Wednesday, January 31, 2007

AC Grayling Suffers a Flesh Wound

A.C. Grayling's embarrassment on the Guardian continues. Although he has plenty of anti-Christian headbangers coming to his defence, the fact is that his initial article has been exposed as rubbish. The learned professor has spent the last couple of days frantically rearranging goal posts. Grayling began with an article challenging another Guardian columnist Madeleine Bunting, by writing, "She tells us that Christianity has "fostered learning and science" in Europe for 'hundreds of years'. I challenge her to name one - even one small - contribution to science made by Christianity in its two thousand years; just one."

Easy. The challenge was quickly met, by me among others. Grayling replied to me by name (while also tarring me with the American fundamentalist brush) and then realised that his first attempt didn't really cut it, so tried again the next morning. I replied to his post in great detail and the professor wisely shut up. He is now asking for something rather different to his original challenge.

Incidently, I got outed as a Christian by one of the other posters that I refuted. Not hard, given I was using my real name and Google finds me very fast. Still, I got free advertising and the poster got to feel that his revelation abrogated him from acknowledging what he had got wrong, so everyone's happy.

Another article appeared this morning on the same question but I doubt we'll see much progress.

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

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Bede v Grayling

A. C. Grayling is a regular commentator at the Guardian's Comment is Free. He surpassed himself yesterday and I felt compelled to reply. You can scroll through the comments below his article to get to mine (in my own name) and Grayling's responses.

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

Thursday, January 25, 2007

"The Human Touch" is Out of Touch

Michael Frayn is the UK's foremost comic playwright and a distinguished novelist. Occupying this position is more risky than it sounds because it means that if he were to write something that is utter garbage, it would probably get published. Then his reputation for being very clever and very entertaining would suffer. Sadly, Frayn has fallen into just such a temptation with his foray into philosophy The Human Touch. This book was not published because it was any good, but because Michael Frayn wrote it.

It is best characterised by the word 'prattling'. It just prattles on with a series of unconnected ideas, occasionally raises itself to a rant and then subsides back to prattling again. No doubt, all the ideas are brought together triumphantly at the end, but frankly I just didn't care. The philosophy in question is the sort of solipsism that undergraduates indulge in for a term or two until they grow up. Frayn still seems to believe in it. Although he includes the entire human race in the hive-mind that generates reality, he really seems to think that if our planet blew up tomorrow, the rest of the universe would go with it. Why? No one left to look at it. You know the one about trees falling over without anyone hearing them...

The London intelligentsia who reviewed Frayn's book were generally kind. After all, they were having him over to dinner next week so they could hardly insult him. Even Simon Blackburn didn't feel he could wield the knife, although his TLS review gave the impression that he'd like to. But the American Jerry Fodor tore The Human Touch to shreds in the LRB. Even he, though, didn't utter the most damning criticism. Frayn's book is boring.

Put it this way. I'm now reading The God Delusion, and it is much, much better than The Human Touch.

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

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


I'm a fan of tolerance and I have to admit that historically it has not been the strong suit of religions. In Europe, different flavours of Christian only decided to try to live together after failing to wipe each other out (and they tried pretty hard). Our modern culture of tolerance is the one unambiguous achievement of the secular left.

So what happens now that the secular left have become the country's biggest bigots themselves? And why has this happened? Some lefties have noticed that it is all going wrong and are disturbed. Foremost among them is Nick Cohen whose new book What's Left? asks what happened. Other journalists have their own tales of left-wing bigotry. If you really want to see the secular left cover themselves in muck, then check out the discussion boards of Richard Dawkin's new website. I've already been described as 'lying scum' there and I haven't even posted (although someone else kindly recommended Bede's Library).

The cause of the secular left's descent into intolerance and prejudice might well be that it now has the whip hand. Throughout history, persecuted minorities have pleaded for toleration which they have not extended to other minorities when they become top dogs themselves. In the UK, the left control the government, the broadcast media, half the print press and most of the public sector. This allows them to dictate to the rest of us, which they do with abandon, even as they continue to preach about discrimination. Only one question remains. If the secular left has abandoned its one great achievement, its one contribution to human wellbeing, what is the point of it?

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

Monday, January 22, 2007

Trying to Get Published Part Five

The story is continued from here.

My agent, Andrew Lownie, sent the new proposal to another reader. He really liked it and most importantly, recommended that Andrew continue to try selling it. We then had a hiatus for a few months as the end of the year approached. Andrew needed to spend all his time closing deals and I had to finish my PhD.

With the new year, I am hoping that we will see some developments. The title Genesis of Science has been ditched for the more informative Before Science: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science. Any book with 'genesis' in the title sounds too much like The Holy Blood and Holy Grail material (whose authors are back in court, I hear). My wife thought God's Philosophers had a good ring and might well be appropriate for the American market. We also liked the title Newton's Giants but it is probably a bit too opaque. Newton famously said "If I have seen a little further then it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." The giants that Newton refers to are Descartes and Robert Hooke (who wasn't very big and in dispute with Newton so the reference may be sarcastic).

Unbeknown to Newton (the remark was a commonplace in his time), it was first coined in the twelfth century by the philosopher Bernard of Chartres. This means it suits my purpose very well. Not only is Newton's debt to the natural philosophers of the Middle Ages unacknowledged, but even his most famous remark was a medieval invention.

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

Friday, January 19, 2007

Finally, a Positive Review (But Still a Bad One)

The Times Literary Supplement have given The God Delusion the thumbs up. Hardly surprising given that their review was written by the neo-atheist Steven Weinberg. Weinberg is a poster boy for the neo-atheist movement because he is, unusually, a distinguished scientist in his own right. He won a Nobel Prize for his work on cosmology and has also written well regarded popular science books on the subject.

This all goes to show that even Nobel Prizewinners can look foolish if they step outside their boundaries of expertise. He begins his review with a rehash of the old science/religion conflict hypothesis. Staggeringly, he actually tries to resurrect the flat earth myth by mentioning Theophilus of Antioch and Clement of Alexandria. Theophilus is an arguable case (you can read the relevant passage here) because he describes the heavens as a dome. However, the context is a heavily figurative piece of biblical commentary, not a work of natural philosophy. Clement however is not a flat-earther. At least Weinberg concedes that by the 'High Middle Ages', educated Christians believed the earth was a sphere. He should have mentioned that, with very few exceptions, all educated Christians at all times had thought the earth a sphere.

The rest of his case for an eternal conflict is based on anecdote divorced from context. He wrongly thinks that Christians objected to Copernicus moving the earth from the centre of the universe because this demoted its importance. Then he tries to imply that John Hutchinson's mosaic physics commanded support for a century after Newton's death. This mixture of exaggeration and misdirection is just the trick that Draper and White tried to pull off a century and a half ago. It simply shows that Weinberg has no understanding of the history of science. Therefore, it is ironic that later on in his review he writes,

I find it disturbing that Thomas Nagel in the New Republic dismisses Dawkins as an “amateur philosopher”, while Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books sneers at Dawkins for his lack of theological training. Are we to conclude that opinions on matters of philosophy or religion are only to be expressed by experts, not mere scientists or other common folk?

Judging by Weinberg's own howlers, I think Nagel and Eagleton have a point. It would avoid public embarrassment if scientists did not pontificate on subjects they know nothing about.

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

Monday, January 15, 2007

The only Thing Worse than being Talked about is not being Talked about

A couple of weeks ago, my name came up on an Internet Infidels discussion thread. Several correspondents kindly alerted me to the matter, but I decided to stay out of the debate as I boycotted IIDB some time ago. As usual, I was accused of doing things like 'justifying the inquisition', which I have never done. Clearly, trying to put it into historical context and get at the facts over the Black Legend is too much for those for whom the inquisition is a precious myth. One post, by a certain Dr Rick, does need a reply.

Rick, whoever he is, is untroubled by the need to refer to historical sources for most of his allegations. Words like 'vast', 'just a fraction', 'tens of thousands' and 'huge numbers' slip from his keyboard unencumbered by data. His main source is Juan Antonio Llorente who was indeed once secretary to the Inquisition in Madrid and had full access to the archives. What Rick declines to tell us is that when he wrote his history, Llorente was a collaborator with the French Bonapatist regime occupying Spain. After Napoleon was defeated, Llorente had to go into exile in France and it was there that his history was written. Consequently, he is not in any way an objective source. Rather his history must be read as vindication of his own treasonous conduct.

Dr Rick also gives us some details on torture. Ordeal by fire was, of course, banned by the church in 1215 (or at least, the clergy were forbidden to take part). As for the pear, I have actually seen one of these in a collection of other surgical instruments in Athens. It is true that medieval medical equipment can be quite scary to look at, so the person who misidentified the 'pear' as a torture implement can be forgiven. It was been renamed the "Pope's pear" on the internet where Dr Rick undoubtedly got his information. The Spanish Inquisition did use torture, most frequently in the sixteenth century. Sometimes, it was used in 10% of cases (Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition, 1997, p 187) which is a high proportion. It is shocking that the church did not issue a blanket ban until 1816, which was considerably after it had stopped being used in practice (Llorente says it was dropped before his day).

The Inquisition is not something I would ever try to justify. Torture and execution are both abhorrent. That does not mean that we can use it as cheap propaganda or fail to study it in its proper historical context. The Church has apologised for this blot on its past and now that all the records are open to scholars we can hopefully fully understand what happened. Those who simply want to use it for black propaganda, like Dr Rick, do not help with this process.

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

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Got a Copy at Last

My wife refused to allow me to further inflate Richard Dawkins's bank balance, so I wasn't able to buy The God Delusion. Now, a friend of my parents has lent me a copy for as long as I need it so I'll be able to read it and post a review in the next month or two. I thought the introduction was very funny in an arrogant sort of way and I hope that the rest lives up to its comedy value...

I must now ask my wife to read my own book outloud to me twice, while praising her sensitive tuning to the music of language. Maybe she'll be as good at it as Lalla Ward.

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

Monday, January 08, 2007

Who wrote the Works of Shakespeare?

All right, I won't keep you in suspense. The answer is William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon with the occasional help of some collaborators. Some readers might be surprised to hear that for the last 150 years shelves of books have appeared arguing that Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford or Christopher Marlowe actually wrote the plays. Of course, this is all so much pseudo-scholarly garbage. If you want chapter and verse then look up Brian Vicker's destruction of the "anti-Stratford" position in August 2005 in TLS or Jonathan Bate's excellent The Genius of Shakespeare.

The question of the authorship of Shakespeare's works is interesting to this blog, not because of any real doubt about the answer, but what it teaches us about another pseudo-scholarly conspiracy theory - whether Jesus existed. Both theses are pushed by amateurs or people expert in other fields. Anti-Stratfordians are often novelists because they imagine writing a play is the same sort of process as writing a book. Shakespeare was an actor who drifted into writing and his plays were obviously written by a man intimately involved in the production of theatre. Jesus Mythers usually have some literary training too, but they are never professional historians. They misunderstand the way historical evidence is analysed and replace it with literary constructs not supported by the facts.

Also, anti-Stratfordianism and Jesus Mythology are both based on a silence. In the case of Shakespeare, the whole edifice is constructed on the lack of any original manuscripts by Shakespeare. The reason they don't exist today is that they never did. All there ever were were the working copies used by Shakespeare's theatre company. The printed editions of the plays were put together from performances and eventually gathered together by Shakespeare's colleagues after he died. With Jesus Mythers, the missing evidence is Paul talking about the historical Jesus. Again this is based on the misconception that Paul ought to have discussed such matters at length in letters that set out to answer specific problems and provide encouragement to converts.

The bad news from the anti-Stratfordians is that they never go away. After a century of scorn from the academy, long, bad and sad books claiming so and so wrote Shakespeare continue to appear. From this, we can be sure that the Jesus Myth will not die either. We are stuck with it so may as well get used to it. A full-length scholarly refutation is now long overdue.

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