post for today. I'll be back on Tuesday as usual.

In the meantime, I was intrigued by this Leader Article in Wednesday's Guardian about the Vatican's newish guidance on gay priests. It is extremely moderate and understanding of the Church's position. I didn't think the Guardians leftie readership would take this lying down and as Thursday's letter's page revealed, they didn't.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.