Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The terrible earthquake and resulting tsunami in Asia has led to a fair amount of soul searching by religious people. It has, less creditable led to some gloating by atheists as well as rather more measured reactions questioning God (such as this from Martin Kettle in the Guardian).

The Problem of Evil is the name usually given to the question as to why an all-good, all-powerful and all-knowing God (the so-called omnimax conditions) allows bad things to happen to good people. The problem first came to a head in the eighteenth century when Hume and Voltaire, the later inspired by another earthquake, asked how God lets evil happen. Oddly, it is rarely those who are actually suffering who doubt God, but rather those who witness the suffering of others from the comfort of their armchairs. For instance, the burning of heretics is a standard example of God being implicated in evil deeds, but the heretics themselves would not dream of using such an argument against his existence. There may be a few atheists in foxholes, but not many.

Evil done by man to other men is explained by the freewill defence. This states that God allowing us to do evil is the price we pay for freewill which is a greater good overall. Not everyone finds this satisfactory but I am willing to accept it as an explanation for moral wrong. It doesn't help at all for earthquakes.

Another explanation is to deprive God of his omnimax status. This is appealing for a number of reasons. First, the Bible gives very little support for the idea that God is infinitely powerful. Rather he is powerful beyond our comprehension which still allows a limit long before we get to infinite. Another limitation, accepted by nearly all theologians, is that God is limited by logic. He cannot make a stone so heavy he can't lift it. He cannot make a square circular or two plus two equal five. Nor, of course, can he make us free and unable to sin. Theologians also claim that God cannot defy his own nature - that he cannot sin or force us to sin. It is entirely possible that logic dictates the kind of universe that he can create as well. Clearly he requires that the universe has integrity and that it runs itself according to the laws he has laid down. Contra Newton, God does not need to step in every once in a while and realign all the planets that have gone astray. It may well be that a universe capable of producing life has to contain certain factors whose trade-offs include natural disasters. God can either step in and prevent the disasters or he can decide that the universe's integrity is more important and that it must be allowed to develop unimpeded.

Where do these possibilities leave us with earthquakes? Why are they necessary? Can we think of a world that works as well as ours but where they do not happen? Frankly, no. Earthquakes are a result of plate tectonics. As the plates on the Earth's surface move around, occasion jolts are inevitable. But why have plate tectonics? For the answer to that we need to look at the Earth's sister planet Venus which has a single solid crust. This sounds great until we realise that the entire surface of the planet is made up of rocks the same age. Every few hundred million years, Venus overheats and the entire crust turns to an enormous field of magna and then reforms once the excess heat has been ejected. So if Earth didn't have tectonic plates and earthquakes there would be no life here at all. Why have a hot core to the planet? Because its flow generates the Earth's magnetic field that protects us from getting nuked by the solar wind generated by the sun.... And so it goes on. There is a reason for everything and some things that are absolutely necessary have side effects that we regret.

None of this helps the victims in Asia. For them, we should dig deep into our pockets. But they should be in our prayers too as God welcomes those who have died and offers his comfort to those who survive. And how much worse it would be if death really is the end? Above all, our trust in God gives us hope even when nature has done her worst.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Wishing a very Happy Christmas to all readers!

We may not know the date on which Jesus was born but it still makes sense to warm up the cold of winter with a celebration of the Incarnation - the day when God opened his eyes in the world of men. I mus say that seeing all the snowmen and reindeer in the shop windows in South Africa during the heat of summer just didn't feel right!

I'll be back in the New Year.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

There has been a good deal in the news recently about how Google is going to scan millions of books and put them on-line for free. This is certainly a very good thing and will make matters much easier even for those of us who hold more library cards than credit cards. However, the books that will be on-line will all necessarily be out of copyright and so will not include anything that is really up to date. This does have some disadvantages of which we have already had a taster when debating with sceptics. Because old books are going to be much more easily available, we can expect internet scribblers to use them as authorities even when they are completely superceded and inaccurate. This has already happened with the Internet Infidels library that contains various 19th century anti-Christian rants mascarading as history. These are constantly pointed to by sceptics when they are asked to justify their assertions about scientists being burnt at the stake or the Church saying the earth is flat. So it is likely that Google will end up privileging out of date material over current scholarship simply by making the out of date stuff more easily available to armchair researchers.

Of course, Google's initiative is an overwealmingly good thing but I fear we will all have to get used to pointing out that it does not mean there is now a substitute for actually trudging around the library stacks looking for the latest scholarship.

Monday, December 20, 2004

I'm back from a delightful honeymoon in Cape Town. It is a real shock to be returning to the northern hemisphere winter. On Thursday, we went to an outdoor carol concert in the shadow of Table Mountain under the stars. Needless to say, outdoor carol concerts are something of a rarity in England...

I notice a few people have been adding comments to some older posts. This is welcome (although not all the comments were exactly sensible!) but it is better to stick to recent posts as older ones tend to get lost and comments on them go unnoticed. I hope I've now replied to all the emails that I received while I was away, but if you are waiting for a reply then let me know. Also, I've finished Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate and Roger Steer's Letter to an Influential Atheist so will write up reviews soon.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Some news on a personal front.

On Sunday I am getting married to a beautiful and intelligent woman called Vanessa and we are then setting off for Cape Town for our honeymoon. This means I will be effectively off-line for two weeks and I am also unlikely to be able to reply to any emails that arrive in this period. After that it is the Christmas season which is also rather busy so don't expect a regular service to resume before early January!

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

I've been reading Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate on and off for a while now but hope to finish it fairly soon. It is actually not a terribly good book as it deals with either the blindingly obvious or the totally unjustified with very little in between. Pinker usually gives the impression he is talking to the converted rather than bothering to refute serious counter arguments. He also never questions his assumptions which means you get utterly fed up if you don't share them.

The book is intended to debunk three 'myths' which Pinker calls 'the blank slate', 'the ghost in the machine' and 'the noble savage'. The first of these is the belief that we are all determined by nurture rather than nature. Since no Christian can deny sinful human nature, this is really a dig at the political left who apparently claim we are born as a 'blank slate' and everything is down to our upbringing. There has been some controversy over this, especially with respect to racism and sexism, and Pinker is mainly just speaking common sense when he says that we need to take account of human nature rather than just wish it away. 'The noble savage' is the romantic idea that we are all good at heart and that savages untouched by western decadence all behave like angels. This I have come across a lot and its latest guise is to blame Europeans for all the Third World's problems. Again, no Christian can believe we are untainted at root or the corollary that we can create heaven on earth through our own efforts. 'The ghost in the machine' is the soul. To Pinker, this is another myth. As far as he is concerned, consciousness is nothing but an epi-phenomenon resulting from material processes. He does say this with utter confidence but I couldn't spot where he actually deals with all the arguments against materialism. He just assures us that 'neuroscience' has killed the soul and leaves it at that. In fact, there is an important debate here but Pinker doesn't touch it.

The main body of the book is intended to assure us that science has made the world safe for libertarians. Throughout this section, his arguments are either blindingly obvious (that genetic predisposition does not mean we will automatically become psychos) or totally unjustified (that moral responsibility exists even if we lack freewill). His efforts to explain sin as an evolutionary mechanism are deeply embarrassing as he clearly has no idea what he is talking about.

I'll post it here if the rest of the book provides anything useful but right now I'd only recommend it to the followers of Ayn Rand. My real interest is in the relationship between neuroscience and the soul. This, as I said, he hardly touches. Luckily a good few other writers do.

Friday, November 26, 2004

It looks like the Bede v Barry blog has taken off rapidly enough! Let's hope we can all keep it civil in the heat of debate.

One of the stars in the Anglican firmament is Tom Wright, or NT Wright with his academic hat on. He has a web site devoted to him which is well worth a look. Recently, Wright was in the papers saying that the Church of England were being foolish selling off all its historical palaces and vicarages. He got a right old walloping from some people but I thought he was absolutely right. We sell our history off at our peril and doing it for short term gain and as a political gesture is just stupid. Even as a Catholic, I don't begrudge Anglican Bishops and Priests a nice suite of rooms in a historic building even if they did steel them all off us in the Reformation!

Less positively, the Telegraph reports a Mormon who is being harassed by a Christian preacher being forced to go to court to restrain him. This is precisely the wrong way to go about evangelisation. People who do not want to hear will not listen so pissing them off is totally counter productive. Evangelism is about being there to act as God's instrument when people are looking for Him. That is what makes the Alpha Course such as success and most doorstopping a waste of time. I hope this evangelical preacher will consider what he is doing and how his behavior is reflecting badly on the whole Christian community.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

An occasional new project has started.

The other day, Barry Foster, an intelligent and informed atheist, emailed me. This quickly developed into an interesting discussion and we thought we should blog our conversation so it could be read and commented on by all and sundry.

So, I announce the Bede v Barry blog is open for business!
There is a good article in Prospect Magazine this month about the Vardy academies. For readers who don't follow UK education policy, Peter Vardy is an evangelical business man who puts millions of pounds into schools in deprived areas. The schools are run on a Christian ethos and have become outstandingly successful with huge waiting lists. Dawkins and his anti-religious zealots have been campaigning against these schools on the false grounds they teach creationism as science. In fact, they don't. No creationism is taught in science lessons and this would not be allowed under the national curriculum anyway. The Bishop of Oxford, always looking for a chance to bash evangelicals, joined forces with Dawkins and is now looking rather foolish.

Recently a very deprived area near Doncaster was further deprived of a good school by campaigners against Vardy. They told a lot of lies and scared people into rejecting the school. Vardy could have forced the issue but pulled out. The main players were agents of the National Union of Teachers, for whom 'success' and 'discipline' are dirty words. Their objections were entirely political as they represent the hard left who oppose all efforts to improve schools. The anti-Christian line was simply a scare campaign.

This sorry episode shows that anti-Christians can do a lot of damage when their propaganda is not challenged. It is also a damning indictment of people who will deny poor children a good education for political or anti-religious reasons. Dawkins and the Bishop of Oxford should hang their heads in shame.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Some interesting news from the US today. Young teen pregnancy is at a 50 year low. Of course, the idiots in charge of sexual health in the UK, who have presided over an epidemic of teenage pregnancy, abortion and STDs want to bury their heads in the sand. They cannot bring themselves to admit their whole strategy was obviously flawed when any fool could have told them that providing easy access to contraceptives and abortion would encourage young people to have sex when they are too young to be responsible.

The abstinence campaign in the US is obviously having an enormous positive impact which actually far greater than the figures show. While the intelligentsia sneer that 88% of pledgers do eventually have sex before marriage, they fail to realise that if they just keep the pledge until they are 18 or 20, a massive amount of good has been done. Once people are adults they become better able to handle sex and deal with its consequences. Axiomatically teen pregnancies go down.

It is just possible, though, that the success of the US approach, for which the lateral thinkers who challenged conventional wisdom deserve massive applause, will convince even the family planning mafia that they have had their day and must stop blighting the lives of young people.

Friday, November 19, 2004

First, a public service announcement: the feedback form appears to be working now. I won't bore you with what went wrong but it seems to have involved to incompatible email systems.

Second, Professor Plantinga's third Stanton lecture was all about Evolutionary Psychology. I missed it and so am relying on third party testimony and the lecture handout but his ideas are fairly clear. He began by introducing us to various 'scientific' attempts to explain what religion is. The earliest effort at this was Freud, who came up with a just-so story with no scientific value at all but plenty of cultural baggage attached. He claimed that religion was based on fear and the need for a father figure. As an aside, some wags have suggested an equally uncompelling Freudian explanation for atheism: that is is based on the Oedipus complex and that atheists are trying to kill their true father by not believing in him. However, modern efforts to 'explain' religion have been based on how it is an adaptive mechanism that gives its believers an evolutionary advantage.

Now, it is fairly clear that religion really is a 'good' thing in this objective sense and writers like DS Wilson accept this. Indeed, for evolutionary psychologists, religion would have to be a useful adaptation or it would have died out ages ago. But, Prof. Plantinga claims that just because this is true, does not mean that there is not something 'real' that causes religious belief. We do not evolve a fear of snakes or a love of sugar unless there are real snakes and real sugar to set it off. And while religion could be caused by some other 'real' effect being confused for God, it is not at all clear what this might be (notwithstanding nineteenth century arguments about thunder gods and fertility cycles). The trouble is that science cannot ask this question because it has tied its hands with the binds of 'methodological naturalism' which rules God out of court.

So, says Prof. Plantinga, evolutionary psychology is what you get when you try to explain religion using only the methods of science. Hence, as an explanation, it is radically incomplete and need cause no concern to the believer who is able to draw on a wider sphere of experience. As a final aside, he looked at historical Jesus studies which, as I have said here many times, can tell us very little about the man. But this does not mean that we cannot open ourselves to other influences to learn about the Jesus of faith. That methodological naturalism is not very good at providing explanations in certain areas is just a weakness of naturalism as a method.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Roger Steer has emailed me about his book, Letter to an Influential Atheist, which Steve Carr also mentioned in his comment (supplying a dead link). Roger's book, which I haven't read, appears to cover much of the same ground as McGrath. Neither of them challenge evolution, for instance, only the philosophy Dawkins tries to build on top.

On the case of Buttiglione, he is interviewed in the Spectator this week. I should mention that the interviewer will be the best man my wedding but I have never met Buttiglione myself.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Richard Dawkins is a lucky man. Few of use can expect to receive the privilege of having our ideas as carefully and courteously considered as Dawkins has enjoyed from Professor Alistair McGrath. Much as I enjoyed Prof. Plantinga's lectures, Prof McGrath was even better, speaking on "Has Science Eliminated God?Richard Dawkins and the Meaning of Life". The whole lecture will shortly be available at the CiS website but in the meantime here is an overview and some comments.

Prof. McGrath has had an interesting academic career. Once an atheist, he has degrees in biochemistry and theology and is now Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford. He is a prolific author and firmly in the evangelical tradition. His criticisms of Dawkins in this lecture centred on why it is he has such a bee in his bonnet about religion. Prof. McGrath identified four issues that Dawkins has used in his attacks on religion:

  1. Dawkins seems to assume that Darwinism leads inexorably to atheism. Indeed, given the provisional nature of all scientific work, Dawkins seems to be considerably more certain about his atheism than his Darwinism. Prof. McGrath correctly explained that as there are many Christian evolutionists who are neither mad nor stupid, Dawkins has simply been proven empirically wrong to claim Darwinism leads to atheism. Maybe the more cautious statement that Darwinism allows one to be a more intellectually fulfilled atheist is true but Dawkins oversteps this many times. Prof. McGrath insisted that science can only lead to agnosticism.
  2. Dawkins has adapted his theory of memes to suggest that religion is a mind virus. The trouble is that memes themselves have never been identified, allow no quantifiable predictions to be made and have huge philosophical problems attached to them. In other words, they are just psycho-babble. Likewise, the idea that religion is a mind virus tells us nothing except that Dawkins doesn't like religion. We can't model how ideas spread based on epidemicology or get anything else useful out of the idea. It is just an analogy used as a debating point and should have been left at that.
  3. Dawkins feels awe at the scientific universe and doesn't get the same kick out of religion. His asides about 'poky medieval universes' simply reveal his ignorance of medieval cosmology, but the fact he feels no awe at the majesty of God is not relevant to those of us who do. Likewise, his mis-characterisations of religious faith, as belief despite or contrary to the evidence, are strawmen that bear no resemblance to Christian thought. Attacking this strawmen gets him nowhere beyond gaining applause from his own constituancy.
  4. Dawkins believes religion is a bad thing. A lot of people agree (although most have little idea what they are talking about as far as I can tell). Prof McGrath responded by showing us studies that reveal religious people tend to be healthier and happier than the non-religious. Out of 100 studies surveyed, 79 showed a positive correlation between religion and health. He didn't claim this was definitive but it does show that Dawkins actually has to present an argument rather than ranting in the Guardian about suicide bombers and George Bush.

I should point out that Prof. McGrath was uniformly polite and sympathetic in his presentation. Far more so than I am in my own analysis given above. The only time he accused Dawkins of anything remotely underhand was in his mis-definitions of faith. Full quotations and sources for all Prof. McGrath's claims can be found in his forthcoming book Dawkins' God which is the only book length refutation of Dawkins' thought.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Before reporting on Tuesday lecture by Alistair McGrath, let me make a few comments about what Alvin Plantinga said yesterday. I should first mention that the general theme of his five lectures is that there is a superficial conflict and deep concord between science and religion, and superficial concord and deep conflict between science and philosophical naturalism. The first three lectures cover science and religion while the last two will deal with naturalism.

Yesterday's lecture was entitled 'Divine Action in the World' and asked whether special intervention by God was possible in a scientific universe. Many theologians, Prof. Plantinga explained, thought that miracles could no longer be believed in by someone who participates in the scientific world view. Some of these theologians are just trying to be modern and 'with it' while not really understanding the limitations of science. Others have serious theological problems with the idea of God breaking the natural laws that he ordained himself, in order to perform a miracle. It is the former group to whom Prof Plantinga aimed his arguments.

Under the old Newtonian picture of the universe, determinism only prevails if we assume that not only the laws of physics hold, but also that the system is closed. In other words, God has to be assumed to shut himself out of the universe if he is to be forbidden to perform miracles. With modern quantum mechanics, Newtonian determinism is replaced by probabilities and hence simply closing the system is no longer enough to determine all future (and past) occurrences. But this does not seem to have much effect on the question of whether or not God can intervene.

I must say that I am rather confused about theologians who reject the possibility of divine intervention. Are they saying, as Prof. Plantinga suggests they are, that once God has set up the laws of nature even He can't break them? To a Christian, this is absurd as the laws of nature are only maintained by God actively keeping them going. They have no independent existence beyond being God's will upheld. So it hardly makes sense to say He cannot change them as and when He sees fit. Other theologians claim to know the mind of God and say that He would not change them as that would show He had made a mistake. Here, I have more sympathy with Prof. Plantinga's opponents. I do maintain that the laws of nature are usually maintained and that miracles are very uncommon. I disagree with the picture of God fiddling around (for instance) with genetic mutations and also believe God respects the integrity of the universe. However, this still leaves room for miracles as long as we believe them sufficiently uncommon not to undermine the constancy of nature.

Tomorrow, Prof Plantinga will talk about evolutionary psychology. I cannot attend but will try to get a copy of the handout and see what he has to say.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Yesterday evening, Professor Alvin Plantinga gave the first of his Cambridge University Stanton lectures on the subject of "Science and Religion: Conflict or Concord?". He will deliver five lectures and I hope to make it to at least three of them. Prof. Plantinga is a tall gentlemen of about sixty with a gray beard and no accompanying moustache. His dress is the typical slightly disheveled look of the academy with shoes best described as 'comfortable'. He has a deep voice with a strong mid-American accent and he speaks well, addressing the audience rather than keeping his head down over his notes.

As I have learnt to my cost, his books are notoriously hard as they assume a familiarity with the tools and notation of formal logic. These lectures, however, translate those concepts into words and so are easy enough to follow. However, underneath the words he is still presenting deductive logical arguments that deal with concepts such as incompatibility and defeaters. Ironically, this made his argument seem quite weak because what he was actually saying was rather limited. In fact, relying only on deductive logic, it is not possible to say very much at all.

The point of lecture one, "Evolution and Christian Belief", was to show us that theistic evolution and naturalistic evolution are both equally likely. Prof. Plantinga explained his definitions and then asked us to consider 'weak' Darwinism (where random mutations, while not caused by the biology of the creature in question, are subject to a deeper cause such as God) and 'strong' Darwinism (where the random mutations are caused only by physical processes). He then correctly tells us that the scientific evidence is unable to distinguish between these two mutually incompatible possibilities. He even said that 'strong' Darwinism could not have a higher than 50% chance of being true on the basis that we cannot choose between two incompatible alternatives. Thus, theistic evolution is not in conflict with science and the theist can relax.

The questions, one of which was asked by your correspondent, focused on the weaknesses of his presentation. It was alleged that he gave us no reason to believe theistic evolution over naturalistic evolution. This is true but not what he was trying to do - people are not Christians because they believe it is the best explanation of the evidence but rather because they experience it. Thus, as he has said elsewhere, Christianity is a 'properly basic belief' that is used as an interpretive framework to access other evidence - including science. All that Prof. Plantinga is doing is showing that the evidence of science can be fitted into the framework of Christianity. An audience member suggested parsimony as a tie-breaker between strong and weak Darwinism, invoking Ockham's razor. Prof. Plantinga should have said that Ockham thought God the most parsimonious explanation but instead said he was not in the business of deciding, only demonstrating where conflicts did and did not exist. The final questioner asked how we could decide anything if all we had to go on was whether it conflicted with the evidence. I expect that this is true and a deep problem in the philosophy of science tied up with the limitations of deduction. But again Prof. Plantinga said he was only demonstrating that Christianity, in which he already believed, was not in conflict with the scientific evidence for evolution.

I asked about the theological problems of theistic evolution, as it interferes with the integrity of the universe and exacerbates the problem of evil. Prof. Plantinga admitted the problem of evil was a problem, but not the one he was presently addressing. He also suggested God might be collapsing every wave function as well fixing all the mutations. Needless to say, I don't like the sound of this and might take him up on it tomorrow when he lectures on divine action.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

The final word on the Guardian's ill fated attempt to influence the US election: Clark County, Ohio swung from Dem to GOP. No surprise there, but the whole episode perfectly underlines the stupidity to the so-called intellectual elite. Lots of good analysis in the London Sunday Times, including a fun article by Tom Wolfe. The main lesson (also still to be learnt by the Conservatives in the UK) is when you loose an election in a democracy, you blame yourself - you do not blame the voters. Until the Dems realise this, they are doomed. And that is not a good thing.

Tomorrow, I'll be in Cambridge attending a lecture from Alvin Plantinga, the esteemed Christian philosopher, who will be speaking on "Christian belief and Science: surface conflict, deep concord; Naturalism and Science: surface concord, deep conflict". I'll report back. Also, on Tuesday, Alistair McGrath will be talking on "Has Science Eliminated God?Richard Dawkins and the Meaning of Life" which is a plug for his new book Dawkin's God. Again, I'll report back and the whole lecture will be on the net.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Imagine you are a well educated chap in 1490. What do you know about the universe? You certainly know the earth is a sphere but also that it is stationary and the centre of the universe. You probably don't realise that you don't know about America and all your authorities on geography give no indication that it exists. If you were really up to date and had ready Ptolemy, whose Geographia had only recently been translated from Greek to Latin, you might have seen maps of the world than do not even allow room for another continent between Europe and far East. America also caused theological worries as the status of the natives vis a vis original sin and salvation were rather ambiguous. And of course, the bible also has no idea at all that this other continent is going to exist.

Trouble was that once America had been discovered, there was no denying it. Although there was initially some doubt as to whether Columbus had reached the East Indies as he was hoping, we find no trace of theological efforts to explain away this enormous problem and no efforts to censor the discoveries for fear of upsetting people. It seems that once something was established with good evidence, neither the Church or anyone else was going to gainsay it.

Fast forward to the 1630s and Galileo is told to deny that the earth moves. Now, the theological problems with a moving earth are like nothing compared to the problems caused by America, but this time there is a huge row. Why is the Church kicking up a fuss when it let the more serious difficulty of America pass it by? The reason, it seems to me, is simply that for Galileo the evidence was not good enough and he was making claims that appeared unjustified. The Church was not going to allow that to happen. As the reaction to the discovery of the New World shows, the Church was quite able to adapt to new scientific knowledge. What it could not do was allow Galileo to state terms when the facts had yet to be established.

The Feedback form on the 'Contact Me' page has ceased to work. I don't know how long ago it failed but certainly it has been down a couple of months. So, if you used it to contact me, and included your email address but never received a reply, then please email me. I will let everyone know on this page when the feedback is working again.

Sorry for any inconvenience.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

So Bush won it. I can't loose as much sleep over that as many Europeans. What I found most interesting, though, was the way that moral issues such as gay marriage, abortion and family values were so important to so many American voters. Now, the big question for the next four years is probably whether Bush will be able to rejig the Supreme Court. The result of that would either be to shift the US decisively to the right, or set the individual states free to decide their own policies. Which of these two results is the correct description is a matter of which side of the culture wars you are on. It is likely that the votes to outlaw gay marriage will be the first battleground.

Jack took me to task for not following up the Buttiglione case. This was due to my promise to drop politics (in abeyance for this post!). I think the way the left was able to claim Buttiglione's scalp was disgusting and will further undermine the European project. The attempt to force metropolitan values onto the south and east of Europe will probably fail and lead to yet another fault line in the EU. I can say this despite having studied Professor Buttiglione's comments and finding I disagree strongly with them. He might have been lazy (or misquoted) but I fear he actually misunderstands Catholic teaching (but so does everyone else, so no surprise). Buttiglione said that homosexuality is a sin. This is not actually true. Homosexual acts are sinful but the homosexual disposition itself is not. The fact is that all sexual acts outside of marriage are considered a sin by the Church which calls for celibacy for all unmarried people, including homosexuals. Given the Church asks most of its employees to be celibate, it isn't unreasonable that they ask the same of homosexuals (who are certainly not stopped from being priests as long as they are as celibate as all the rest are supposed to be). Neither do Professor Buttiglione's views on the family chime with the latest Vatican document. While it is true that the best place to bring up children is within a family of two married parents, it does not follow that a woman's place is automatically in the kitchen, protected by her husband.

We are left with a marked contrast between Europe and US. In Europe, the elites lead opinion and try to mould popular sentiment. In the US, politicians follow the people who vote for the party that reflects their values. Is this democracy or mob rule? The answer depends on who is asked the question.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Oh dear. More anti-religious thinkers making fools of themselves.

The discovery of the 'hobbits' of Indonesia has caused a flurry of rather misplaed excitement among those who still long for science to replace religion. Desmond Morris's rather stupid article for the BBC really shows that he knows nothing about either religion or the history of science. This is a bit depressing coming from someone who writes quite good books about human anthropology but par the course. I'm not even going to bother refute his nonsense about this being a blow for religion for anyone other that young earth creationists. Every big scientific discovery brings out people who think it will bring about the end of religion, and every time religion sails serenely on while the scientific theory is, as often as not, quietly dropped. And that might be the fate of the hobbits.

You see, while they are not very big, these hobbits also have very small brains. As Richard Dawkins explains here, our hobbits have a brain the same size a chimp, relative to their size. Our human brains are two to three times larger and even the extinct homo erectus packed a considerably larger brain than the hobbits. So, unless neuroscience is going to be completely re-written, the hobbits were not very bright, could not talk and the tools the skeleton was found with are the products of ordinary humans who probably hunted the little guys. All of which will be a serious let down for Desmond Morris and company. His article appears to be a product of blind faith rather than a rational examination of the evidence.

Better luck next time, guys.
Robert Price is as close to a Jesus mythologist as you will find in academia. His books Deconstructing Jesus and The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man are required reading for those seeking to undermine the veracity of the Gospels. Now he has produced a new website for himself which contains a couple of interesting articles. We actually had Price to thank for trashing Achyra S and thus showing that even intelligent atheists realise her work is rubbish. He has now also written an article on the Da Vinci Code explaining that it really does not have a basis in fact at all. I would recommend that people be steered towards it if they are the type who won't believe a word Christians say about this book.

Another interesting article is the one on US foreign policy and especially Iraq. Price appears to be a dyed in the wool neo-Con which surprises this European observer as we have been told in the media that all the neo-Cons are conservative Christians and Jews. Interesting to find that this is not necessarily true.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

I can only agree with the comments made about the inadequacy of evidential apologetics. I was staying in a bed and breakfast on Wednesday night and found a copy of Josh McDowell's Evidence that Demands a Verdict on a shelf there. This is a book I have never looked at before but I was intrigued because it was the subject of a mass debunking exercise by a group of infidels (including our own anonymous poster) which is probably still available on the II site somewhere (yes, here we are).

The mistake made by McDowell and other evidential apologists is that they do not allow for other explanations a part from the one that they want us to believe. Most of the II critique is based on the idea that McDowell should have included all the opposing views rather than making his presentation look like an open-and-shut case. This criticism is obviously bogus, but the mere existence of the opposing views invalidates much of McDowell's argument. For instance, he claims that because the death of Jesus fulfilled so many Old Testament prophecies, it must prove he was the son of God. Well no, it does nothing of the sort, especially if the Gospels are written precisely with those prophecies in mind. Likewise, even if we grant the central historical facts of the passion narrative, we are still miles away from proving the resurrection - especially to someone whose world view forbids miracles. As Sherlock Holmes said "Eliminate the impossible and what is left, however unlikely, must be true." As the resurrection is viewed by some as impossible, another theory, however unsupported, must be true.

Which leaves us with a central truth about evangelism. Conversion is a matter between the individual and God. No human being can convert anyone. All we can do is allow ourselves to be used as instruments when He needs them for His own work. As our commentators said, apologetics is better off debunking the opposition rather than proving its own case. It is the defense advocate and not the prosecution.

Friday, October 29, 2004

I read my first incunabula yesterday.

This is rather more significant than it sounds as will become clear once you know what an incunabula is. The word is the Latin for 'cradle' and it refers to any book printed before 1st January, 1501 - that is, during the 15th century. As printing was only invented after 1450, we are talking about the very birth of printed books, hence the connection with 'cradle'. An incunabula is the holy grail of bibliography which means they are very expensive to buy (prices start well in excess of £10,000). This is partly because there are so few left in private hands while the big libraries have thousands. The one I read is held by Cambridge University Library and was a treatise on the calendar and arithmetic intended for students.

Another thing about incunabula is they tend to be pretty ugly. Not all of them, of course. Some are virtually indistinguishable from the illuminated manuscripts they replaced with gorgeous hand painted rubrication and illustrations around the printed text. But most are not like that and reflect the primitive print technology of the time and the need to cut costs to survive in the market place. Woodcut pictures exist but these are nothing compared to the intricate copperplate pictures that appear in the mid-sixteenth century. Worse for the reader, early books tend to be printed in a gothic typeface that is really hard to read. They also contain all the abbreviations that scribes used to use to cut down their work load. Compositors (the men who set up the type for printing) used these abbreviations to try and keep each line about the same length and produce a fully justified finish.

Shortly before 1500, Roman typefaces (and I'm seeing one now on my screen even if you the reader have a different one on yours) became popular because they were clear, elegant and took up less space while using less ink. They spread all over Europe from Italy, except to Germany where people continued to use gothic for centuries. So, if you actually want to read a book it is usually best to make sure it was printed after about 1550. In that case it will be easier to read, better illustrated, less abbreviated and, above all, a huge deal cheaper.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

From the CADRE Blog, BK has an quotation about the intellectual decline of atheism. Of course, you do not need to tell me that many atheists on the internet are not exactly intellectual giants but the point about Anthony Flew and Dan Barker is also instructive. Flew is an esteemed, though very old, philosopher who has recently been having something of a crisis of faith over his atheism. Dan Barker is a musician who writes low brow books about how he hates Christianity.

Of course, you could retort that many Christians are not exactly brilliant intellects either. True indeed, but I'd suggest that this doesn't matter much. At root, Christianity does not claim to be an intellectual movement but a religion for everyone whether they are packing high calibre brains or not. And sure enough there are enough high calibre brains to make a mockery of any claim that Christians cannot be that clever.

Atheism however claims to be based on reason, rationality and logic. It is almost entirely an intellectual movement and consequently if it is losing the philosophical conflict it loses everything. The rude health of Christian philosophy and the decline of atheist thought is a much bigger threat to the later than it would be to the former. Atheism risks becoming something that people of a certain age and mind set grab onto instinctively (largely because it makes them feel intellectually superior) but will drop when it turns out that actually the clever guys are all in the other camp. I don't want to declare victory too early but the signs look good.

Of course, after the defeat of atheism, the much more difficult job will be the defeat of apathy.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Here's a short extract from Pliny the elders Natural History:

On the west side of the Dead Sea, away from the coast, where there are
harmful vapours, lives the solitary tribe of the Essenes. This tribe is
remarkable beyond all others in the whole world, because it has no women, has
rejected sexual desires, is without money and has only the company of palm
trees. Day by day the crowd of refugees is renewed by hordes of people
tired of life and driven there by the waves of fortune to adopt their
customs. Thus through thousands of ages - incredible to relate - the
race in which no one is born lives for ever; so fruitful for them is other men's
dissatisfaction with life!

Below the Essenes was the town of Engeda, second only to Jerusalem in the
fertility of its soil and in its groves of palm trees, but now, like Jerusalem,
another heap of ashes. Then comes Masada, a fortress on a rock, not far
from the Dead Sea. This is the extent of Judea. (V:73 - 4)

A few things to note. First, Pliny is happy to use the word 'hordes' to refer to the people joining the Essenes. This is an example of Latin hyperbole, much like Tacitus describing the Christians killed by Nero as a 'multitude'. Those who claim the use of the word 'multitude' as evidence of Christian forgery in Tacitus clearly know nothing about Latin literature. Second, and more interestingly, this passage strongly implies that the Essenes kept going after the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem in the First Jewish War. They are usually assumed to have packed it in about this time. Pliny could easily be mis-informed but we cannot just assume the Essenes ended as Vespasian's legions marched into Judea.
Hmm. Well I see this politics business looks like it is taking over my blog! So thanks to all of you who made comments, but I think I'll leave off this subject at least until the ambient temperature associated with the US election has reduced a bit. Then perhaps, my thoughts on politics posted here will be limited to where religion is directly involved.

So in the meantime back to the diet of neuroscience and ancient history!

Monday, October 25, 2004

Thanks for the comments. A hiding to nothing, Elliot, is a pointless or counter productive activity.... a bit like blogging.

While Guardian bashing is fun, the more serious point is that the War on Iraq/Terror has produced a fault line in Europe between a minority who, even with misgivings, accept that the world changed on 9/11 and a majority who believe that if we were all just nicer to each other then everything would be OK. Hence, most Europeans assume that if only the Israelis would talk to the Palestinians, then they could work something out. They do not realise that Arafat has already twice turned down the very deal that the Israelis are being urged to offer him. Likewise, most Europeans think that if you act weak and harmless then you get left alone. Alas, human nature never was and never will be like that. The weak get kicked unless the strong protect them.

At heart I am a liberal and a cultural European. I prefer Italian food that comes from Italy to pizza from Chicago. I adore France and the French. But I despair of this continent's politics. We destroyed ourselves in two world wars. Walking the ugly modern streets of Dusseldorf or Cologne is a sobering experience for a Brit as we were the ones who flattened the beautiful mediaeval cities. But we seem to have thought that just because we have stopped fighting each other means the rest of the world is ready to stop too. Sadly, this is not so.

Even worse, the European left has forgotten the meaning of liberalism and tolerance. I mentioned the case of Buttiglione, the Italian Catholic now the target of an inquisition by socialist MEPs in Brussels. Buttiglione says he thinks homosexual acts are wrong but they should not be made illegal. His opponents say this is bigotry. Surely, all Buttiglione is doing is being tolerant. You CANNOT tolerate something of which you already approve. I do not 'tolerate' the glass of port I'm currently enjoying because I like it - but I do tolerate the people who smoke in my local pub as they inconvenience me. To tolerate something is to disapprove of it and yet let people do it anyway. But for the Left tolerance is no longer enough because they insist that we must all actually approve of their moral decisions. That, to me, sounds like fascism and it sounds like trying to impose morality in exactly the same way the Left accuse Christians of doing.

This all leaves me in something of a quandary because I would rather identify with liberal opinion and yet I find many of the things self-proclaimed liberals are saying to be utter rubbish or worse. So I find myself pushed politically right - or perhaps the right is moving towards me...

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Over here in England, many people are watching the US election with baited breath (although, to be frank, most probably don't know its happening). It is true that the outcome does effect us as well and so Americans have a considerable responsibility to the rest of the world to make the right decision. However, I'm certainly not about to tell them what the right decision is as this seems to cause more harm than good.

An example of offering a word of friendly advice going horribly wrong is the Guardian's efforts to influence the vote in Clark County, Ohio. Never have I seen such patronising liberal stupidity in my life. Can the Guardian's editors, desperate for a Kerry victory, really have thought that getting Richard Dawkins, a man genetically incapable of empathic with ordinary people, to tell Americans how to vote would have anything but a detrimental effect. The Guardian, however, is unapologetic.

At root, the biggest fault line between Europe and the US is over religion. Read some European newspapers and you would think that most Americans are religious fundies who would rather live under a theocracy than democracy. The Guardian itself publishes endless op-ed pieces about how conservative Christians are about to take over. To be fair, they pick a lot of this up from left wing American writers who are just as convinced that Texas is the new Iran. You could say that people who can't tell the difference between the Southern Baptists and Islamic terrorists are not even worth the time of day, but actually Islamicists often get a better press from many liberals in Europe than do Christians. It is hard to escape the impression that a sizable majority here are quietly cheering on the insurgents in Iraq against the Americans. For people like me who genuinely like Americans, are not afraid of their religious outlook and do not consider matters like abortion to be beyond discussion, European bigotry can get depressing. But there is no sign of it changing and I suspect matters will get worse if the bigots claim the scalp of Rocco Buttiglione whose only crime is to tolerate homosexuals rather than actively approve of them.

On another note, thanks to Elliot for his suggested links. I will come on to consciousness, and especially why I think Nancey Murphy is on a hiding to nothing, later on.

Friday, October 15, 2004

I think that what most people are most concerned about with respect to evolutionary psychology, neuroscience and related topics is that they seem to suggest that we do not have freewill and hence moral responsibility is meaningless. No one would deny that we are in some ways influenced by our environment: for example brutalised children are more likely to end up as brutal and people who have excellent educations are generally cleverer. This is partly because the brain continues to develop as we grow and so our lives directly effect how it develops. However, there is nothing inevitable about this and people often surmount serious disadvantages through their own choice and determination. So, I don't think anyone could say that the fact we are effected by our surroundings means we have no freedom at all.

I think it is best to see our genes as part of our environment and thus they give us certain predispositions without the inevitability that would preclude our freedom of choice. A very similar argument raged in the Middle Ages over the extent to which behavior was determined by the stars. On one side were the astrological extremists like Cecco D'Ascoli who claimed that our lives were determined in advance by the stars under which we were born. Freewill did not exist and with it went moral responsibility. Opponents often admitted that there was something to astrology but said that the stars could only give rise to predispositions and could never entirely negate freedom and morality. The Church, of course, aided by thinkers such as St Thomas Aquinas, insisted that moral choice did exist and those who claimed our personalities are determined by the stars are wrong. St Augustine rejected the efficacy of astrology all together, raising the argument that twins born under the same stars could have very different fates.

If genetics and neuroscience do not logically have to conflict with the doctrine of freewill, many people believe that the associated ideas about the mind being a purely physical phenomenon do make freewill impossible. But this, I suggest is an entirely separate question. We can accept that things can influence us without it leading to the lose of freedom. My thoughts on the much more serious difficulty of what the mind actually is, I will come to in a later post.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Evolutionary psychology has been getting a bad press of late. It gets mixed up with social Darwinism, eugenics and various other nasties. Progressives hate it because it goes against two of their cherished principals: that we are all nuture rather than nature, and that man can make himself perfect. The idea that there is such a thing as a perfect society has driven idealists since Plato and millions have died in the twentieth century in pursuit of the dream. But, if evolutionary psychologists are right, we are hardwired to behave in ways that make a perfect society impossible. This makes the whole idea very unpalatible to those who believe in progress and great for conservatives who claim that the tradition ways are best as these are the ones our wiring best suits us too.

As for the Christian, or at least Catholic, they could say they knew it all along. St Augustine is not flavour of the century with liberals but his insight into human nature makes him one of the great psychologists. He realised that human beings have instincts to behave in ways that they know are wrong and furthermore that those instincts can never be fully resisted. In other words, we always end up sinning. Augustine's later years were taken up arguing with a British fanatic monk call Pelagius who went around dressed in rags and refusing all luxuries. He claimed that just as long as we were all as ascetic as him, we could get to heaven from our own efforts. Augustine replied that if we all had to behave like you then most of us are off to hell anyway. Unlike Pelagius, Augustine recognised that it is human nature to sin and that we cannot escape that nature through out own efforts. Again, this is terribly unpopular with idealists.

However, Augustine's insight went even further. He realised that human nature was a universal and that we must be born with it. Therefore, it must be inherited and have resulted from events that formed the creatures that humans are today. Of course, he know nothing about genes which is how we inherit part of our nature. But he would agree with evolutionary psychologists who claim that much of how we behave today is due to events that took place to our distant ancestors. Augustine postulated that the cause was the Fall of Man that meant that humans inherited a propensity to sin from their parents. But the effect on our behavior today is the same and Augustine perfectly worked out both the proximate cause and the effect.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

There is a new Jesus Mythologist in town. Tom Harpur, a Canadian religious affairs journalist, has published a book called the Pagan Christ. It is, by all accounts, unadulterated trash but he has been given an easy ride by many of his friends in the journalism trade and is making quite an impression in Canada. W Ward Gasque has written a devastating and incisive critique which demonstrates that Harpur uses out of date sources that no real scholar would touch with a barge pole. Harpur is either being extremely gullible or deliberately disingenuous by quoting all sorts of stuff that any expert could have told him to avoid. His reply to Gasque here (scroll down), is a study of special pleading and dishonesty. That he complains professional Egyptologists have not yet read his sources would be funny if it wasn't so completely arrogant. It is like complaining that geologists have not made themselves familiar with the latest tract by Graham Hancock. Harpur also says his detractors are only ultra-conservative or fundamentalist Christians. He clearly has no idea about the religion he used to profess or the people who subscribe to it. JP Holding has also attacked the Pagan Christ in his own inimitable style.

Yes, people like Harpur make me angry. He is pompous, disingenuous and out of a quick buck. It is impossible that a reasonably intelligent person who has read as widely as he claims to have done would believe a word he writes - which means he cannot believe it himself. He makes the usual claim that his book was not written for scholars and uses this both as an excuse not to ground his work in facts and sources, and to ignore the objections of those who do. Writing a popular book without bothering to do the spade work is dead easy. Scholarship, as I am rapidly finding, is very hard work.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

A new term has started at Cambridge but for us graduates that only means we have to dodge undergraduates in the streets. Meanwhile, I am trying to sort out our new home which is proving rather time consuming.

A reader has emailed and asked about Bart Ehrman's work including The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture and Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New millennium. The former must be one of the most ill used books in New Testament studies and is reviewed by JP Holding here. His opinion is that it is not particularly scary. Ehrman shows how orthodox Christians amended a few passages which heretics had been misinterpreting in order to prevent them from being abused. The cases Ehrman presents are, frankly, not exactly earth-shattering and are based on a careful analysis of the various surviving texts. Of course, internet critics have tried to use Ehrman to show that the New Testament is completely unreliable and that Christians were happy to corrupt texts wholesale. In fact, Ehrman demonstrates the reverse - he shows that the changes made were small and largely inconsequential and that the NT has been "reconstructed by scholars with reasonable certainty - as much certainty as we can reconstruct any book of the ancient world."

His second book has also caused concern to some. It is actually far less interesting than Orthodox Corruption as it is simply the latest in a long line of books by scholars that recreate the historical Jesus as they would like to see him. We have had Jesus the cynic sage, Jesus the teacher of wisdom, Jesus the peasant revolutionary and now Jesus the apocalyptic prophet. Essentially, Ehrman takes the bits of the New Testament which demonstrate what he wants to show and ignores all the rest with some flimsy justification. This is exactly what Burton Mack, Dom Crossan and all the rest of the historical Jesus crowd have been doing for years. I don't think we should worry about yet another tome being added to the pile. As I've be saying for ages, historical Jesus studies are a castle built on air and can tell us almost nothing about the real Jesus except a few facts about his life. All the rest of the genre is purely fiction.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

So, the authors of the Holy Blood and Holy Grail ("HBHG") are suing Dan Brown for using their plot for the blockbuster novel, the Da Vinci Code ("DVC"). No one would deny that DVC is based on HBHG, but can Brown be accused of plagiarism? If HBHG was marketed as a work of fiction, there would be no contest, but in fact it is claimed to be fact. For that reason, I'm not sure they can complain that their ideas have been used as they are not claiming the plot was the work of their imagination. They say they were merely uncovering facts that must then be in the public domain. Of course, the irony is that HBHG is fiction and the authors did make it up. It will be interesting to see if they will admit this to win the case.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

As I cannot see the point of a blog if one doesn't blow one's own trumpet from time to time, I'm going to advertise my latest publication. My department at Cambridge has a collection of reading suggestions on various subjects. They have just put my own submission on-line: Reading Suggestions on Medieval and Early Modern Universities. I must admit, though, that this is likely to be of limited interest to most of this blog's readers! However, the Research Methods Guide maintained by the department is an excellent resource all round and strongly recommended to anyone interested in the history and philosophy of science broadly construed.
I promised some further comments about Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel so here goes.

The aim of this book is to explain why the denizens of Australasia, the Americas and Africa got colonised by the denizens of Eurasia and not the other way around. But the explanation must not postulate any sort of racial differences between people. This is fine as racial differences are so slight (aside from appearance and disease resistance) that they are very unlikely to have any effect on history. Unfortunately, Diamond himself is a reverse racist who gives some folk-evolutionist reason why he thinks New Guinean hunters are probably cleverer than American couch potatoes. This grates a bit as does his calling Spanish conquistadors "murderous" and guilty of "genocide" while his beloved cannibals get off scot-free. When he reveals in the very last chapter that black Bantu farmers did exactly the same thing to pygmies and Khosian herders as Europeans did in America you can almost see his hands wringing. However, this stuff does not detract from Diamond's arguments.

The interest of this book is that it represents an attempt to actually do what Fernand Braudel only talked about. For those who have not sat a "theory of history" course and don't know about the Annales school, Braudel suggested that the geography of the Mediterranean basin shaped the cultures that live there. So, in his opus The Mediterranean in the Time of Phillip II he begins with a long description of the landscape and topology. However, many critics have felt he failed to link this to the rest of the book and really show how it all affected the cultures and history he was studying. Jared Diamond, however, ably shows how long term biogeographical processes translate into human history. For this he deserves congratulations.

Let me say from the outset that I think he is largely right. His explanation is simply stated: Eurasia had a larger number of wild plants and animals that could be domesticated. This gave rise to a head start and allowed civilisation to develop more quickly. Also, the east/west axis of Eurasia meant ideas could spread easily over a wide area as the climate was similar all along the way. Other areas had no animals to domesticate (because the first humans hunted them to extinction in America and Australia), no useful plants and a north/south axis that made diffusion difficult. Also, domestic animals provided the breeding ground for the epidemics that decimated native populations. Finally, Eurasia is much bigger that other continents which produced more cultures to learn from each other and compete in a way that meant they were encouraged to try new ideas.

For the Americas and Australasia, I find this 100% convincing while for Africa I am slightly less convinced. Diamond also hardly explains why it was the north western corner of Eurasia that did most of the colonising and not India, China or elsewhere. That said, this is a book well worth reading and its ideas should be built on in the future.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Alister McGrath has been causing a few more ripples recently than professors of historical theology from Oxford tend to do. The reason is his recent book, The Twilight of Atheism, which my CADRE colleague Chris Price has commented on over at the CADRE blog. McGrath himself has penned an article for the London Spectator (free registration required) which outlines his ideas while also letting us know his next project is aimed squarely at Richard Dawkins.

The Twilight of Atheism declares the philosophical argument too close to call, but points out that atheism has been losing the propaganda battle due to the failure of avowedly atheistic societies. Furthermore, those who have painted atheism as progressive and rational have found it hard going to give any good reasons for atheism over secularism (where the state is neutral as far as religion goes rather than promoting its lack). Nowadays, western atheists tend to call themselves secularists while trying to subvert secularism to their own ends (witness efforts to outlaw religious schools in the UK or close down ethical debates on science). David Aaronivitch, one of Britain's wisest columnists (although still pretty ignorant about religion), nearly understood this in his article about McGrath in the Observer (ignore the headline which is just editorial).

Still, what I want to know is what McGrath thinks about neuroscience, the subject I'm thinking about at the moment. His opinion is relevant as he has a degree in molecular biology. Perhaps the McGrath's book on Dawkins will tell us this rather than just beating up Dawkins' rather weak philosophical stance. I don't want to be told Dawkins is wrong - I want to see answers to the arguments Dawkins would have made if he had actually understood the issues.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Back from holidays and still madly busy. The job of today is to buy a car so I have a couple of test drives lined up. Unfortunately, I have had to abandon my preference for an Aston Martin in favour of a Ford Focus.

There has been a bit of movement on the amulet used by Freke and Gandy which I exposed as a likely fake a few months ago. Now someone at Infidels' discussion board has dug up the original article I saw referred to and a team effort has helped with the German. It seems that the amulet was denounced as a fake as long ago as the 1920s and that it comes from Italy which was a common source of such things. Needless to say, this amulet should now never be used as evidence for anything and anyone who does not mention it is suspect (unless they honestly don't know) is being dishonest.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Thanks for the comments Jack. I agree with much of what you said about Byzantium and think we may be saying the same thing about external enemies. As you say, after the initial conflict, Islam didn´t have any, but there were plenty in the West. And what is a succesive invader but a successful external enemy? So we seem to be saying the same thing about the contrast between Islam in the East and the invaders of the Western Empire. I also agree that the Spainish Moors received their civilisation from the East so I don´t think the damage to Spain by the Vandals and Goths effected them so much.

What I have learnt from Jared Diamond is to avoid arguments about the traits of specific cultures (such as the Romans being too practical to bother with philosophy) because you can pick holes in them and they are almost always ad hoc anyway. Besides, I am not sure I agree that the Romans had less interest in philosophy - they simply used Greek as the language for it. This only had consequences once Greek speakers were no longer available as teachers, as Boethius foresaw.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Time for a quick note from sunny Spain: Seville to be precise.

The major sights here in Andalusia are the remaining great Islamic buildings such as the Alhambra, Mesquita and Giralda in Granada, Cordoba and Seville respectively. There is no question that these are masterpieces of architecture and that the Moorish civilisation that built them was advanced and cultured. Add to that the philosophers such as Moses Maimonides and Averroes, who both hailed from Cordoba, and one wonders how it was all lost. The answer is that the Moors split into a patchwork of small states and the more united Christians could pick them off one by one. Once Aragon and Castille joined together under Ferdinand and Isabella, even Granada could hold out no longer, falling in 1492.

But the question that I found myself asking is why was it that the Islamic invaders of the Eastern Roman Empire could immediately form an advanced civilisation while the invaders of the Western Empire, such as the Goths, Franks and Saxons took five hundred years before they achieved a comparable level. After all, both sets of invaders had started off as nomads on the fringes of the Empire. The silly but traditional answer is that Islam was somehow more "enlightened" than the Christianity of the western invaders whose religion left them in the Dark Ages. Clearly this is rubbish as the Christian states were eventually able to overtake the Caliphate in both technology and culture. But the fact remains that Islamic civilisation got a head start. Why?

I´ve been reading Jared Diamond´s Guns, Germs and Steel over the holidays. I´ll have some critical comments to make about it later but inspired by him, I think I can answer the problem I set out above. Two answers present themselves.

First, the Western invaders were made up a of several tribes that each over ran the same area. This meant that individual cities were often sacked many times as the Vandals, then the Goths, then the Franks and finally the Huns all arrived from the East. It meant the damage to infrastructure and society was much greater than in the East. There, Islamic invaders were united so there was only a single invasion that was able to capture territory with its infrastructure intact. The Arabs just supplied a new ruling class. This had initially happened in the West too where Theodoric the Goth ruled over Roman senators, but further invaders destroyed this.

Second, the cultural heart of the Roman Empire was the East and not the West. All academic work, maths, philosophy and medicine was available only in Greek. It was the Greek speaking part of the Empire that the Arabs took over and hence it was easy to find Greek speakers to transmit knowledge to them. In the West, the language was Latin which had no scientific tradition and so the invaders were not going to be exposed to classical learning. Even the Western church was Latin based and so it could only preserve literature in that language.

Thus, the combination of the Arab invaders taking over in one fell swoop, combined with their occupation of the intellectual heartland of the Roman Empire, including Alexandria, meant they were much more able to continue a high level of civilisation than the warring tribes flooding piecemeal into the west.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Back from Italy but have been involved in finding a new home, organising a wedding (my own!) and leaving for a holiday in Spain with my fiancee this afternoon. That means there hasn't been much time to post here and I hope normal service will resume in a couple of weeks.

My trip to Italy finished off with Florence and Parma. While there are some great sights in Florence (I got to look through Galileo's telescope) it is the smaller cities like Ferrara and Parma which are the more charming. They are quiet, clean and without tourists. The only queue I had to join was at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence - even in that city all the other stuff was uncrowded. But in Parma and Ferrara I was the only person in the room, if not the whole building, a lot of the time.

My writing project for October (a part from school stuff) will be to comment on the materialist theories of the mind and I have Steven Pinker packed in my bag for Spain. Some people have become worried that science has not only killed the soul, but even killed our capacity for freewill and hence good. Needless to say, I am far from convinced but will wait to see what Professor Pinker has to say on the matter.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Here I am in Florence, pounding the sidewalk from Botticelli to Caravaggio via Michaelangelo. Frankly, this city is somewhat overendowed with art treasures and it might be better if they were spread around a bit.

The most interesting sight so far, from my point of view, is a fresco by Botticelli of Saint Augustine of Hippo in the Ognissanti Church. In it, Augustine is portrayed reading and writing at a desk with various books and instruments on the shelf behind him. These include a armillary sphere, mechanical clock and an open book on geometry. In all, Augustine is shown not as a theologian but as a mathematician. This must reflect the view of his genius in the fifteenth century where maths was seen as a road to philosophy so, of course, Augustine would be good at it. We should also remember that he did urge people to study science in as much as it was necessary to understand the bible and not look foolish. Given Augustine is often portrayed as the archetypical close minded theologian, I thought this picture of him as a man of science was an interesting corrective.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Well, now I am in Ferrara fresh from admiring the late Renaissance frescos that adorn the ceilings in the enormous Este Castle, as well as shuddering in the dungeon. Tomorrow I will either look around the other sites in this charming city, or else head for a day in Ravenna. This was the final outpost of Byzantium in Italy and holds an unmatched collection of early churches containing stunning mosaics.

What of Bologna being the first university as Jack queries? Well, it is true that other educational institutions such as the museum in Alexandria, the Madrasa in Cairo and the School of Athens have been called universities but in fact they were not. A true university is a self governing corporate institution with a separate legal personality. In fact, "univeritas" in Latin means "corporation" and not "place of higher education" (that would be "studium generale") and the term has become synonymous educational establishments. Why is this so important? Because with newly developed corporate law, medieval universities could enjoy unparalleled freedom to run their own affairs. They skillfully played church off against state to guard their privileges and rapidly became so influential and powerful that they could pronounce on the running of kingdoms. The Parisian theology faculty in the late Middle Ages was where even popes turned to have their questions answered. They set their own syllabus and exams but their qualifications were recognised all over.

None of the other so-called universities enjoyed this freedom. The museum in Alexandria existed on the will of the Ptolemies who chased them out more than once. It also had no central administrative structure. It was just a club for individual scholars. So was the School in Athens that depended on the prestige of the men teaching there. And Islamic madrasas were highly restricted in what they could teach. Medicine, science, secular philosophy, civil law and even theology were all ruled out in favour of religious law. But European universities taught all these things and more.

For a great deal more on all this see my essay Medieval Science, the Church and Universities.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

I'm on holiday in Bologna, first stop in a week long tour of northern Italian renaissance city states. Ferrara, Parma, Florence and Ravenna to go (it is a bit of a whistle stop tour). Oddities of formating should be put down to the computer in the hotel lobby.

The most interesting thing about Bologna is that the world's first university began here to study law in about 1150. The university is still going strong and it looks like term has started as the university quarter is flocking with keen young things. The old centre for the university was extensively bombed in the Second World War (by us or them, I do not know) but the anatomy theatre has been lovingly reconstructed and is quite a site. The professors throne is flanked by two naked flayed figures and the whole room is full of the busts of great physicians - even stuck to the ceiling.

Jack Perry has just started a new blog here: . He is a Catholic from America and his writings look well worth a look not least because he appears to be very well read.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

I have just found out something very interesting about the way big libraries (and small ones too, I imagine) work. This was the result of a meeting with an extremely kind and helpful lady who is a librarian (among other roles) here in Cambridge. You might think that the catalogues that are published, put on the web or placed on card indexes in the reading rooms are the sum total of the information available on the contents of libraries. Not a bit of it. There are lots of lists that librarians over the years have made which might be of help for particular research if only you could get your hands on them. One at Cambridge is the list of books containing the signature of the Cambridge magician, John Dee (he had a lot!). I'm interested in annotations made to science and maths books by certain owners. The technical term for an annotated book is adversaria or ADV for short and these are often catalogued separately. My next task is to go through the Cambridge lists and see if they include annotations by anyone I am interested in. A lot of work - but better than having to check all the books individually!

Sunday, August 22, 2004

The debate at Infidels on whether science has held back religion is now over. I must admit to being rather disappointed by it all, firstly because JLK did not have very much to say and second because he did not write in English paragraphs but preferred short notes with lots of quotations. He was also obsessed with debate tactics which is often a sign that the subject was getting away from him. I must be the only person ever to be accused of both whiggishness and relativism at the same time. This all makes the debate unsuitable for publication on this site which a pity, as this was part of the reason that I wanted to do it in the first place. I'll leave it up to any readers who want to look through it rather than summarise the content here. There is a peanut gallery at infidels but there has been so little activity there that it seems even the usual atheist cheerleaders couldn't bring them selves to support their man. To be fair, JLK had a very tough assignment - he had to defend a position rejected by all the experts in a subject he knew very little about. Perhaps next time I'll play devil's advocate and so at least make sure the anti-religion case gets a fair hearing.
Thank you all for the good wishes on my birthday. I had a lovely day and the party in the evening went very well. Yesterday we went and looked around John Nash's interiors at Buckingham Palace which take the breath away. I was not surprised to hear that he was sacked by parliament for overspending. There is enough gold leaf to cover the dome of St Paul's.

Also, there has been some comment on Mark. Thanks for all these comments too - it is great to provoke someone to putting fingers to keyboard. In reply to one of these I would say that I find it unlikely there were two feeding miracles although that is possible. But John, independently of Mark, only reports one and he is probably the best witness we have. Also, as a correspondent has pointed out, the idea of Mark an artless compiler is reinforced by what Papias has to say about him about 110AD:

Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he
remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or
deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But
afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions
to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular
narrative of the Lord's sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing
some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not
to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the
I would suggest this backs up the idea that Mark's Gospel is an effort to repeat everything he can remember with only a loose narrative structure thrown in. I cannot accept that he is the subtle writer for whom everything has a purpose and meaning. The text just doesn't support that contention.

Friday, August 20, 2004

It's my birthday today! I'm rather busy preparing for a small gathering of friends this evening but I did just want to say another word about Historical Jesus ("HJ") studies. Regular readers will know I think that the whole scholarly subject is seriously flawed. One aspect of this is the continuing insistence of HJ scholars to read far more into the text of the New Testament than it can bear. Every jot and tittle is carefully considered for significance with obscure theological import attached to the tiniest aspect of the Gospels, even things which are probably just slips of the pen or copy errors. Furthermore, Mark, whose Gospel is written in crude Greek and is clearly not an author of great skill is elevated to a genius who cleverly molded together his sources with constant subtle references to the Old Testament. All rubbish. Mark's Gospel is a hodge-podge of sayings and stories thrown together into a slightly coherent narrative by a man with no sense of art or editorial control whatsoever. He even includes the feeding miracle twice because he does not have the critical facilities to realise he has heard the same story from different people. Trouble is, when academics study something for ages (and nothing is as studied as the Gospels) they always start to believe the authors think like they do. So Mark has to become an author whose ability is worthy of the attention paid to him, when clearly he isn't. If you see someone lauding Mark's literary abilities you will know that they have got the bug bad and you should treat their speculations with extreme scepticism.

Another effect of recycling the same material over and over again is that pretty much anything has to be tried in the effort to produce original research. Thus, as it is my birthday, I present Bede's Laws of Historical Jesus Research.
  1. Anything that can possibly be said about the Historical Jesus will be said.
  2. It already has been.

Perhaps all the intellectual energy spent on this subject might be better directed elsewhere. Leave the Gospels to theologians who know that they are not doing history.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Two weeks of intensive Greek tuition here at the University of Wales, Lampeter, and I've learnt a good deal about the language. The funny alphabet it uses is actually much easier to master than I expected and I can read it without any trouble now. However, holding words in mind to look them up in the dictionary is not always easy, especially if they are long. Greek is a language that is spelt almost exactly as it is spoken so you don't have to worry about odd pronunciation rules. This might sound like making things easier but it doesn't. It makes things very hard indeed.

In English, we basically all spell the same way regardless of how we speak. Regional variations in accents hardly figure in standard written English. Similarly you can read Chaucer off the page without too much trouble, but if someone reads it out loud with fourteenth century pronunciation, it initially sounds like utter gibberish. Greek is not like this. It also has loads of local dialects and the way it was spoken evolved over hundreds of years. But while in English we left the spelling well alone, Greek is always written as it is spoken, so each dialect (be it Ionic, Attic, Doric or whatever) is spelt to reflect the differences in speech. This is understandable, but it gets even worse. Over the centuries syllables and even words can get slurred into each other. Written Greek accurately reflects this too, so verb forms that would be completely regular change because they result in two vowels next to each other. Rather than just accept that the spelling will deviate from the spoken word, the written verb forms are contracted to fit the spoken word. Likewise, if one word ends in a vowel and the next word begins with one they are merged together which makes looking anything up in the dictionary an absolute nightmare.

I am assured that once you have mastered all this and have thoroughly assimilated the rhythm of the language, Greek is actually easier than classical Latin. But I have a very long way to go before I get to that stage. Another saving grace is that the Koine Greek of the New Testament, which is what I am really interested in, is a whole lot easier than the classical Greek that I'm learning now. Whatever happens, there will be a lot more hard work before I'm picking up Plato to read on the beach!
Thank you to everyone who has been making comments on this blog. They are all very interesting. May I remind anyone who would like to discuss the matters brought up here that they are cordially invited to the Ebla forums. I'm a moderator there and it is where I do most of my on-line interaction. This blog has become the second most popular feature of Bede's Library so it seems to be a success. The Library as a whole is rapidly approaching 20,000 page views a month which is a whole lot more than I imagined when I started.

Monday, August 09, 2004

An excellent new website has just appeared which I'd like to heartily recommend. It belongs to Justin Martyr who penned this brilliant article for me about Paganism and Christianity debunking a few old and new canards. His new site is Liberal Christian Research where he brings his professional training as a classicist and ancient historian to bear on biblical studies and Christian doctrine. When Justin says 'liberal' he means it in the sense I do - an orthodox Christian but not one who takes a conservative view of issues like evolution, inerrancy and some traditions. So do have a read of his essays and let him know if you think they are any good.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

The scariest 'true' ghost story in London, which is full of them, is the monster at 50, Berkeley Square, Mayfair. In the nineteenth century, this terrible apparition was actually scaring to death people who stayed in the haunted room on the fourth floor. The tale has been spun, adapted and changed ever since (the house itself, in particular, wonders around Berkeley Square to number 10 or 52 or where ever) but the original details are suggestive. The victim wakes up in bed faced with the most horrible apparition imaginable which attacks them.

We are often told that lots of Americans think they have been abducted. This is not strictly true and the story comes from research done by the Roper Organisation which found one in fifty Americans had experiences that could be interpreted as abduction. Among those experiences are:

Do you remember waking up paralyzed with a sense of a strange person or
presence or something else in the room? Do you remember having seen, either as a
child or adult, a terrifying figure-- which might have been a monster, a witch,
a devil, or some other evil figure-- in your bedroom or closet or somewhere

This sounds much like those nasty goings on in Berkeley Square which suggests, if nothing else, that either the aliens have been around a while or else they have nothing to do with it. Many myths, from fairy abduction to the Black Annis of Scotland may have their origins from similar experiences.

So what is going on? Well, I know of what I speak and as we were sitting last night, drinking and watching bats chasing moths over a little river here in Lampeter, both my companions knew as well. The answer appears to be that we sometimes suffer from an uncommonly severe form of sleep paralysis that is discussed by Susan Blackmore in the Sceptical Enquirer. We wake up paralysed in bed and in the presence of something extremely nasty that means us harm. The wisest thing to do if this happens to you is keep your eyes tightly shut and try to winkle a finger. In serious cases the monster can seem to rip the sheets off the bed or attack. One friend who foolishly opened his eyes during such an experience has simply refused to talk about what he saw. Certainly though, the appearance of the monster seems to be culturally determined. When I was very young I saw a ghost, complete with sheet over its head, but now I have no intention of finding out what my adult imagination can conjure up. Modern Americans seem to see aliens.

Susan Blackmore, who is a scientific reductionist, sees all this in terms of brain function. I'm not so sure. While the appearance of the beast is certainly determined by our own imaginations, that could simply be the brain trying to make sense of a class of experience it has no equipment to comprehend. Whatever else, for those of us who go through this sort of thing, it seems a lot more real than the blathering of neuro-scientists.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

I mentioned a while back that one of the problems with historical Jesus studies was that it was being done by theologians and not by historians. There seems to be a related problem with people examining the historicity of the Old Testament. Here the split is between archaeologists and literary critics. Actually, this is not entirely fair as this article in Biblica by Ziony Zevit shows that the biblical minimalists (who claim the entire OT is fictional and was all written in the Hellenistic period) are a tiny minority. But they do get undue attention as what they say is iconoclastic and winds up mainstream scholars no end. However, as Zevit shows, the minimalists are simply using some of the wilder ideas of post structuralist literary criticism on the bible and seeing what comes out. Unsurprisingly it is the same thing that comes out of all radical post structuralist enquires: that the text is a product of whatever political interests the enquirer started out thinking it was. For this reason I can't say that I am going to devote much attention to biblical minimalism for a little while yet.

Monday, August 02, 2004

The great debate has begun. You can read the first two posts from JLK and me here. I will refrain from commenting, beyond what goes in the debate itself, until it is over.

Presently I'm in Lampeter doing a two week summer school course I mentioned a while back. It is hard work but very rewarding to be able to devote some time to the subject and make real progress. I doubt my greek will ever be up to reading Ptolemy but I do one day hope to be able to use it for New Testament studies and looking at science in the Byzantine Empire.

Friday, July 30, 2004

Let's start with a controversial question.  What does a foetus have in common with a lab rat?  The answer, of course, is that people are willing to resort to terrorist tactics to defend them both.  In the US, I understand, a fringe of anti-abortion campaigners have long resorted to intimidation, violence, arson and even murder while here the UK it is animal rights extremists who are responsible for the death threats and vandalism.  One irony is that the animal rights crowd, memorably called bunny-fascists by Minette Martin in the Sunday Times, have had a lot more success here than anti-abortionists have had in the US.  Cambridge University has already scrapped plans for a new laboratory and Oxford looks set to go the same way. 

It won't surprise you to hear that I am against abortion in most circumstances and consider it is always an evil, only occasionally out weighed by a greater evil.  I am also totally in favour of animal testing and value human life over any other living creature.  I would wipe out the last damned tiger on the planet for the sake of a single human child. 

Now I appreciate that this is a view shared with many Christians, in part due to the statements in Genesis that man has dominion over the beasts and shares God's image.  But you don't have to be religious to put humans on a pedestal (Minette Martin is an example) or to realize that the reductionist arguments employed by Peter Singer and Richard Dawkins against speciesism are pretty stupid.  They claim that because we are just animals with DNA similar to other creatures, we are wrong to claim there is something fundamentally different about ourselves.  I am aghast intelligent people can believe this as to reduce humanity to genetics ignores all but one of the things that makes us what we are.  Besides, as no other animal cares about its rights and or anything elses', they contradict themselves when they claim that we should be the exception. The only possible reason we could care deeply about other species is that we are NOT like other species.  I am also amused that Singer, as he states in an article in today's Guardian, finds people who believe in the foetus's right to life to be misguided.  This is deeply weird.  How on earth can he claim that a rat, or even a chimp, has a greater right to life than a foetus?  The point of the article is to condemn animal rights extremists, but it really shows just how confused his thinking is.  His reason for condemning them is not just that they are evil (which they are) but that they make it harder to condemn anti-abortion extremists!

Finally, let me explain why a non-theist should also find the idea that all animals have equal rights is bogus.  Non-reductionists do not define our humanity as a ghost in the machine (whatever the late Francis Crick thought) but by our place in a web of language and culture.  No man is an island, as John Donne taught us, and this was given philosophical teeth by Ludwig Wittgenstein who demonstrated that we are defined by our part in a network of communication.  Any efforts to position ourselves outside that network lead to absurdities.  We should also note that other animals form no part of the matrix of humanity and hence we are justified as excluding them as agents in ethical discussions.  We have duties towards other species, but these are a function of our humanity and nothing to do with the animals.  Singer's and Dawkin's efforts to invent a new "-ism" of discriminating against other animals is philosophically wrongheaded.  I can only assume that neither of them have much idea about what it means to be human, and reading their works only re-enforces that point.  

Thursday, July 29, 2004

There is a big fat book from the British Academy that lists all the medeival and renaissance library catalogues still extant.  They have got through ten volumes now and at least five more are in the pipeline.  The latest volume to come out has been the one on the Colleges of Cambridge University (I impatiently await the Oxford edition) which I hav found very useful for my research.

The point of all this is that it allows us to see just how completely random the survival of books and manuscripts is, as well as how it is usually bad luck or neglect that causes us to loose them.  For instance, not one of the large collection from Clare College's medieval library survives because the fellows made off with the books when they thought the college was about to be closed in 1549.  This was after the library had survived a terrible fire in 1521.  Likewise, nothing remains of Queens' College's ancient library.  On the other hand, Pembroke College and Peterhouse still hold up to half the books found in their catalogues dating from the Middle Ages.  It used to be thought that there was some sort of systematic library clearance by the Protestant reformers (and their may have been in a few cases at Oxford) but in reality the losses are due to carelessness, theft and throwing out stuff that was not considered useful anymore.  Very many medieval manuscripts were binned as soon as a printed version of the same book was available. 

This explains why we have so little left from the ancient past.  If Pembroke College can loose half its manuscripts in a few hundred years when it has a library that was never ransacked or suffered large scale damage, what hope was there for the libraries of Alexandria and Rome when both cites have been sacked, razed and taken by endless invaders and rioters.  And last year, in Baghdad, as my correspondent below notes, the national library went up in smoke.  This was not due to any deliberate policy but just due to the break down in law and order which accompanied the occupation. 

The lesson of the losses at Cambridge from a secure and academic environment without the risks of war, is that we don't need to ask how libraries are lost.  The more interesting question is how on earth anything has survived for as long as it has.