Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Cthulu calay

This has nothing to do with philosophy, science, or history, I just think it's absolutely hilarious (it helps if you have some knowledge of the works of H. P. Lovecraft).

Update (2 Nov): If that's not enough for you, behold the very depths of insanity.

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Meaning of Life

There has been much discussion in the last several years about the possibility of extending the human life span. As futuristic as it sounds, medical research is uncovering possible methods by which the maximum age could increase from about 120 years to 160, 180, 200, and just keep on going. Some argue against extending lives because they believe it to be unnatural. I have no sympathy for this view. I don't see how this objection wouldn't also apply to any and every kind of medical treatment.

That's a post for another day though. For now, I just want to emphasize what the possibility of extending life spans does not do. Avoiding death is a good goal to have, but the mere extension of our lives can never satisfy. Immortality is not enough: we need meaning. We need a meaningful life. The atheist existentialists tried to address this, but never really went beyond the suggestion that we should pretend our lives have meaning even though they really don't. Others may say that making other people happy or making a difference in society would do it. But that doesn't give any real meaning, only a relative meaning. That is, if the happiness of others or the betterment of society has no meaning, then working towards one of them is simply arbitrary. If changing the world for the better is pointless and meaningless, then why bother? Why not work towards making other people suicidal, or for the downfall of civilization instead? If our existence doesn't have any significance, any purpose, any meaning, then what motivation is there to do or say anything?

It seems to me that the only serious answer one could give would be pleasure. But this has several problems:

First, when we pursue pleasure, we tend to become sickened. If we seek pleasure with food and gorge ourselves, or with alcohol and drunkeness, it stops being fun. This doesn't just mean that if you eat or drink too much you'll get sick. It also means that if we regularly gorge ourselves, or regularly get drunk, it tends to become less and less pleasurable.

Second, if someone gets pleasure from something that is harmful to others, like child-abuse, what could motivate them to not pursue such pleasure? Well, the danger of being caught perhaps. But this only means that such a person would only abuse children when he's confident that he can get away with it. A sophisticated murderer would only kill people whose lives have less impact on society, and therefore their deaths would also have less impact; and so he would be able to get away with it. This is simply unacceptable.

Third, seeking pleasure is something everybody does. If it really led to the highest satisfaction one could achieve in life, why would anyone think otherwise? It's like that Calvin and Hobbes comic where Calvin taped paper wings to his arms so he could fly. Hobbes asks him "If paper wings is all it takes to fly, don't you think we'd have heard about it by now?" If pleasure is all there is to life, don't you think everyone would have realized it by now? But we don't: we realize that there is more to life, although we often can't put our finger on it. Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, two Catholic philosophers from Boston College, wrote that to live solely for pleasure "is the stupidest gamble in the world, for it is the only one that has consistently never paid off ... every batter who has ever approached that plate has struck out. ... After trillions of failures and a one hundred percent failure rate, this is one experiment no one should keep trying." An essay by William Lane Craig, published as chapter 2 of his book Reasonable Faith, discusses this and similar themes; it's called "The Absurdity of Life Without God". Read it at your own risk.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Sunday, September 20, 2009


In the comments of an earlier post, Matko mentioned he wants to get into Alvin Plantinga's trilogy on warrant. I was going to leave this in the comments too, but decided it deserves a post of its own. The first two books of that trilogy can be read online: here are links to Warrant: The Current Debate and Warrant and Proper Function. They were both series of Gifford Lectures, and I don't know if these are as they were originally presented or as they were published. The third book is Warranted Christian Belief, and you'll just have to buy that one.

Update: Most excellent! In the comments Matko gives a link to an online version of Warranted Christian Belief. Now you can read the whole set without having to leave the house or even standing up.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

God's Philosophers - A Review

You have put a builder [Archimedes] before Aristotle who was no less knowledgable in these arts!...After Archimedes, you have put Euclid as if the light after the lantern!'

Julius Caeser Scalinger

n the 16th century, the humanist writer Julius Caesar Scaliger published what would later be described as ‘the most vitriolic book review in the annals of literature’, a tirade against Jerome Cardan’s ‘On Subtlety’. It was over 900 pages in total - twice the length of the book it was reviewing - and it attacked Cardan vehemently for almost every aspect of the book. When Scaliger received no reply from Cardin he managed to convince himself that his efforts had caused his literary opponent to die of shame and decided to write him a glowing epitaph. According to the obituary, the late Cardan had been ‘a consummate master of the humane letter’, ‘a great man indeed’ gushed Scalinger. One can only imagine his horror when he found out Cardan was still alive and well and doubtless wondering why his opponant had so quickly changed his tune. This is just one of many entertaining anecdotes in the pages of James Hannam’s God’s Philosophers which I chuckled over as I read through it. Hence I will not be giving the author the Scaliger treatment, not least because it’s also one of the best narrative histories I have read in a long time.

God’s Philosophers begins with the famous quote by Issac Newton, that his achievements had only been possible because he was ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ (in keeping with the tone of the book, we learn that it was actually Bernard of Chartres who said this first in the 12th century). In contrast the Humanists of the ‘Renaissance’ era felt they were squatting on the shoulders of intellectual midgets; a menagerie of long winded medieval ‘logic choppers’ and ‘wordmongers’ who wrote in ‘barbaric’ Latin and had failed to properly understand the writings of the ancients. This scorn of their forebears began the longstanding myth that the Medieval period constituted an age of darkness and ignorance, a narrative which was adopted wholeheartedly in Enlightenment France and disseminated in the late 19th Century by the infamous Andrew Dickson White. This impression of the Middle Ages remains alive and well today despite having been almost overwhelmingly discredited in the academic community. For example, leading historian of science Edward Grant laments that ‘the medieval period in Western Europe has been much underestimated and maligned, almost as if fate had chosen it as history’s scapegoat’. Another historian, David Lindberg bemoans the fact that ‘the ignorance and degradation of the Middle Ages has become a kind of article of faith among the general public, achieving the status of invulnerability merely by virtue of endless repetition’. Hannam’s objective has been to reverse this trend by bringing the fruits of modern scholarship in the history of science to a wider audience and demonstrating that the natural philosophy of the Middle Ages contributed directly to the achievements of modern science.

In the popular imagination, the period from the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 500 to the arrival of the millennium in the year 1000 is a superb candidate for a Dark Age. Yet Hannam shows – by reference to the changes which took place in his home village of Otham - that significant technological progress took place. Much of the classical heritage of Greece and Rome was cut off from Western Europe, but from the ruin of the Empire there gradually arose a society sustained by improved agricultural techniques and powered by advances in machinery; the horse collar, three field crop rotation and the widespread use of water and tidal mills would ensure that Europe could support more people than ever before.

As intellectual culture was rekindled in the West on the wave of a population explosion and increased stability, a great translation movement emerged which would bring the fruits of Classical learning to Europe through the works of Arab natural philosophers. Before this Medieval intellectuals, such as William of Conches, Adelard of Bath and ‘the mathematical Pope’, Gerbert of Aurilliac, had to make do on scraps from the ill fated Boethius and a few other authors. As the translated texts arrived from Spain and the Mediterranean, they were greedily absorbed into the medieval university; a type of legally autonomous corporation which could foster higher learning and carve out privileges from both secular rulers and the Church. The volatile and pugnacious Peter Abelard had championed logic in his teaching; and, due to a series of calamities and quarrels, he ended up being nocturnally castrated, sentenced to perpetual silence and confined to a monastery. Upon his death, his ideas quickly dominated Christian scholarship. Natural philosophy would also gain an exalted status in the curriculum as the ‘handmaiden’ of theology; a guide to better preaching and a tool to combat the growing problem of heresy.

Yet the philosophy of the ancients was not straightforwardly compatible with the teachings of Christianity. Hannam is strong at outlining these issues and the subsequent efforts of Albert the Great and the more famous Thomas Aquinas to assimilate the new learning into a suitable framework. This came with the publication of the Summa Theologiae which was ‘such a successful amalgamation of Aristotle’s philosophy with Christian doctrine that some Catholics have since failed to distinguish between the two’. Yet it was the conservative backlash represented by the condemnations of 1277 which would delineate the boundaries between natural philosophy and theology and explore non Aristotelian physical and cosmological alternatives.

By this time, an international intelligentsia of scholars had emerged using the common language of Latin. They were able to enjoy considerable freedom under the cultural unity and political fragmentation of the period. This section of God’s Philosophers was perhaps the most enlightening, not least because so many of these figures remain undeservedly unknown or misunderstood. A chapter is devoted to demonstrating the syllabus of the medieval university through the life of Richard of Wallingford, a figure who perfected the mechanical clock and ‘left a mechanical legacy without equal’. Peter the Pilgrim became the first to realise that magnets have polarity (a critical insight for medieval navigation). Following in the footsteps of Robert Grosseteste, Friar Roger Bacon promulgated a strong rhetoric of experiment and provided a powerful synthesis of optical theory. However, as Hannam shows, he has been mis-portrayed as a modern thinker. The principle motivation for his promotion of the sciences appears to have been his belief that the apocalypse was imminent and that the Jews and Arabs would have to be quickly converted to the true faith before the anti-Christ and his minions showed up (one can compare this to the present day belief of Richard Dawkins that the natural sciences must be used to convert everyone to atheism before the Christian fundamentalists and the Islamists bring on the apocalypse).

In the Fourteenth Century, a series of remarkable individuals emerged who would propel Medieval natural philosophy beyond the achievements of the ancients, combining mathematics and physics in ways that had not been achieved before. The setting for these scholars were the quadrangles of Merton College. Thomas Bradwardine, later Archbishop of Canterbury, tried to establish a formula to properly describe Aristotle’s laws of motion with the first use of a logarithm. Ultimately Aristotle’s laws of motion were completely wrong, but Bradwardine had made an important step forward. Both he and the talented mathematician Richard Swineshead adopted thought experiments and tried to think through the mathematics. William Heytesbury is credited with the first use of the mean speed theorem (though neither he nor his contemporaries had any idea of its immense significance).

Yet it would be Paris, not Oxford which would see ‘the apogee of Medieval Science’ as the ideas of the Merton calculators crossed the channel. It was the rector of the University of Paris, John Buridan, who rejected Aristotelian ideas concerning violent motion. In its place he formulated the concept of impetus and used it to describe how the planets keep moving in their orbits. He also came close to the modern principle of inertia. Perhaps inspired by Bradwardine, Buridan also compared the universe to a giant clock or ‘world machine’ which the creator had wound up, a forerunner of the later mechanical philosophy. One of the issues considered by Buridan was the possible rotation of the earth. This was an idea taken further by his pupil, the brilliant Nicole Oresme who refuted most of the objections to a moving earth, but in the end went with the common sense approach contained in Aristotle and the Bible. His other major achievement was to prove the mean speed theorem in graphical form. This work would spread throughout Europe before the Black Death swept in and decimated the intellectual culture of Europe.

The fifteenth century saw Europe begin to regain it’s poise and the arrival of Nicholas of Cusa, a Cardinal who saw clearly the need for effective measurement in natural philosophy and whose cosmological speculations seem remarkably pertinent. It also saw the emergence of the humanist movement and their efforts to reintroduce ancient Greek into Europe; although as Hannam shows, they were also ‘incorrigible reactionaries’ seeking to ‘recapture an imaginary past’ who destroyed vast numbers of manuscripts and discarded many of the advances made in the Medieval period. Luckily the onset of printing ensured that the natural philosophy would reach the next generation of scholars, even as it was being systematically eliminated from the universities.

God’s Philosophers concludes with a broader sweep through the 16th century to show how Copernicus, Galileo and others used the achievements of the Middle Ages in their work. The term Renaissance after all, was coined partly to contrast the ‘rebirth’ of culture with medieval ‘stagnation’; although as Hannam points out, the Renaissance was ‘as much an age of faith as the Middle Ages and, if anything, more superstitious and violent’. Magical thinking became widespread and astrology and alchemy loomed large in the thought of figures like Jerome Cardan, John Dee and Paracelsus, or to give his full name, Theophrastus Philippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim. In the case of Cardan, this led to an ill-advised attempt to draw up a horoscope of Christ. Their efforts led to advances in algeba, astronomy and new ideas of medicine which challenged the Galenic tradition. Human dissection emerged in the Medieval period (Hannam shows the Church never banned it, in stark contrast to the taboos in effect in much of classical antiquity). Vesalius attempted to perfect the work of Galen with his ‘On the Fabric of the Human Body’ but laid the groundwork for his overthrow. It would be William Harvey who would demonstrate the circulation of the blood and seriously weaken the Galenic edifice. The reader of God’s philosophers may well, as I did, breathe a sigh of relief that things in medicine have moved on. Medical instruction manuals of the period advice doctors to always say that the patient is sick, since if he recovers ‘you will be praised more for your skill’ and if he dies ‘his friends will testify that you had given him up’ (although with NHS cut backs on the way, perhaps this might be revived).

Elsewhere the towering figures of Ptolemy and Aristotle were being severely questioned. Both Peurbach and Regiomontanus had realised that Ptolomy’s astronomical system, with its complex geometry and clumsy equant had serious problems, yet it gave undeniably precise predictions. It would be the Polish clergyman Nicholas Copernicus who would defy expert opinion and propose a heliocentric universe. His motivation for placing the sun at the centre of the universe may have sprung from occult theories about the sun, but his arguments for the rotation of the earth come straight from John Buridan and find their echoes in Nicholas of Cusa. Unsurprisingly, Copernicus was a product of the intellectual culture of the time, although he has so often been portrayed as a lone genius defying all that had gone before.

Another figure often depicted as marking a break from the past is Galileo Galilei, yet as Hannam points out ‘Discourses on the New Sciences’ represents ‘the culmination of four centuries of work by medieval mathematicians and natural philosophers’. In his discussion of free fall, Galileo seems to be familiar with the work of the Merton Calculators and reproduces the conclusions of Oresme and William of Heytesbury. His discussion of Projectile Motion builds on the conclusions of Buridan, Tartaglia and Cardan. His observations on falling objects repeat those made a thousand years earlier by the Byzantine scholar John Philoponus and more recently by Simon Stevin. Galileo’s triumph was to produce an erudite synthesis of what had gone before and provide powerful experimental demonstrations. Similarly his contemporary Johannes Kepler was able to build upon the European Medieval tradition and solve two of the greatest problems of the Middle Ages, the movement of the planets and the explanation of vision.

Modern science emerged as the triumph of three civilizations; Greek, Arab and Latin Christian, yet the last of these is so often left out of the narrative. God’s Philosophers restores the credit the medieval period deserves and has forced me to revise my belief that there was something which could justly be called a ‘scientific revolution’ in the Early Modern period. Hannam’s book persuasively argues for continuities and shows how the achievements of Keplar, Copernicus, Galileo and others were deeply rooted in the intellectual culture which had preceded them. The Middle Ages displayed none of the ‘general decay and degeneracy’ and ‘complete decadence of philosophy and the sciences' which Condorcet and Voltaire unjustly derided it for, rather it prepared the ground for the intellectual successes which would follow.

Yet despite the stirring narrative outlined in God’s Philosophers some will doubtless maintain there was a dark age in Western Europe from 500AD to around 1250 when not very much happened in the intellectual culture of the West. The best course of action in response to this would be to cast the blighters adrift in the ruins of a collapsed civilisation with bloodthirsty barbarian raiders all around them and only a copy of Bill Brysons 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' with which to rebuild society. Then perhaps we will hear no more loose talk about ‘poor benighted Medievals’.

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Quote of the Day

"What inclines even me to believe in Christ’s resurrection? It is as though I play with the thought. -- If he did not rise from the dead, then he decomposed in the grave like any other man. He is dead and decomposed. In that case he is a teacher like any other and can no longer help; and once more we are orphaned and alone. So we have to content ourselves with wisdom and speculation. We are in a sort of hell where we can do nothing but dream, roofed in, as it were, and cut off from heaven."

Ludwig Wittgenstein
Culture and Value

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Friday, September 11, 2009

Atheism and Conspiracy Theories

On this eighth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks there are still plenty of people who would rather believe that it was an enormous conspiracy carried out by the US government or Jews or whatever. Such claims are, of course, completely ridiculous, not to mention deeply offensive. The best one-stop shop debunking them is Screw Loose Change and the best essay doing the same is the one published by Popular Mechanics. Other refutations, more in line with the seriousness these theories deserve, have been done by Cracked and South Park. I place 9/11 conspiracy theories on the same intellectual level as theories that the Moon landings were fake or that the Holocaust didn't really happen.

In a recent debate with Alvin Plantinga, Daniel Dennett claimed that belief in God is also this absurd. I would argue that it actually goes the other way: atheism is, in a sense, a conspiracy theory. I'm not referring here to the ridiculous claim that Jesus never existed. Of course, that is a conspiracy theory, but I'm thinking of the more basic claim of atheism: that God does not exist, that there is no supernatural, that the natural world is all that exists.

I say atheism is a conspiracy theory in a sense because there are important senses in which it is not. Thinking that all the theistic arguments fail or that the problems of theism outweigh those of atheism does not make one a conspiracy theorist. God's existence is not blindingly obvious, so to compare those who disbelieve in Him to those who think there is a secret cabal of evil Jews running the world is, in many ways, inappropriate. So I don't mean to imply that atheism is on a par with conspiracy theories in general; only when looked at in a particular way.

The sense in which atheism is a conspiracy theory is with regards to religious experience. Throughout human history people have had experiences of "something" beyond the physical world. In fact, this is one of the most common experiences that human beings have. The atheist thesis would require us to believe that virtually all of these experiences are completely illusory. I find this about as plausible as claiming that our experiences of the physical world are illusory. Of course there are differences: everyone experiences the physical world while not everyone has religious experiences; the physical world imposes itself on us constantly, while religious experiences are usually temporary; etc. Nevertheless, the sense of the supernatural, of a "beyond," can impose itself upon us to a much greater degree than the physical world.

Some might object that atheists are not positing any actual conspirators, so to call it a conspiracy theory is misleading. However 1) atheists claim our experiences of the supernatural are simply by-products of how our brains evolved. Evolution is responsible for our having these experiences and thinking they're veracious when they're actually not. So evolution is functioning, at least metaphorically, as a conspirator, even though it lacks something that most other conspiracy theories lack -- mindful intent. 2) My focus is not on the cause of the conspiracy theory but on the effect. Atheists, by claiming that religious experiences are a widespread illusion, are making the same claim as other conspiracy theories: 9/11 wasn't what it seemed to be; the Moon landings weren't what they seemed to be, President Kennedy's assassination wasn't what it seemed to be, etc. Of course, many things aren't what they seem, but to simply dismiss the experiences of billions of people as illusory seems no more reasonable than to dismiss all the eyewitness reports that the Pentagon was struck by a large airplane and assert it was a guided missile instead.

Another possible objection is that religious experiences are radically divergent and contradictory, and this should make us skeptical of their veracity. I would argue that 1) the disagreements have been exaggerated. There are, of course, differing aspects of them and even contradictions, but there is also much more agreement than atheists are often willing to admit. 2) The fact that everyone tells the same story (that there is something beyond the physical world) is more significant than the disagreement of the details. It's therefore strange to claim that the answer must lie in precisely the opposite direction. When eyewitnesses give contradictory accounts of a car accident, we are not justified in believing that no car accident took place. 3) So at most the differences between these experiences would justify skepticism toward a particular account, but not to the phenomenon as a whole. 4) Again, this objection would apply equally to our experiences of the physical world. There are accounts of physical phenomena that neither I nor anyone I know has personally experienced. Such accounts can even seem to contradict the phenomena I have experienced. It would not be rational for me to conclude that all accounts of the physical world are therefore bogus, and all the experiences of it illusory.

Because I can, I'll end with a quote by C. S. Lewis.

If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian you are free to think that all these religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Nagel on Evolution

Thomas Nagel is one of my favorite philosophers. He's been famous in philosophy circles since he published his essay "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" in 1974. He recently wrote an essay in the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs entitled "Public Education and Intelligent Design". In it he argues (among other things) that evolutionary biologists are over-confident when they compare the certainty of evolution with that of a spherical earth. Nagel thinks this is "a vast underestimation of how much we do not know, and how much about the evolutionary process remains speculative and sketchy." I find this interesting because in The View from Nowhere he argued that proponents of evolution are over-reaching in their application of it.

Evolutionary hand waving is an example of the tendency to take a theory which has been successful in one domain and apply it to anything else you can't understand -- not even to apply it, but vaguely to imagine such an application. It is also an example of the pervasive and reductive naturalism of our culture. 'Survival value' is now invoked to account for everything from ethics to language.
Even if randomness is a factor in determining which mutation will appear when (and the extent of the randomness is apparently in dispute), the range of genetic possibilities is not itself a random occurrence but a necessary consequence of the natural order. The possibility of minds capable of forming progressively more objective conceptions of reality is not something the theory of natural selection can attempt to explain, since it doesn't explain possibilities at all, but only selection among them.

This sounds very similar to the Argument from Reason, that some of the properties of mind are inconsistent with naturalism. Victor Reppert has referred to Nagel a few times at Dangerous Idea 2.

Yet while Nagel appears to be anti-naturalist, he is also an atheist. In The Last Word he writes:

In speaking of the fear of religion, I don't mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper -- namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is not a God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that. ...My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time.

A critique of Nagel's recent essay is at Pure Pedantry. The main point of contention is that Nagel is unaware that science is intrinsically naturalistic. The comments over there are interesting as a lot of them seem to disagree with this pronouncement. Via Keith Burgess-Jackson, another atheist who sides with Nagel.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Saturday, September 05, 2009

Reviews of God’s Philosophers in the Sunday Telegraph and the Scotsman

Unfortunately, two reviews of God’s Philosophers which have appeared in the UK press are not online. The Scotsman's review was short and positive, so much so that my usual policy of taking the rough with the smooth proved unnecessary. They wrote “The polemical note is as justified here as the fresh and easy approach is welcome. Hannam, the liveliest of guides, makes enjoyable reading out of some seriously dusty history and difficult ideas.”

At the Sunday Telegraph, they handed the book over to the tender mercies of Noel Malcolm, a reviewer widely believed to be the wrath of the heavens incarnate by writers of popular history. He took to task Tom Holland’s Millenium, a perfectly good example of fast-paced narrative history, for not being on the same scholarly level as Robert Bartlett's The Making of Europe. This is about as fair as complaining that the art of the comic 2000AD wouldn't pass muster in the National Gallery.

On God's Philosophers, Malcolm said some nice things: "This book contains much valuable material summarised with commendable no-nonsense clarity… James Hannam has done a fine job of knocking down an old caricature." But he also complains that no one still believes the old story that the Middle Ages when a benighted age of faith when the Church held back progress until the Renaissance. As a result, he sometimes found my pedagogical style 'grating'. No one likes to grate, but perhaps someone should send him a copy of the The Evolving World which Humphrey noted yesterday....

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Friday, September 04, 2009

Lack of Progress

I was much entertained this week to see that the spirit of Andrew Dickson White is truly alive and well in the writings of one David P Mindell, an expert on the evolution of birds and author of ‘The Evolving World’, a book written with the laudable aim of showing how the findings of evolutionary biology are deeply integrated into our culture. Sadly he also attempts to construct a thumping anti-clerical historical build-up in the opening chapter and, despite the works of Lindburg and Grant appearing in one of his footnotes, the result is a total train wreck. This next passage is somewhat typical and reminiscent of a late 19th century positivist.

Despite our ancestors’ demonstration of the human capability for observation and logic, cultural and religious forces superseded a scientific approach following dissolution of the Roman Empire in the fifth century. Instead of reliance upon observation, experience, and experiment, attention focused on sacred documents and supernatural agencies during the Middle Ages.

Mindell continues:

Lack of progress in the sciences following the decline of Greek and Roman culture around 500 ce until the beginning of the Renaissance about 1450 is often attributed to capitulation of the Roman Empire to Christianity.

Often attributed!?!, by who?; P Z Myers?, the internet infidels discussion board?, Edward Gibbon?, Jesusneverexisted.com?. Doesn’t he wonder why one of the books in his bibliography is entitled ‘The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages’ and not ‘Ignorance, woo, superstition and woeful lack of progress in the Middle Ages’. Lets see which sources he is using to support this view?

Church censorship certainly played an important role. In his New Organon, published in 1620, Francis Bacon describes the times between antiquity and his own era as “unprosperous” for the sciences: “For neither the Arabians nor the Schoolmen need be mentioned, who in the intermediate times rather crushed the sciences with a multitude of treatises, than increased their weight.” In the eighteenth century Voltaire decried the “general decay and degeneracy” that characterized the Middle Ages, as did the Marquis de Condorcet, who remarked, “The triumph of Christianity was the signal for the complete decadence of philosophy and the sciences.

Francis Bacon, Voltaire and Condorcet!. Well that certainly trumps the last 50 years of research into medieval intellectual discourse. Next time I write something on Evolutionary Biology I’ll base it on the views of Galen, William Paley and Bishop Wilberforce.

He does at least seem to know about events such as the 1277 condemnations but thinks that they:

illustrate the inevitable conflict of that era between theologians, who claim authority on matters of revelation, and natural philosophers, who promote the explanatory powers of reason.

Notably absent is the much debated view of Pierre Duhem that ‘if we must assign a date for the birth of modern science, we would, without doubt, choose the year 1277 when the bishop of Paris solemnly proclaimed that several worlds could exist, and that the whole of heavens could, without contradiction, be moved with a rectilinear motion’, nor that of the historian of science Richard Dales, that the condemnations 'seem definitely to have promoted a freer and more imaginative way of doing science’. Nor Lindberg's more cautious view of the condemnations as a 'conservative backlash' but one which nonetheless 'encouraged scholars to explore non Aristotelian physical and cosmological alternatives'.

Towards the end of the chapter, an old favourite appears:

As recently as 1847, James Young Simpson, a Scotch physician, was denounced from the pulpit for pioneering the use of chloroform as an anesthetic in difficult cases of childbirth. HolyWrit was cited to support the argument that use of chloroform was an attempt to “avoid one part of the primeval curse on woman.” In a clever turnabout, Simpson used the Old Testament in defense of anesthetics, invoking the story of Genesis as a record of the first surgery ever performed, in which God “caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam” prior to extracting a rib for the creation of Eve.

A dastardly tale to be sure; and also complete and utter hogwash. Would it hurt to do some actual research before writing your book?.

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