Friday, July 30, 2010

Faraday Institute of Science and Religion

Here is a link to a video of the talk on medieval science I gave at the Faraday Institute summer course a couple of weeks ago. I'll post some more thoughts that came out of the excellent week I had there soon.

My talk on The Importance of Medieval Science.

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Gödel's Revenge

Via Transterrestrial Musings.

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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Atheist schools?

The BBC reports that the English education secretary (who is actually Scottish but has no say in Scottish schools), would be very interested if Richard Dawkins tried to set up an atheist school. The school would really describe itself as freethinking or sceptical or similar, but the name hardly matters.

I would welcome this as well, for two reasons. Firstly, we might get less whining from atheists that Church schools are good and popular. Secondly, Dawkins Academy would give us an objective test to discover if a Christian ethos really does improve the performance of schools. However, I hope the atheist school is a bigger success than the school, Beacon Hill, that Bertrand Russell tried the run in the 1920s. The less said about that fiasco, the better.

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

This is funny

I just received a book that is extremely obscure that I've been wanting for some time. I learned of it by reading J. P. Moreland's book Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity, in his chapter on the argument from mind. He addresses, at one point, the claim that naturalism -- or alternatively, determinism -- is self-defeating. It takes away any reason why we should accept naturalism or determinism because it takes away reasons. In defense of this, he quotes the existentialist philosopher and theologian Hans Jonas from his book On Faith, Reason and Responsibility. I've looked for this book periodically on AbeBooks but there has never been a single entry for it when I did. I looked for it on WorldCat, but I could only find two libraries that have it, both in California. However, a few months ago I tried (yes, it should have been obvious) and I found a copy from a used bookstore. Now I have it on my desk and am very happy.

The quotation Moreland uses is from pages 42-3 and deals explicitly with epiphenomanlism, the view that all that appears in the mind is a by-product of what the body is doing. Thus, the mind has no power itself to act; it may seem like it does, but when we decide to do something what is really happening is that the mental by-product that appears tricks us into thinking it came before the action it allegedly led to. In fact, the action appeared first, and the mental by-product appeared afterwards. It had to, unless we give the mind some sort of self-motive power, and this conflicts with naturalism and determinism. Here is the quote in full:

So much for the internal critique of the concept of epiphenomenon. More devastating still are the consequences which flow from it for everything else: for the concept of a reality that indulges in this kind of thing, for a thinking that explains itself by it, and for itself as a thought of that thinking. Here the charge is not inconsistency but absurdity.

First, what sort of being would that be which brings forth, as its most elaborate performance, this vain mirage? We answer: not a merely indifferent, but a positively absurd or perverse being, and therefore unbelievable. If living behavior were nothing but a deaf-mute pantomime, performed by supremely sophisticated physical systems without enjoyment of subjectivity, it could well be termed pointless but not strictly absurd. The show becomes absurd when it accompanies itself with music as if its predecided paces were set by it. A lie can have a function, but not here: the mechanical needs no bribe. And yet it should sound -- in will, pleasure and pain -- a siren song with no one there to seduce? A song that only sings its error to itself, including the error of being the singer? Something devoid of interest in the first place, and with no room for its intercession in the second, should stage the grandiose comedy of interest, shamming a task that is not there and a power it does not have? The sheer, senseless futility of such an elaborate hoax is enough to disqualify it as a caricature of nature. He who makes nature absurd in order to circumvent one of her riddles has passed sentence on himself and not on her and has forfeited the right to speak any more of laws of nature.

Even more directly than via the slander of nature has he passed judgment on himself by what his thesis says about the possible validity of any thesis whatsoever and, therefore, about the validity claim of his own. Every theory, even the most mistaken, is a tribute to the power of thought, to which in the very meaning of the theorizing act it is allowed that it can rise above the power of extramental determinations, tat it can judge freely on what is given in the field of representations, that it is, first of all, capable of the resolve for truth, i.e., the resolve to follow the guidance of insight and not the drift of fancies. But epiphenomenalism contends the impotence of thinking and therewith its own inability to be independent theory. Indeed, even the extreme materialist must exempt himself qua thinker, so that extreme materialism as a doctrine be possible. But while even the Cretan who declares all Cretans to be liars can add, "except myself at this moment," the epiphenomenalist who has defined the nature of thought can not make this addition, because he too is swallowed up in the abyss of his universal verdict.

Thus we have a twofold reductio ad absurdum, according to the twofold question of what to think of a reality that brings forth this futile mirage and what of the attempt of this self-confessed mirage to establish a truth about that reality. Nature as an impostor on the one hand, a theory destroying itself on the other, was the outcome of the scrutiny.

Now, the title of this post is "This is funny" yet nothing funny has been mentioned yet. Here's what's funny. I typed the above quote and planned to post it as a Quote of the Day. In doing so, I went back to and found the page with this book on it. As I copied the URL address, I looked at the picture of the book presented on Amazon. It's my book. I don't mean it's the same edition or the same publisher as the book I just bought, I mean it's numerically the same book. It has the same folds in the cover, the same discoloration on the top.

It just made me laugh.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)
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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Fredric Brown

There's a website where you can insert some of your own writing and it will tell you who what author you write like. It seems to tell a lot of people that they write like David Foster Wallace, which suggests a small database. Since I write speculative fiction on occasion, I cut and pasted some of my stuff on the website. The results were, shall we say, humbling. Fortunately they were also false, because I already know what author I write like: my favorite science-fiction author Fredric Brown. Of course, I only mean to compare myself to him in terms of style, not in terms of quality.

Fredric Brown was a master of short-stories -- and by "short" I mean between one and three pages long. He was also a master of the O. Henry ending (that is, surprise endings). His most famous story is "Arena" which was then plundered for the Star Trek episode of the same name. "Letter to a Phoenix" and "Hall of Mirrors" are two of the most haunting stories I've ever read. "The Yehudi Principle" is probably the cleverest. Indeed, if you had to summarize his writings in a single word, "clever" would do it. Another example of this is "Vengeance Fleet". "Star Mouse" is extremely cute. He sometimes wrote series of short stories which were just amazing. "The Short Happy Lives of Eustace Weaver", parts 1-3 are hilarious; "Great Lost Discoveries", parts 1-3 are equally hilarious; his "Nightmare" series, which isn't really science-fiction, is disturbing on several levels (one for each story). His stories have been published in multiple collections, sometimes combined with his detective stories, but a few years ago all of his short science-fiction was published in From These Ashes: The Complete Short SF of Fredric Brown.

Brown also wrote novels, but he seemed (to me) to be out of his element there. In Martians Go Home, Martians suddenly appear all over the earth and reveal themselves to be not only little green men but supremely obnoxious as well. They call all the men "Mack" and all the women "Toots" for example. It's a great theme, but it felt like he didn't know what to do with it.

Like many, perhaps most, science-fiction authors, Fredric Brown often played with the concept(s) of religion. Sometimes it was serious; for example, in the novel The Lights in the Sky Are Stars the main character profanely prayed to God, demanding that he make his existence clear once and for all. His short story "Answer", less than a page long, was included a few years ago as one of the 10 Best Science Fiction Stories About Religion. "Recessional" is just disturbing. But often, when he played with religion it was more, well, playful. "Armageddon" is an example of this, as is "Solipsist". Among his detective stories, "Murder in Ten Easy Lessons" stands out in this regard as well. "Etaoin Shrdlu" is one of the few early examples of science-fiction authors choosing a religious target other than Christianity.

Anyway, the point in all this is that you should do yourself a favor and go read some of his short stories. And if anyone wants to buy me a copy of From These Ashes I won't turn it down.

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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Psalm 104 and the Early Chapters of Genesis

Psalm 104 is a creation psalm, but a unique one. It actually reiterates the description of events of creation week step by step; it's essentially the earliest commentary on Genesis 1. This allows us to check our interpretation of Genesis 1 to see if it's in accord with Psalm 104; if it's not, then we should go back and check to see where the misinterpretation lies.

The significance of this is that one of the things that fuels the claim that science and Christianity are at odds with each other is that some Christians insist on interpretations of the Bible which blatantly contradict the discoveries of modern science. If the problem lies in the interpretation rather than what the Bible actually teaches, this would be an important point in the debate. Of course, there are other responses one can give to the science vs. Christianity metanarrative; for example, the Bible was never intended to provide a comprehensive description of the world, nor has it been historically understood to do so. As David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers write, "The notion that any serious Christian thinker would even have attempted to formulate a world view from the Bible alone is ludicrous."

One significant difference between the two texts is that Genesis focuses on what was created and Who did the creating. The Psalm, however, also addresses the why: why did God create this? Its point is to show how God is in charge of his creation, and that each part has a role to play in his overarching purpose.

Here are the main parallels between Psalm 104 and Genesis 1:

1. Ps. 104:2-5/Gen. 1:1 -- Creation of the universe
2. Ps. 104:6-9/Gen. 1:6-10 -- Formation of dry land
3. Ps. 104:14-17/Gen. 1:11-13 -- Creation of plants (for men and animals)
4. Ps. 104:19-23/Gen. 1:14-19 -- Establishment of the heavens as calendar “markers”
5. Ps. 104:24-30/Gen. 1:20-25 -- Creation of animals

Point 2 is interesting. Genesis 1 describes how the early Earth was totally covered with water, and that God brought the land out of it, raising the seabed above sea level in certain places. Psalm 104 describes this same event, but includes another point that Genesis doesn't make: "You set a boundary they [the waters] cannot cross; never again will they cover the earth." So after God created dry land, there was never a time when water completely covered it.

This doesn't conflict with Genesis 1, but it does conflict with how many people understand the flood chapters. It's often thought that Genesis 7-8 is describing a global flood. But Psalm 104 does not allow this interpretation. The flood could not have been global, since after God first formed the dry land, he promised to never again allow it to be completely covered with water. The flood, therefore, must have been a local event, which presumably destroyed the local ecosystem and the human race who hadn't spread out to cover the earth yet.

The only way out of this is to claim that, perhaps, Psalm 104 is not referring to the establishment of dry land during creation week but to the flood itself. In fact, this is how most commentaries that I've read understand it. Part of the motivation for this is that, after the flood, God promised to never destroy the human race by flood again. Thus, the promise in Psalm 104 to never let water cover all the face of the earth is allegedly the same promise God made after the flood.

However, the parallels between Psalm 104 and Genesis 1 confute the idea that these texts are describing the same promise. Essentially, this would require us to believe that Psalm 104 parallels Genesis 1 regarding the creation of the universe; then jumps ahead to describe the flood; then jumps back to Genesis 1 where it left off; then skips over the account of the creation of dry land (which just happens to sound exactly like what Psalm 104 is describing); then continues paralleling Genesis 1 as if the hop, skip, and jump hadn't happened. This is an incredibly ad hoc explanation; you could defend just about any interpretation using such tactics.

Another interesting issue is point 5. This describes God's creation of the animals. Genesis 1 includes the detail that God gave the earliest humans and animals plants to eat. From this, some conclude that they only ate plants. This accords with the idea that carnivorous activity -- where animals kill and eat each other -- is a result of the fall of humankind, and was not a part of God's original creation plan.

Psalm 104, however, includes carnivorous activity as part of his purpose in creation, referring to God's providence in the predator-prey relationship. Verse 21 states, "The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God". Moreover, a few verses later, this and other aspects of God providing for his creation are called "good": "These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things" (vv. 27-28). This recalls the repeated statement in Genesis 1 where God, after creating something, calls it "good". This strongly suggests that there wasn't some sort of vegetarian mandate in effect prior to the fall of humankind.

A similar passage is in Job where God challenges Job by asking him if he can do everything God does. In 38:39-40 God says, "Do you hunt the prey for the lioness and satisfy the hunger of the lions when they crouch in their dens or lie in wait in a thicket?" Since this comes in a list of things of how God provides for his creation, it means that God is the one who brings other animals to the lion for it to kill and eat as the lion waits in a place hidden from them. This doesn't explicitly tie it to creation week as does Psalm 104, but it still removes the claim that it's contrary to God's providential ordering of the universe.

A potential escape hatch is that Psalm 104 refers to many things that weren't in effect during creation week. The bodies of water, for example, are there so people can build boats and sail on them (v. 26). But this ignores the fact that the Psalm is describing what the various stages in creation are for; he is describing why he created the various things he did, using Genesis 1 as a blueprint. Thus, he reiterates the order of things in Genesis, but then adds how each stage of creation paved the way for future stages, even those stages not a part of creation week itself.

But then couldn't the same thing be said of the lion hunting it's prey? That, after all, is a current phenomenon, and we do not necessarily have to ascribe it to creation week. The problem with this is that, in addition to being a creation psalm, Psalm 104 is a praise psalm. That is, it's describing the good things God has done, not the negative result of sin or the fall. The psalmist praises God for providing the lion with its food (that it kills and eats) and calls this good, just as Genesis 1 calls the various stages of creation good.

Of course, both of these claims open up a can of worms. There are other objections to the claim that animal death was present prior to the fall of humankind; there are other arguments that the formation of land in Psalm 104 is referring to the flood chapters, not Genesis 1. Nevertheless, I think this Psalm is a good starting point. It opens doors that we may not realize are open because of common interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Hypatian Hypotheses

Over at Armarium Magnum Tim O'Neill posted about Hypatia and the Library of Alexandria a year ago, and again more recently. In case that's not enough for you, Michael Flynn has posted a brief afterthought on the subject, "The Mean Streets of Old Alexandria". Here are the links:

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI
Part VII
Part IX


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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Duties and Restraints

If you’ve ever followed Tim O’ Neil’s blog at ‘Armarium Magnum’ you’ll know that one of the figures of Ancient Rome that comes up quite regularly is the Flamen Dialis, the pries
t of Jupiter. Aulus Gellius describes his duties and restraints in his Attic nights. The restraints seem a tad silly at first and matters deteriorate from there:

‘A great many ceremonies are imposed upon the Flamen Dialis [the priest of Jupiter], and also many restraints, about which we read in the books On The Public Priesthoods and also in Book I of Fabius Pictor's work.

Among them I recall the following…..He must have no knot in his head gear or in his girdle or in any other part of his attire; 8) If anyone is being led away to be flogged and falls at his feet as a suppliant, it is forbidden to flog him that day; 9) The hair of the Flamen Dialis is not to be cut, except by a freeman; 10) It is
customary for the Flamen neither to touch nor even to name a female goat, or raw meat, ivy, or beans; 11) He must not walk under a trellis for vines; 12) The feet of the bed on which he lies must have a thin coating of clay, and he must not be away from this bed for three successive nights, nor is it lawful for anyone else to sleep in this bed; 13) At the foot of his bed there must be a box containing a little pile of sacrificial cakes; 14) The nail trimmings and hair of the Dialis must be buried in the ground beneath a healthy tree; 15) Every day is a holy day for the Dialis; 16) He must not go outdoors without a head-covering---this is now allowed indoors, but only recently by decree of the pontiffs, as Masurius Sabinus has stated; it is also said that some of the other ceremonies have been remitted and cancelled; 17) It is not lawful for him to touch bread made with yeast; 18) His underwear cannot be taken off except in covered places, lest he appear nude under the open sky, which is the same as under the eye of Jove’

A military career was almost certainly out for the Flamen Dialis as he wasn’t allowed to even cast eyes on the army. Gellius says of his wife that:

‘she observes certain other and different ones, for example, that she wears a dyed gown, and that she has a twig from a fruitful tree tucked in her veil, and that it is forbidden for her to ascend more than three rungs of a ladder.

The strangest part of this for me is the need to have a box of cakes at the end of the bed, though, looking elsewhere Cato the Elder’s ‘The Harvest Ritual’ follows a similar theme.

Offer a pile of cakes to Janus, saying, "Father Janus, in offering these cakes to you, I humbly pray that you will be propitious and merciful to me and my children, my house and my household." Then make an offering of cake to Jupiter with these words: "In offering you this cake, O Jupiter, I humbly pray that you, pleased with this offering, will be propitious and merciful to me and my children, my house and my household." Then present the wine to Janus, saying: "Father Janus, as I have prayed humbly in offering you the cakes, so may you in the same way be honored by this wine now placed before you." Then pray to Jupiter thus: "Jupiter, may you be honored in accepting this cake; may you be honored in accepting the wine placed before you." Then sacrifice the porca praecidanea. When the entrails have been removed, make an offering of cakes to Janus, and pray in the same way as you have prayed before. Offer a cake to Jupiter, praying just as before. In the same way offer wine to Janus and offer wine to Jupiter, in the same way as before in offering the pile of cakes, and in the consecration of the cake.

This kind of cake bribery certainly works extremely well with my Grandma. I am somewhat sceptical that it would work on bloodthirsty Pagan deities.

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Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Boyle's List

A couple of months ago a list drawn up by the famous natural philosopher Robert Boyle went on display for the first time. Written in the 1660s, soon after the Royal Society was founded, it set forth the most pressing problems for scientists to tackle. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to see a copy of the full document but I’ve managed to piece together some of it from a photo of the wishlist and a couple of newspaper articles on the subject.

The first item on Boyle’s list is the
'Prolongation of Life'; something we tend to be a lot better at nowadays, unless of course your last name happens to be Kennedy.

Following on from that, Boyle goes on to list
'Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of it, as new Teeth, new Hair colour'd as in youth'. Again if you’ve seen those ‘Just for Men’ ‘no play for Mr Grey’ commercials you’ll know this is still very much a work in progress. Item 3 is ‘A ship to saile with all winds and a ship not to be sunk’. The first has been achieved, the less said about the second the better (I read recently that the Titanic was described to be ‘virtually unsinkable’ but only in an obscure trade publication)

Four is, intriguingly, ‘The attaining of gigantick dimensions’. Being only a modest 5”6 and a half, I for one would like to see this kind of technology come in but sadly the only progress since Boyle’s list has been the so-called ‘elevator shoe’, surely one of the worst inventions in recorded history.

These are followed by ‘the acceleration of the production of things out of seed, ‘the art of flying’, ‘the making of armor light and extremely hard’, ‘the practicable and certain ways of finding longtitudes’ and ‘the cure of diseases at a distance, or at least by transplantation’.

Towards the end it gets rather trippy as Boyle lists the production of ‘potent drugs to alter of exalt imagination, waking, memory and other functions, and appease pain, procure sleep, harmless dreams etc..’ as one of his aspirations.

Some of these functions are fairly practical but one wonders what Boyle really means by ‘alter of exalt imagination’. Perhaps if he had worked a bit harder with his chemistry set he might have become some kind of Restoration era Timothy Leary.

Next up is ‘freedom from necessity of much sleeping exemplify’d by the operation of tea and what happens in mad-men’. He must have written this mere decades before the first authoritative coffee treatise was written in latin by Faustus Nairon and coffee houses began to spread across Europe. Interestingly this movement met with some resistance in Germany where beer was at the height of it’s popularity and where Adam Olearius’s Persian travelogue appeared with the following anecdote:

‘However if you partake to excess of such kahave water, it completely extinguishes all pleasures of the flesh. They write of a king, Sultan Mahmud Kasnin who reigned in Persia before Tamerlane and who became such a habitual drinker of kahave water that he forgot his spouse and developed a repugnance of intercourse which displeased his queen greatly. For on one occasion as she sat in the window and a espied how a stallion was being held down prior to castration, it is said that she inquired what was happening. And upon being told with all due frankness that the intention was to tame the lust of the horse that it would no longer mount another or service a mare she express the view that such steps were unnecessary, all that had to be done was to give him the shameful kahave water and he would soon be like the king.

The last item on the list is perhaps the most intriguing, ‘the emulating of fish without engines by custome and education only’.

I’m afraid I’m at a loss to see how this could advance civilisation.

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A Rather Obvious Point

Often when someone brings up Islamic terrorism, one of the responses given is that other religions and ideologies have their kooks as well, and we shouldn't judge Islam because it has its own share. Obviously this response is at least half true: no matter where you go in life, no matter what group you associate with, there's always going to be what I call an assh*le element. Any and every group will have people who join it for the wrong reasons, so to single out one group because of this is inappropriate.

As I say, this response is certainly half true. However, it's no more than that, because it misses something important, something very important, and in fact, blindingly obvious: Ideas have consequences. Just because every group is going to have its assh*le element doesn't mean that every group is equal in all moral respects. Some groups are going to encourage violence, others will allow it in pursuit of a higher cause, etc. Ideas have consequences, and different ideas have different consequences.

An ideology which rejects the intrinsic value of human beings -- perhaps all people or perhaps just members of other groups -- will obviously have significantly different results than one which upholds the intrinsic value of all human beings, including those who belong to people groups that are usually held in contempt. And this remains true even though the latter ideology has members who obviously don't act accordingly. For example, at the end of the film To End All Wars, the lead character narrates an aspect of the Bushido code which had been introduced earlier in the movie (I'm paraphrasing): "The individual life weighs less than a feather." The narrator responds, "What is the result of believing the individual life weighs less than a feather?" The preceding two hours of the film answer that question.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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