Monday, November 26, 2007

Peter Lipton

Peter Lipton, the head of the History and Philosophy of Science Department at Cambridge, where I am a graduate student, died suddenly at the weekend. He was simply the best lecturer I've ever come across. A few years ago, a course on the logic of induction that he taught was booked into a seminar room because of its specialised nature. But not just his students and those taking the relevant course turned up. I was among those who packed the room to the rafters (and it was not a small room) simply because he was doing the lecturing. Mercifully, next week we were moved into a full scale lecture theatre and everyone could get a seat.

He took religion very seriously and had many interesting things to say about its relationship with science, even if I did not agree with many of them. A debate he took part in at the London School of Economics still sticks in the mind of my wife whom I had dragged along. Reflecting on the same debate, when I had one of my all-too-few chats with him in the department, Professor Lipton delivered an important dictum of his own subject of logical inference: "Just because Peter Atkins thinks a statement is nonsense is no evidence that it is." Although an atheist, Professor Lipton took his family to synagogue on Saturdays and was fully engaged with his religious culture. He represented the honest doubter whom we can all hope has a place in heaven.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Sue Blackmore Flogging a Dead Horse

Every now and again, you come across an idea that you thought must have died. But lost causes seem to walk the earth in a state of undeath long after they should have been buried at a crossroads with a stake through their hearts. Memes are one such idea. Susan Blackmore is actually still arguing that religion is a bad meme or a mind virus. Honestly, I'm not joking. It's all here. Dawkins's old insult rises again.

No, I'm not going to bother refute this nonsense. But if anyone suggests to you that God is a meme, I suggest you point out to them that we have plenty of evidence that God exists and none for memes at all.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Interruptions to Service

It has been a while since I last managed to post anything here. I've got a moment now waiting for our week-old baby to wake up and demand a feed. My wife has already departed for bed so I am alone waiting for young sir to call for his cup. I also started a new job last week which means I will have less time going forward as well. I will try to compose something over each weekend and post about this time on Sunday, but cannot promise anything for the moment.

Thank you for everyone who has signed up as interested in God's Philosophers. The list is ticking over nicely at the moment. Also, my PhD has been awarded a pass subject to one of the examiners signing off on some corrections. Not too long now, I hope, before I really am a Dr.

Anyway, thank you for your patience. Do please check back from time to time to see if I've managed to post anything. Or add this blog to your readers. I am still reading and will have thinks to say about books as I finish them.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Nature and Nurture Reprised

I have taken some flack for allegedly being a genetic determinist. Regular reader Jack Perry has written a post on his blog, Cantanima, about his son. Jack was wondering if, as a parent, he can do anything about the way his eleven-year-old has decided not to believe in God. Was this, he wonders, all determined by genes?

Let me first lay down what the science appears to tell us. Many human traits have a heritability of roughly 50%. This includes personality, religious proclivity and political allegiance. Fifty percent means half – so about half of who you are is genetic. We know this because identical twins have identical genes and we can test them to find out how different they are from each other. We find they share about half their characteristics (actually, it is more complicated than that but works out to about 50% overall). Non-identical twins have about a 25% correlation to each other, as do siblings who are not twins and children to their parents. This is because we take half our genes from each of our parents. If you share half your genes with someone then you will have a quarter of your heritable traits in common with them.

I think most of us can live with our genes having a half share in ourselves. St Augustine identified this long ago and called the propensity we get from our genes to behave other than we would like ‘original sin’. He also realised it was inherited from our parents. Clever guy, St Augustine.

The shocking fact is not that we are half made from our genetic natures. It is rather than we can find no room for nurture. If genes are half the story, we naturally assume that the other half must be our upbringing and environment. The trouble is, we have no evidence for this at all.

Over the years, scientists have conducted loads of twin studies. They take identical twins who have been separated at birth. As adults, these twins have exactly the same amount in common with each other as when both twins have been brought up by their birth parents. In other studies, it has been found that an adopted child has nothing in common with their adopted parents but the usual 25% correlation to their birth parents, even if they have never met them. This seems to mean that parenting does not have an effect on the traits contributed to by our genes. And, if parenting has no effect, it is hard to believe other environmental factors do either. For instance, in Freakonomics we learn about work in the Chicago schools system, where places are allocated at random, shows no correlation between pupils’ performance and the school they go to, once schools reach certain minimum standards.

That leaves the 50% of ourselves, for which our genes do not appear to have responsibility, unexplained. Personally, I am quite pleased that we are left with this gap. If scientists had said we are half determined by our genes and half by our environment then there would be no room left for self determination. I would suggest that the other half is who we want to be. We do have the freedom to decide. As even Richard Dawkins admits on the last page of The Selfish Gene, we can defy our DNA. Jack may not be able to make his son more likely to return to God. Instead, it is the boy himself who will decide where he wants to go and what he wants to believe in. Again, the theologians of old were right and science has just caught up.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Asking a Favour

I hope regular readers will forgive me for once again asking, please could anyone who follows my writing sign up their email at my book's website where I am trying to gather enough people to interest publishers in my book on medieval science. Registering here creates no obligation on your part. The list will only be used to try to convince publishers that there is a market for my work. You will not be sent any emails apart from one confirming your registration and another when the book is published.

Getting published in non-fiction is almost impossible unless you are already either a journalist, a publisher, a celebrity or a senior academic. The quality of the book has almost nothing to do with it. Almost all popular history is written by journalists and the genre suffers seriously as a result. So, by signing up on my list you will also be helping to strike a blow for history to be written by historians rather than amateurs with the right friends.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Digging for Manuscripts

There is an interesting article in the Times about the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum. Most readers will know that this is a building, first excavated in the eighteenth century, which gave up an entire ancient library of some 3,000 scrolls. Using modern technology, we can read them (they were badly damaged in the eruption of Vesuvius that buried the villa). In general, the contents of the scrolls have been a big disappointment for amateur classicists as they mainly contain deservedly forgotten works of philosophy and poetry. Some good stuff has turned up, but precious little.

I find all this darkly amusing. People imagine the ancient world's literature must have been amazing and the fact we have lost so much a complete tragedy. Well, it is a pity. But the fact is that the stuff that was preserved are, in the main, the best bits. Their survival is precisely because they were valued more highly and more likely to be copied. True, quite a lot of dross survived too. In general, though, the discoveries from papyri have either confirmed what we already know, or shown that we have missed less than we thought. I've blogged previously about Menander and how his rediscovery in the sands of Egypt was a serious let down. We have since learnt to appreciate his shallow little comedies for what they are, rather than what we hoped they would be.

The Times article speculates about what manuscript treasures might still lurk in the villa of papyri. Digging there will shortly resume although there is no guarantee that there is another library to be found. All classicists have a wish list of what texts they'd like to recover. For me it is largely history rather than science or literature. Top of my list, though, would be Luke/Acts. Given the villa was destroyed in 79AD, the discovery of a Gospel would finally put paid to the arguments that these documents are too late to be reliable.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Professor Watson in Trouble

I have never had much time for James Watson or Francis Crick. They seemed to me to combine overbearing arrogance with over achievement. The treatment of Rosalind Franklin and the way she was airbrushed out of history still causes my hackles to rise, even though the picture has now been largely corrected. Both Watson and Crick were also neo-atheists before the event. Watson is quoted in The God Delusion, IIRC, as finding theists so embarrassing that he has no idea what to say to them.

So the I allowed myself half a smile at how he has come a cropper with some inflammatory remarks about race and IQ. Any one who bases conclusions about general intelligence on the outcome of IQ tests is being extremely foolish. Richard Dawkins himself has been uncharacteristically silent over Watson's defenestration, but his familar Sue Blackmore did try to defend him up to a point.

The most interesting article is in today's Guardian because it sheds some historical light on the whole matter. Johnjoe McFadden looks at the history of the eugenics movement. The supporters of eugenics are a role call of prewar 'freethinkers': George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Marie Stopes and Virgina Woolf. What the article does not tell us is that both Catholic and Protestant Churches fought hard and ultimately successfully for the human rights of the handicapped, disadvantaged and mentally ill. However, the death blow to eugenics was the Nazis actually doing what English progressives only talked about. Only by changing sides have freethinkers been able to get onto the right side of this argument and start to champion universal human rights themselves. Watson, perhaps, never realised that the world has moved on.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Why do Religious People give more to Charity?

An increasing body of research is showing that, on average, religious people are happier, healthier and more generous, at least in the United States.

This has been a bitter pill for some non-believers to swallow, but before we draw too much from these results, we have to ask a vital question: what is causing what? Readers will recall my praise of Jonathan Haidt’s article on which touched on these questions. Aside from Sam Harris’s rant, this drew some more measured criticism. A correspondent pointed out Mark D. Hauser’s response which suggests that religion need not be a cause of the way religious people behave. Granted that religious people give more to charity, as Haidt pointed out, how do we know that religion is the cause of this generosity? Perhaps the sort of people attracted to religion are simply more likely to give to charity any way. Perhaps religious people are happier not because of their beliefs but because they lack the atheist’s clear-eyed pessimism.

Of course, we have been here before. We used to imagine that children grew up like their parents because of the way their parents raised them. Science poured cold water on this idea and has shown than nurture is irrelevant – it’s the parents’ genes that count. We also know that a predisposition towards religious belief or the lack of it is heritable. So, if the genes that give someone proclivity to believe in God also give them a tendency towards looser purse strings, we could not say that religion itself makes people generous. This might sound like a long shot, but we cannot dismiss the possibility without subjecting it to rigorous testing. We need to find out if religious people whose parents were non-believers have pockets as deep as those who were born to religious parents. Likewise, atheists with godly ancestors should be tested against those from a line of sceptics. If religion itself is a cause of generosity, health or happiness, the atheists should score the same, regardless of who their parents were. Likewise, with religious people from different backgrounds. As we already know that upbringing makes no difference to these traits and genes were ruled out by the experiment, we could be confident that religion itself was the deciding factor. In that case, non-believers would have to accept that religion has real benefits.

Of course, none of this has much impact on the question of whether or not a religion is true. Neo-atheists, like the right-wing Thatcherites as they dismantled Britain’s uncompetitive industrial sector, may have to tell themselves, “We may not be very nice, but at least we are right.”

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Pity the Rabbits

I like rabbits. Not as pets, where they are a waste of perfectly good carrots. Instead, I like to see them hopping around misty fields first thing in the morning and making the countryside seem full of life. I am also extremely fond of casseroling them although for eating it is better to search out a French farmed rabbit instead of the English wild ones that the local farmers practically give away.

Late last week, I had to catch a train into London, but the car park at the station was full, as usual. No problem for me as I knew a little country lane where I could leave my car for free. After my business in town, I walked back down the little lane towards my car and saw a rabbit ahead. Strangely, it ignored me. When I got really close, it hopped forlornly around my feet without making any effort to get away. This was clearly a very unhappy bunny.

Next day, the set up was the same and with my car parked in the lane, I was walking back up towards the station. There was my rabbit again, but this time it was a great deal thinner. Standing in the middle of the road had led to its inevitable meeting with a car (mine, for all I know). I've seen plenty of squashed animals but this one was quite disturbing. Its eye, which I hadn't seen from above the night before, was swollen up and completely closed by a pink callous. Death by tyre had been merciful.

It was not until later that I learnt the terrible truth about my rabbit. The excellent Rod Liddle, one of my favourite journalists, had had a similar encounter and he knew what it meant. Myxomatosis is back. It arrived in the 1950s when it wiped out most of the English rabbit population, not to mention many of the animals that feed on rabbits and can't get hold of the French farmed ones. Liddle has set out the horrible details of this disease in his article so I won't repeat them here. The resurgence of myxomatosis is evolution in action. The few rabbits that survived the 1950s outbreak had a high degree of immunity. The virus survived but only gave them a bad dose of flu rather than a lingering death. But the genome of the virus has been clicking away like a rubic cube looking for the combination that will get it past the rabbit's immunity. Rabbits may breed like rabbits, but they have nothing on a virus. It was only a matter of time.

Now, they are dying. My wife has noticed it even if the news media has not. No one knows how bad it will get but it is likely that the misty mornings will be still next summer. And if you see a rabbit transfixed in your headlights, running it over is probably the kindest thing you could do.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Religion and Politics

With the prospect of a general election in the UK looking ever more likely, I thought I'd have a look at the religious beliefs of Gordon Brown (the Labour prime minister) and David Cameron (the opposition Conservative leader).

Former prime minister Tony Blair, of course, was a devout Christian in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. His wife is Catholic and Blair's conversion has been long anticipated (although equally long-delayed). However, he was careful to keep religion out of the political sphere. I saw him refer to it just once, years ago when he was still relatively unknown. On a TV show he explained his opposition to the death penalty in terms of his Christian faith.

Gordon Brown is, if anything, even more devout than Blair. His father was a Church of Scotland minister and his ethos is strongly Puritan. Today's European social democratic parties owe much of their philosophy to nineteenth-century Methodists and non-conformist Protestants. Brown's Christianity is very much in that tradition. He is teetotal, echoing the temperance campaigns of the early twentieth century, and very serious in demeanour. However, even more than Brown, he keeps his religion under wraps. No one really knows where he stands on abortion and gay rights, although he has abstained from all anti-gay discrimination measures put before the UK Parliament in the last decade. All this has made him a cipher for the secular left, like Johann Hari, who desperately hope his Christianity won't make an appearance. Given the tradition that Brown comes from, their fears are probably groundless.

David Cameron also claims to be religious. He told the BBC, "I believe in God and I try to get to church more than Christmas and Easter, but perhaps not as often as I should, but I don't feel I have a direct line." In this sense, his views are very much along the lines of most of the British who have a very relaxed view about religion, but on balance do believe in something. Again, commentators like Michael Portillo are hoping that any religious views he does have remain on the back-burner. In Cameron's case, I can't see him ever mentioning God on the stump. His beliefs are both fuzzy and unfocused without any philosophical depth.

Thus, if we do have a general election, both major parties have leaders with broadly Christian credentials. Although, Brown's are much stronger, I doubt a Conservative government would give any comfort to the neo-atheist tendency, nor cause them much concern.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

More from Michael F. Flynn

As well as his fictional account of John Buridan's activities in fourteenth century Paris (reviewed on Friday), Flynn also included a non-fiction piece in the same issue of Analog. Rather than simply write an article lauding the achievements of medieval science, Flynn arranged his material into the same form as the Questiones found in the Summa of Thomas Aquinas and many other authors besides. However, instead of asking "Whether God is able to move the world with rectilinear motion", Flynn's questions are along the lines of "Whether the Middle Ages were an Age of Reason" or "Whether the scientific revolution could have occurred without the work of the late medieval natural philosophers."

In answering these questions and the related objections, Flynn marshals and impressive amount of knowledge and many quotations from today's historians of science. Overall, I think he defends medieval science very effectively although I would not agree with all his conclusions, most obviously on whether we can fairly say that there was a scientific revolution at all.

Still, the most valuable lesson I learnt from Flynn's attempt at the Questiones format is why reading medieval natural philosophy is such a strain. Certainly, the form allows a lot of information to be packaged neatly and compactly. But the result is incredibly dry. Even a writer of Flynn's skill is unable to make his questions any more palatable than a set of lecture notes. Medieval Questiones are like those business textbooks with numbered paragraphs. No one reads them for fun. I am not sure how many of Analog's readers will struggle through to the end. Those that do will make it because of the fascinating material rather than the Questiones themselves. As a piece of writing, the story of the fictional antics of young Oresme is far more effective.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Last Witch to be Executed

At the start of my article about the end of the witch trials, I state that the last execution took place in 1782 in Glarus, Switzerland. This fact appears in almost everything ever written about the trials but I previously knew nothing specific about the event. The other day, the BBC aired a programme on Radio 4 about this final executed 'witch' (with an accompanying article here). She was called Anna Goeldi and her story is one of jealousy and class-politics rather than witchcraft. Her confession, extracted under torture, was a succession of cliches which should have convinced no one. But influential people wanted her dead. Today, there is a campaign for her to be officially acquitted or pardoned, which the authorities are resisting, as authorities do. I think this is a mistake. Not long ago, after decades of prevarication, the British Government issued a blanket pardon for all the deserters executed during the First World War. This was a humane act and I don't see why the authorities in Glarus feel it is worth defending a conviction for witchcraft.

A few posts ago, I asked why there are no right-wing conspiracies. I was put in my place by the comments, but it has also occurred to me that the witch craze, originating in learned books by theologians, was the ultimate conservative conspiracy and one of the most damaging.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Friday, September 21, 2007

De Revolutione scientarum in 'media tempestas' by Michael F. Flynn

Michael Flynn's novella (the title of which means, Concerning the Scientific Revolution of the Middle Ages) appeared in the July/August edition of the magazine Analog Science Fiction and Fact. By the kind auspices of the author, I've been able to read it and can only say it has been a long time since I enjoyed anything more.

Flynn is a noted science fiction author and shares my passion for the Middle Ages. His story is set in Paris during the late 1430s where John Buridan is the rector of the university. He has two precocious students - Nicole Oresme and Albert of Saxony. Of these seminal figures, historians know very little beyond the basic events of their lives and their highly technical works. Flynn fills in the details of their appearances and personalities, taking his lead from the fact that the three came from Picardy, Normany and Germany respectively. One day, William of Heytesbury, an Englishman and one of the Merton Calculators, comes to visit and the four of them decide to carry out Galileo's experiments on falling weights.

Two things made this a story come alive for me. The first is Flynn's skill as a writer. He uses the present tense throughout to convey a sense of immediacy and mines the humour inherent in the relationship between Buridan's two students. To some extent, any decent author could have done this, but Flynn's other achievement is nearly miraculous - he manages to transport the scientific revolution to the fourteenth century with almost no sense of anachronism. He can do this because he knows the minds of his protagonists and understands medieval natural philosophy. The anachronisms that remain are entirely deliberate and fashioned into a series of in-jokes. In comparison, I found The Name of the Rose deeply unsatisfying because Umberto Eco had no comprehension of medieval life and his main character was simply a cipher for the twentieth century vision of the Middle Ages. Flynn knows his stuff and so his own rewriting of history is far more convincing.

Thus, his novella is probably the best entry point to medieval natural philosophy I have read. It is also enormous fun and heartily recommended.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford

Tim Harford, a columnist for the Financial Times, would make a very good economics professor. His book, The Undercover Economist, is essentially a textbook intended to explain various fundamental concepts of the dismal science. But the combination of a lively style and lots of examples from every day life make this one of the best introductions to an academic subject that I've read. In fact, I imagine that many readers will have no idea that they have been introduced to an academic subject, so light is Harford's touch.

He explains why supermarkets make their budget ranges look grottier than they really are. They don't want rich people to buy them. Instead, wealthy customers are steered towards organic, free-range and fair trade products. We learn why free trade is always a good thing and also why most people find the concept so hard to grasp. Harford makes a powerful case for road pricing so that car users pay for the damage they do with each additional mile they drive at rush hour. His 'told-you-so' attitude to the boom is faintly nauseating because he gives little indication he did tell us before it fell apart. But overall, this is one of the books I'd make people read before giving them a licence to vote.

What struck me most about the book, though, was that it takes the triumph of free-market economics completed for granted. There is some stuff in defence of globalisation, but otherwise Harford makes no effort to debunk socialism or even Keynesian demand management. The latter was still part of the accountancy exam syllabus when I sat it in 1994. No more, I expect. For all the sound and fury from Naomi Klein and her ilk, the market really does seem to have swept all before it.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Monday, September 17, 2007

What's In a Name?

Yesterday, I came across a new word on the Guardian's comment is free web page. "Troofer", as in "the troof is out there," is apparently a derogatory term for a conspiracy theorist. As conspiracy theorists are, in my opinion, fairly low down in the intellectual food chain, I thought this word might be worth adopting. I'd still like a good term for the troofers who claim that Jesus never existed, although it seems Jesus Myther is going to stick.

The disciples of Richard Dawkins are another group in need of a name. What should we call the Dawkinistas if not Dawkinistas (which doesn't seem to have caught on)? Neither new atheists nor neo-atheists really do it for me, although that is what they tend to call themselves. Would the simple term Dawks be considered too rude? It's better than Brights anyway.

Looking at the biggest conspiracy theories out there - 9/11, Diana, Holy Blood, Kennedy, Shakespeare - I am struck that they all seem to be promulgated by the left. Why don't conservatives have any conspiracy theories? It seems most unfair. Apart from the belief that the media are a bunch of lily-livered liberals, conservatives just don't have a decent paranoid delusion to their names. Are they just too sensible to believe in them? Or maybe believing in conspiracy theories is all part of being anti-establishment.

On other matters, I've rejigged the blog to allow various feeds and networking options. It looks a bit ugly at the moment, I'm afraid. I tried the new blogger templates but that just made my blog look the same as everyone else's. Also, regular reader Bjorn-Are has started an English-language blog called B.A.D. Blog. He always has something interesting to say. I want to compile a blog roll of my own, so if you have a blog and especially if you link here, let me know in the comments.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Harris on Haidt

Sam Harris has responded to Jonathan Haidt’s article on Harris must be the neo-atheist one-man rapid-reaction force! His reply is instructive for a number of reasons because it perfectly encapsulates the neo-atheist position. As Dawkins calls the article “brilliant as usual,” we can assume it accurately reflects his position as well as Harris’s.

Three points are worth noting as they form the foundation of the neo-atheist critique.

Firstly, although Haidt was talking about American religious people being a bit healthier and giving lots to charity, Harris responds by citing Aztec human sacrifice and Islamic fundamentalism. He seeks to invalidate the point that some religions are a force for good (in this case modern Christianity) on the grounds that the religion of ancient America and some sections of Islam are not. This is the first pillar of the neo-atheist argument. It doesn’t matter if your religion is kind and gentle because some other religions are not or have not been in the past. This is purely guilt by association, which should repel anyone with any liberal sympathies at all.

Harris’s second pillar is that beliefs have consequences. This is undeniably true. However, he takes it as read that a false belief has negative consequences. He cites the individual who thinks that immoral acts will incur the wrath of God. Is this belief a bad thing? We cannot automatically assume that it is. Societies are bound together by shared rules and the fear of God acts as one form of enforcement. It is a particularly important form of enforcement because it remains valid even when no human agency is watching. Harris cites cases where he disagrees with the rules that particular societies have deemed important. His disagreements are largely about sex, which is where his sensibilities conflict most obviously with more traditional values. Haidt’s argument, that the rules and regulations of religion help societies cohere and survive, is completely ignored by Harris. This is despite the fact that sociologists have long recognised that taboos, however, pointless to the outsider, have a valuable role is binding people together.

In Harris’s own words, the third element of the neo-atheist critique “is that religion remains the only mode of discourse that encourages grown men and women to pretend to know things they manifestly do not (and cannot) know. If ever there were an attitude at odds with science, this is it.” Thus, science is the only legitimate way to gain knowledge and belief and the attitude of religious people is invalid because it is at odds with science. The sheer bulk of the philosophical critiques of this argument, once known as logical positivism, is so immense that it is a miracle that any educated person can still hold it.

Harris makes hardly a dent in Haidt’s argument, but he does us all a favour by being so explicit about the pillars of neo-atheism.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Morality and Religion

A correspondent has kindly sent me a very interesting paper by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. It is hosted by the website which has grown from being a club for Dawkinistas to a very interesting forum for ideas on the cutting edge of science. Haidt's article is an extremely sophisticated but devastating attack on Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and co. Of course, as Haidt is hosted by, he is an atheist and secular liberal. But he has to admit that conservative religious people have substantial advantages over secularists. They are happier, healthier, more generous and more altruistic. Haidt admits "You can't use the new atheists as your guide to these lessons. The new atheists conduct biased reviews of the literature and conclude that there is no good evidence on any benefits except the health benefits of religion." Given neo-atheists claim to be wedded to evidence and reason, to prove that they are twisting the facts is a damning indictment indeed.

Haidt continues:
Here is Daniel Dennett in Breaking the Spell on whether religion brings out the best in people:
"Perhaps a survey would show that as a group atheists and agnostics are more respectful of the law, more sensitive to the needs of others, or more ethical than religious people. Certainly no reliable survey has yet been done that shows otherwise. It might be that the best that can be said for religion is that it helps some people achieve the level of citizenship and morality typically found in brights. If you find that conjecture offensive, you need to adjust your perspective. (Breaking the Spell, p. 55.)
I have italicized the two sections that show ordinary moral thinking rather than scientific thinking. The first is Dennett's claim not just that there is no evidence, but that there is certainly no evidence, when in fact surveys have shown for decades that religious practice is a strong predictor of charitable giving. Arthur Brooks recently analyzed these data (in Who Really Cares) and concluded that the enormous generosity of religious believers is not just recycled to religious charities.

Religious believers give more money than secular folk to secular charities, and to their neighbors. They give more of their time, too, and of their blood. Even if you excuse secular liberals from charity because they vote for government welfare programs, it is awfully hard to explain why secular liberals give so little blood. The bottom line, Brooks concludes, is that all forms of giving go together, and all are greatly increased by religious participation and slightly increased by conservative ideology (after controlling for religiosity).

These data are complex and perhaps they can be spun the other way, but at the moment it appears that Dennett is wrong in his reading of the literature. Atheists may have many other virtues, but on one of the least controversial and most objective measures of moral behavior—giving time, money, and blood to help strangers in need—religious people appear to be morally superior to secular folk.
This ties in well to what I've previously conjectured about how religion is an adaptation that probably must be good for us. The neo-atheist starting point, that religion is bad, undermines their own commitment to respecting the evidence.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

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

Monday, September 10, 2007

Top Tens and Other Matters

Three things today.

1) I've enabled comments on this blog. Commenting is regarded as a basic human right among blog readers so I have relented and will encourage them here. I was worried about having to moderate, but realised that my readers would not require moderation as they are such a civil group of people. So feel free to argue, explicate and debate.

2) What is the world coming to? A correspondent pointed out this story about an anti-Shakespeare pressure group trying to publicise the lunatic idea that he didn't write the plays. Fine actors like Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance are making themselves look like complete plonkers. Worse, it seems that Brunel University is launching an MA course on Shakespeare Authorship studies.

3) I've been posting a top ten list of "things you never knew about science and religion" to some discussion boards to gauge debate and publicise my book. Another correspondent has been working on this idea in the past. Here's my list:

1) In the Middle Ages, Christian universities laid down the foundations of modern science and took the subject of rational logic to heights not reached until the nineteenth century.

2) The Jesuits published over 6,000 scientific papers and texts between 1600 and 1773 including a third of those on electricity. They were by far the largest scientific organisation in the world.

3) Copernicus’s book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, was never banned by the church. Instead, the pope’s censors compiled a short insert with ten corrections intended to make clear heliocentricism was an unproven hypothesis. At the time, this is what it was.

4) During the Middle Ages, hardly anyone thought the Earth was flat. The question never arose with Christopher Columbus.

5) No one has ever been burnt at the stake for scientific ideas. The only great scientist to have been executed was the chemist Antione Lavoisier. ‘Freethinking’ anti-clerical French revolutionaries guillotined him in 1794, although for political reasons.

6) Calvin never said “Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit.

7) Even by the standards of their time, Sir Isaac Newton, Johann Kepler and Michael Faraday were devoutly religious. During the Enlightenment, when scepticism about religion became acceptable, scientists almost always remained committed Christians.

8) Christians did not try and destroy pagan Greek scientific ideas. Instead, they laboriously hand copied millions of words of Greek science and medicine thus ensuring they were preserved.

9) The church never tried to ban zero, lightning conductors or human dissection.

10) The concept of a good creator god who laid down the laws of nature at the beginning of time was an essential metaphysical foundation for modern science.

Let me know if you think anything is needed to finesse the list, add or subtract or otherwise amend. In fact, I suppose that's what the comments function is for.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Yet more Dawkinalia

The excellent Ship of Fools web site has a Dawkinometer that measures the amount of self promotion of Dawkins himself on the web site of his foundation. There is no doubt that the man can pop up in the strangest places. He is mentioned in the June issue of Accountancy magazine, of all places. This week’s TLS asks him to review Christopher Hitchin’s rant God is not Great. The review starts “There is much fluttering in the dovecots of the deluded,” and continues in a similar vein.

Last weekend, we were treated to an excerpt in the Sunday Times from John Humphreys’ new book, In God we Doubt. Humphreys is a grumpy newsreader on Radio 4, who, like many people who have been in the media for a very long time, has been transformed into a sage without anyone really knowing why. The Sunday Times excerpt from his book is interesting because of what it tells us about the trajectory of Humphreys’ spiritual development. He started off as an agnostic looking for answers, so talked to lots of religious people. As he was drawn towards the kind of media-friendly wishy-washy religious types who have little of substance to say, he ended up as an atheist. Then he read Dawkins and a few other ranters. This steered him promptly back to agnosticism, largely because he couldn’t bear to be associated with the intolerance of the neo-atheists.

In the wishy-washy media-friendly religious corner, there have been signs of doubt as well. John Cornwell has taken time off bashing John Paul II (The Pope in Winter) and weaving fantasies about Pius XII (Hitler’s Pope) to have a go at Dawkins. His new book, Darwin's Angel, is doing the PR rounds as a I write. Cornwell is a liberal Catholic who seems to have finally realised that the threat to his beliefs comes not from his more conservative co-religionists, but people who find the whole idea of religion absurd. His article in the Guardian last week is nothing new, but it is nice to see even liberals finally realising on which side their bread is buttered. Placing his criticisms of neo-atheism in the mouth of an angel is a neat conceit but it can't support an entire book. It made a better article when he did it in the Sunday Times when he pretended to be God).

When the dust has finally settled in a couple of years time, I wonder how the landscape will have changed. Contrary to many people's opinion, who think it has all been a storm in a teacup, I think that the Dawkins Wars will leave some changes in their wake. Those who thought that they were ‘tolerant’ atheists have found it better to describe themselves as agnostics so as to avoid association with the nastiness of the neo-atheists. Dawkinistas have received a shot in the arm and probably found they are more numerous than they thought they were. Liberal religious people have found that they have more in common with conservative religious people than they had hoped. But, the great British public appear to be largely unmoved and rapidly getting bored. As for Richard and Lalla, they can look forward to an even more comfortable retirement than they had originally planned.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

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

Friday, August 31, 2007

All Conspiracy Theories are Alike

I’ve already compared the Jesus Myth conspiracy theory to the daft idea that Shakespeare’s plays were written by some else. Oliver Kamm, in a recent post on his blog, compares the Shakespeare conspiracy to the 9/11 CIA-Israeli theories. I was amused to find Kamm is an aficionado of the anti-Stratfordians in that he seems to have bothered to read their books and devoted some effort to refuting them. He has a couple of good book suggestions if anyone else is interested in investing serious time on this very boring field. For the rest of us, Bill Bryson’s new book is on Shakespeare and his section on the anti-Stratfordians has been included in the Sunday Times serialisation. I’ve previously been rather rude about Bryson’s A Brief History of Nearly Everything, a book he was utterly unqualified to write and which fact he thought was a virtue. I won’t be reading his Shakespeare but I am sure it will sell like hotcakes.

Incidently, Kamm also identified a sure-fire way to spot a conspiracy theorist the moment they open their mouths. If they say “I’m not a conspiracy theorist but...” you can be absolutely that is exactly what they are. Jesus Mythers are equally determined to shake off the tag. I got a very angry email from one this morning accusing me of not taking them seriously enough. On the contrary, by spending much time on the subject I think I've taken it far too seriously already.

Part of my distain for the anti-Stratfordians is that I am a bit of a Bardolater myself. My wife and I have tickets to see Ian McKellen’s King Lear in December and I can’t wait. I saw it when I was at university at the National Theatre as a consequence of my sister having to study it for A Level. I’ve still not recovered. That production, directed by Deborah Warner, had Brian Cox in the title role while McKellen played Kent. Some bad pictures are on-line here.

Unlike some Shakespeare fans, I almost never read the plays. I have a Collected Works or two kicking around for reference purposes but the point of a play is to see it on the stage (or perhaps on screen). In England, we have the Royal Shakespeare Company which receives a large government subsidy and puts on lots of the plays at very reasonable rates. They also repay us by acting as a nursery for almost all our native acting talent. It never ceases to amaze me how many Hollywood stars began by treading the boards at Stratford and how many continue to do so even when their riches and fame mean they can do whatever they like.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

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

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

How Dark were the Dark Ages?

So just how dark were the Early Middle Ages (c. 400AD – c. AD1000)? There are two schools of thought found in the academy roughly corresponding to whether the historian in question is a medievalist or classicist.

Most historians of the Early Middle Ages, typified by Roger Collins, take the view that they were not dark at all. They cite the wonderful objects found at Sutton Hoo, the mosaics of Ravenna’s churches, the Cathedral at Aachen, the numerous law codes, the spread of literacy and the formation of the people who would one day become Europe’s nation states. They can also point to the apogee of Byzantine civilisation under Basil II in the ninth century; the fact that it was a Frankish warlord, Charles Martel, who finally stopped the Muslim advance; and the rapid assimilation of new technology such as the heavy plough, stirrup, horse collar, horse shoe and mill.

Classical historians, like Bryan Ward-Perkins, tend to claim that the Early Middle Ages were dark, at least compared to the Roman Empire. They cite the collapse of central control in the west under the barbarian onslaught, the decline of literacy and loss of Greek, the reduction of trade, sharp falls in population density and the sheer amount of senseless destruction by the various tribes that fell on the Empire. The Vandals did not give their name for nothing.

Neither side follows Gibbon and blames Christianity for the ‘Dark Ages’. Indeed, Christianity is seen as the most important framework within which late-antique culture survived. It was also an essential factor in the spread of that culture into north-eastern Europe where the Romans had never taken it.

Both sides have part of the truth. The Roman Empire did fall in the West and this did lead to a serious reduction of material and intellectual culture. But the Empire had to fall for modern Europe to rise. Roman society was sclerotic, despotic and highly conservative. Innovation was rarely taken up. Much of the technology that revolutionised European agriculture in the fifth to thirteenth centuries was available to the Romans but they hardly used it. They had no desire to expand their borders and bring civilisation to the Germans and Scandinavians. Much of the pressure on the imperial borders was due to tribes wanting to join the Empire.

So the early Middle Ages started off dark with the great plagues, barbarian incursions and loss of elite culture. But they then took off at a far faster rate than the Romans had managed for centuries. You could call the Fall of the Roman Empire an episode in creative destruction.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

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

Monday, August 27, 2007

Bad Medicine and Bad History

In the excellent satire on the traditional teaching of history, 1066 and All That, kings are mercilessly divided up into the good and the bad, while historical events are either a good thing or a bad thing. Among other targets, Sellar and Yeatman were aiming at whiggish history where everything that had happened was judged by how much it had advanced us towards the present. It was called whiggish history because the Whigs were the closest that nineteenth-century England had had to a progressive political party. The greatest exponent of this kind of history was Lord Macaulay who strongly supported the Whigs.

We get a very similar picture from most popular history of science, where individuals from the past are marked against a 2007 exam script. Those who get high marks are the ones who anticipated the modern science the most clearly. The flaws in this way of doing history hardly need restating. Simply totting up how closely the past reflects the present does not help us understand why things happened. But we must be careful not to swing too far the other way. Like it or not, the present is the best time in history for anyone to be alive. This is not just the case in the rich West. The poor of the third world now have far higher life expectancy and better health than ever before. They also have the best chance in history of being lifted out of poverty. Developments that got us to where we are today are surely good things.

Health is a case in point. History of medicine is largely a blind alley until the mid-nineteenth century. There is a lot of medicine happening, but not much is doing any good. The reason that homeopathy, which attracted the wrath of Dawkins last week, is so well entrenched in the UK is because when it was founded, it was considerably less dangerous than the conventional alternatives. By being less likely to kill you, it gave the illusion of being better at curing you.

David Wootton’s latest book Bad Medicine documents the appalling failures of doctors through most of history and throws into sharp relief just how far we have progressed in the last century and a half. And it was progress. Needless to say, historians like Steven Shapin were not happy about Wootton’s thesis at all. In God’s Philosophers, my own history of medieval science, I am firmly in the Wootton camp. While I am full of admiration for the achievements of the Middle Ages, I have no illusions that life in those days was very tough and no sane person would want to live then rather than now. It is precisely because they did so much to help us reach our present condition that we owe them a debt of gratitude. However, we must also understand their achievements in their own terms and not judge people for failing to conform to our ideas. The balancing act of the historian is often a very difficult one.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

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

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Dark Night of the Soul

The news that Mother Teresa was afflicted by doubt and felt cut off from God throughout her ministry shows that she was in the same boat as the rest of us. The reaction of atheists to the news has been confused, largely because it destroys one of the central planks of their belief system. They constantly tell us that faith is something that allows no room for doubt while their worthy scepticism makes a virtue of it. So, to find that one of their hate-figures felt bereft that the mystical and life-changing experience of her youth never returned later in life, was a bit of a shock. Some are claiming that Mother Teresa was really an atheist herself, others that her doubts mean that she was a hypocrite.

In reality, we believers always go through periods of doubt when we are desperate for certainty. Moments of crystal clarity are all too rare. But even at those darkest times, I am still a million miles from being an atheist. I couldn’t be one even if I wanted to. In part, it is simply revulsion from the meaninglessness of atheistic existence. Blaise Pascal’s terror of the empty spaces can feel all to real for me. Partly, it’s because when I’m actually reading stuff by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and their ilk I don’t feel remotely convinced about what they have to say. If the best rational arguments for atheism seem hollow, their claims to be on the side of reason cut no ice. So it is plain that my doubts, when they afflict me, are just as subjective and emotional as the experience of God that he has occasionally blessed me with.

Apologies for the lack of a blog post on Wednesday. There is a bit too much on my plate at the moment but this has meant I’ve not been as productive as I’d like. This also means the article on 529AD is not ready yet. Among other things I need to visit the library and check some sources to make sure they say what they are supposed to. From experience, this is by no means guaranteed.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

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

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Enemies of Reason

Richard Dawkin’s two-parter, The Enemies of Reason, concluded on Channel Four tonight. It was an all-out attack on superstition, dowsers, astrologers, spiritualists and alternative medicine. I should say I hold no brief for anything of that ilk. Most New Age types are actively hostile towards organised religion anyway, preferring their own brands of disorganised religion and preaching the sort of tolerance that is usually intolerant of anything they don’t like. As far as I’m concerned it’s all hokum, but I remember a slightly excitable parish priest I once heard who announced in a sermon that reading your stars in the paper was a high road to hell.

Dawkins is pretty much of one mind with that priest. He is convinced that superstition is not just mad, but actively bad. Quite why was never made clear in his series. All the healers, spiritualists and the rest who appeared on his show were the most harmless little puppies ever to be mugged on screen by a rottweiler. I just couldn’t see what Dawkins was so upset about. It’s not as if the people reading their stars are actively undermining academic astronomy and spiritualists are only in competition with mainstream religion, which Dawkins can’t stand either.

With the second part of the show, on alternative medicine, it looked like he might have a point. It is true that homeopathy gets subsidised by the taxpayer to the tune of a few million a year. I’m not comfortable with this but it is far from the most egregious example of government waste. Most forms of alternative medicine are exclusively in the private sector. People can spend their money as they like. The big problem for Dawkins was actually pointed out on the show by Nicholas Humphrey, who is himself as screaming fanatic of atheism. He is the one who first suggested that a religious upbringing was tantamount to child abuse. In this case, Humphrey was on the side of the angels because he had to admit that alternative therapies often have real benefits. This is down to the placebo effect. But placebos can only work their magic if the patient believes in what the practitioner is doing. Debunk alternative medicine and you loose the benefit.
This left Dawkins looking a bit of a prat. He hadn’t shown that alternative medicine did any harm. Homeopathy just uses water and most other practices have little opportunity to do any damage. He had also had to admit that the patients benefited. So his attack looked less like an assault against irrationality and more like a bad case of personal animosity. I suppose his fans will lap it up, but Dawkins is rapidly turning into a caricature of himself. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: the best thing he could do for the causes he believes in is to stick to explicating science or just shut up.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

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

Friday, August 17, 2007

Medieval science and Justinian I

In the last couple of weeks, I had an exchange with Richard Carrier on medieval technology. Sadly, I missed the best links on the Internet about the question. These come from the web site of Paul Gans of New York University and cover the horse collar controversy and the stirrup controversy. Reading them was a bit eerie. You see, Gans sees the great horse collar dispute as primarily a bun fight between classicists (Richard Carrier, in the red corner) and medievalists (me, in the blue corner). Gans himself concludes that the medievalists were mainly right but probably overstated the case when they said that Roman horse harnesses straggled the unfortunate creatures that had to wear them. Trouble is, Gans is a medievalist himself, so of course he decides against the classicists. Do also check out the rest of Gans’s medieval technology web page.

My new website,, intended to try and get my book God’s Philosopher’s: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science has had a good first week. It’s had over a thousand visitors and a hundred people have registered their interest in the book. As it didn’t appear on Google until yesterday and has a very low page rank, I’m quite pleased. Several of my essays from Bede’s Library are linked to Wikipedia so I thought, in my innocence, I could add some links to the essays now on the new site as well. Alas, I was accused of spamming and all the links were taken down. Luckily, most have now been re-instated but it is quite a time consuming process.

Finally, I hope to finish an article on one of the most notorious events in intellectual history – the closure of the Athens academy of Plato in 529AD by the Emperor Justinian. Except, he didn’t really. As we so many of these stories, it’s amazing to find the source for it is so unreliable. It is only attested in the history of Agathias, who was not born until ten years after the purported closure. Furthermore, the alleged decree that Justinian issued is not found in the voluminous records of Roman law dating from his reign. It turns out, Justinian may have shut off public funds for the pagans teaching in Athens (although not in Alexandria, oddly enough), but he never issued a decree closing down the pagan schools. I hope to get an article up in the next few days. Then I should finally sit down and write one on the history of human dissection, about which misinformation still abounds, as a correspondent pointed out to me this week.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

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

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Is the Jesus Myth a Conspiracy Theory?

Ockham’s Razor, a conservative blog in the US, has picked up on an article from New Scientist magazine explaining how to construct your very own conspiracy theory. They apply this to the lunatic fringe-ideas on 9/11, the death of Diana and the assassination of JFK. Obviously, I immediately wanted to know how the Jesus Myth stacked up. Do Jesus Mythers follow standard conspiracy theory behaviour? There’s only one way to find out. Here is the New Scientist low-down on producing a conspiracy, coupled with my comments on the Jesus Myth.

Pick your adversary: A sense of anomie (dislocation from society and authority) fuels beliefs in conspiracy theories, so pick a big bad organisation of some sort - government or big business is ideal.

Well, Jesus Mythers tend to blame everything on the Christian Church which is certainly big and, by their lights, bad.

Choose your event: You’ll need a big, contemporary newsworthy event around which to weave your theory.

No question here – the life and death of Jesus was one of the biggest events in history, even if it took a while for the world to realise.

Develop your story: Construct your theory from carefully selected information that weaves together into a compelling story. If something doesn’t fit, reinterpret it in line with your theory.

This is classic Jesus Myther strategy. The story of how early Christians pulled the wool over the eyes of everyone including, it seems, themselves is certainly compelling. It is crafted from carefully selected and re-interpreted evidence weaved into a narrative that can then be used to explain away the evidence that doesn’t fit.

Create uncertainty: Question existing evidence or find new evidence that contradicts the “official” account.

The huge amount of effort that Jesus Mythers put in to invalidate the historical sources such as Tacitus, Josephus, Paul’s letters and the Gospels fits this perfectly. Their standard tactics are to find tiny inconsistencies and blow them up out of all proportion.

Prepare your defence: If someone highlights a gap or inconsistency in your evidence, don’t be afraid to tweak your story, but keep the core conspiracy in place.

After a lot of work, the pagan parallels argument of the Freke and Gandy has been largely defeated, but the Jesus Mythers simply retreat from that and move on to something else.

Broaden the circle of conspirators: to include those who question your position: “They’re denying the truth - they must be involved too!”

For Mythers, any Christian scholar is an apologist and all Christian sources are ruled out of court. Just for disagreeing with the Jesus Myth, atheist historians have been accused of being closet Christians on the Secular Web’s discussion boards.

So it’s official. According to the New Scientist, the Jesus Myth is a conspiracy theory.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

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

Monday, August 13, 2007

War and Peace and Religion

It’s hardly possible to walk into a bookshop at the moment without being regaled by titles telling you that religion is a bad thing. This is odd because several of the authors are scientists or philosophers who are more than a little familiar with evolutionary theory. It’s obvious that religion is pretty close to being a human universal and that, despite all the confident predictions of rationalists, it is stubbornly refusing to die out.

Richard Dawkins thinks that religion is an undesirable side effect of a useful adaptation, rather like the way that a moth’s lunar navigation system causes it to circle into a candle flame. Lewis Wolpert says it is a by-product of our tendency to assume everything is conscious and has purposes. Daniel Dennett supposes a hostile meme that spreads from brain to brain, reproducing like a virus of the mind. The trouble is, as any competent evolutionist should be able to see, these explanations of religion are inherently unlikely. They assume the exception before testing the rule. Most traits are adaptations that give their bearers some sort of evolutionary edge and religion is unlikely to be any different. Otherwise, if an anti-religious culture appeared, it would quickly dominate its neighbours which are handicapped by irrational faith. In fact, all humanity’s efforts at anti-religious societies have been appalling failures.

So, if we are honest about it, religion is likely to have survived because it does us good. If it looks like faith is a bad thing then we are probably looking at the matter the wrong way. Take the question of whether religion causes war. You have to admit that apologetic attempts to defuse this argument have been pretty pathetic. When Oxford theologian Alister McGrath says that most religious violence is cover for another motivation, usually political or economic, he clearly hasn’t read his history. It is absurd to claim that the medieval crusaders who marched across Europe to do battle with the infidel were not almost entirely motivated by a muscular Christian faith. Likewise, as we are now realising thanks to the searing honesty of ex-jihadis like Ed Hassan, Islamic suicide bombers and their masters are driven by a fanatical believe that their interpretation of Islam is true and demands that they make war on the West.

So yes, obviously religions cause wars. The point everyone misses is that they are even better at promoting peace. We can’t easily see this because of something I call the ‘headline fallacy’. Conflict is newsworthy while peace is a bit tedious. Look at the Middle East. While there’s no doubt that the Arab/Israeli conflict is fuelled by Judaism and Islam, it is more surprising that there are so few wars between Arab states. They are all led by dictators of varying degrees of unpleasantness but somehow they manage to rub along OK. The only exception in recent years was when the avowedly secular Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. When he needed to court Arab support, he promptly found religion and pretended an ostentatious piety. It isn’t outrageous to suggest that Islam, which forbids attacks on the faithful, prevents many more wars in the Middle East than it causes.

Proving why things don’t happen, however, is tricky. But there are enough examples of religion holding people together to make it more than likely that faith is a better promoter of peace than war.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

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

Friday, August 10, 2007

Read the first chapter of my book "God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science"

Regular readers will have been following my efforts to find a publisher for my book God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science. Many publishers and independent readers thought the book was good but they were not convinced that there was a market for medieval science, however accessibly presented. I want to prove them wrong.

So today, I am launching a new website: You can download the introduction and first chapter of God’s Philosophers absolutely free. If you like what you read, then please register your interest in purchasing a copy once it is published. You will not be committing yourself to anything and the resulting mailing list will only be used to send one email to inform you of how you can buy the book when it comes out. I will be using the list to show publishers that a market exists but I promise won’t let them use it for their own marketing.

God’s Philosophers tells the unfamiliar story of how advances in science and mathematics during the Middle Ages led directly to the period usually called “The Scientific Revolution”. It debunks the myth that the medieval era was one when all progress was obscured by the clouds of superstition. On the contrary, reason was lauded and even the Christian church supported the study of logic and philosophy. Along the way, you will read about many exciting characters and stories such as the doomed lovers Abelard and Heloise, the terrible fate of the astrologer Cecco D’Ascoli and the wretched family of Italian polymath Jerome Cardan. The book ends with the tumultuous career of Galileo and shows just how much his work owed to his medieval predecessors.

God’s Philosophers is written in an easy style and does not require any prior knowledge from its readers. Neither does it dumb down. Complicated issues of science and philosophy are handled in straightforward language with examples from everyday life. If you thought you weren’t interested in the intellectual life of the Middle Ages, read the first chapter. You may be surprised!

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

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

In Reply to Richard Carrier

In his response to my defence of Lynn White, Richard Carrier concedes almost all I could ask him to. He is certainly entitled to disagree with White’s ideas on the influence of Christianity. As to whether the classical era was the most inventive in history, I shall await his new book. I shall certainly be purchasing it when it appears. If I did imply that the pike was invented in the fourteenth century, I did not intend to. However, its use as a counter to heavy cavalry does begin at that point. I also think he overstates the effectiveness of a makeshift palisade as seen in Braveheart, but I don’t either of us will be volunteering to test that one to death.

I’ve got three issues that I’d like to follow up. Firstly, at the end of his post, Carrier engages in a little semantic gymnastics but trying to claim the early Renaissance began in 1250. Medieval society always rested firmly on antique foundations but I don’t find the term ‘renaissance’ terribly helpful. Certainly, to redefine those bits of the Middle Ages we like as the early Renaissance while, no doubt, continuing to refer to the nasty bits as medieval, does nothing to advance historical understanding. The names we give to periods must not be allowed to imply value judgements. They are simply labels of convenience. In point of fact, I refuse to use the terms Renaissance, Dark Ages or Enlightenment because the risk of giving these terms more meaning than they deserve is just too great. My PhD thesis, on sixteenth century natural philosophy, did not include the words Renaissance or Scientific Revolution. Neither examiner appears to have noticed the omission which just shows we don’t really need these value-laden terms at all.

My second point is a bit less idiosyncratic. Carrier points out that horseshoes and the heavy plough we not unknown in the late Roman Empire. Nor, in fact, were watermills and some other machines. What is odd is the way that these technologies simply did not seem to catch on until the 7th or 8th centuries. There is no doubt that Roman society was deeply conservative but even that doesn’t explain why they never bothered with watermills and continued to prefer hand querns. Marxists used to claim it was a symptom of a slave-based economy. Other historians think that the big infrastructure projects of the Empire were invariably urban so their was no capital left for rural improvements. I’ve no idea what the answer is, but when Carrier claims the Romans would have used a stirrup if they saw one, he is engaging in wishful thinking. Societies, especially big empires, are often very slow to adopt the technology of what they perceive to be lowlier races.

Finally, Carrier claims that Roman agriculture was as efficient as anything in Europe up to the eighteenth century. Firstly, that means as efficient as anything up to the thirteenth century because there was little improvement in the intervening period. Second, there is evidence that medieval agriculture was more productive than under Rome. For instance, most population estimates reckon that densities in 1300 were roughly double at the height of the Roman Empire. France had a population of about twenty million just before the hundred years war. The province of Gaul supported roughly ten million. We need to treat these guesses with a lot of circumspection, of course. Also, improvements to agriculture probably account for only some of the difference. The amount of land under the plough might have increased and the medieval warm period, which today’s global warming lobby has been trying so hard to deny, also may have had a significant effect in increasing crop yields. Overall, however, medieval agriculture was almost certainly more productive than under the Romans due, as White realised, to horse collars, heavy ploughs, three field rotation and water mills.

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

Monday, August 06, 2007

Carrier, Dawkins and a diabolical Englishman

Richard Carrier has replied to my post on Friday with a forthright defence of the ancient world combined with a bit of retreat from his previous rhetoric. I’ll be saying a bit more on the question on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Richard Dawkins is back. This time he is going after astrology, spiritualism, homeopathy and the new age. His new series, The Enemies of Reason, begins on Channel 4 on 13th August. There is a lengthy interview and preview in the Sunday Times which generally approves of the enterprise. Melanie Phillips in the Daily Bigot (whoops, I mean the Daily Mail) is rather less sympathetic. Personally, I find the phrase ‘breaking a butterfly on the wheel’ comes to mind when I think of setting Darwin’s rottweiler on a bunch of harmless hippies.

Finally, in this rather disconnected blog entry, I’ve recently finished reading Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman by Frances Stonor Saunders (published as The Devil’s Broker Seeking Gold, God, and Glory in Fourteenth-Century Italy in the US). It’s OK. Saunders is a journalist whose previous book was on the CIA’s covert work to influence the arts and culture. Quite why this qualified her to write about late-medieval Italy, I have no idea. But in the weird and wacky world of publishing, having a successful book to your name and journalistic contacts is worth far more than being competent to write the book in question.

Anyway, as I said Hawkwood is OK. Saunders can write clearly and has done a fair bit of leg work in the library. There are occasional patches of the purple prose which is now obligatory in popular history, but just make it look like her editor has asked her to liven things up. The story she has to tell is a good one and it is reasonably well told. The problem is simply that she has not really grasped the material. Although there is a lengthy list of primary sources in the bibliography, most of her quotations come from secondary works. Saunders does not appear to have sat down and read all the contemporary chronicles and sources. She has clearly read the Canterbury Tales and some Dante, which is a start, but there is no sign she has mastered anything that isn’t available in English translation. The result is her narrative is often cursory and disconnected. Stuff happens, wars are lost, cities surrender and Saunders has absolutely no idea why. It maybe no one else does, but there are ways for historians to handle this. Hawkwood should have been a work of narrative history based on the original sources of the kind patented by Runciman, Wolfson, Freeman and Lord Norwich. Sadly, it is a much lesser beast although its little light does shine brighter in the murk of the current popular history market.

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

Friday, August 03, 2007

Stirrups, horse harnesses and Richard Carrier

Apologies for the lack of a post on Wednesday. I had my PhD viva and could hardly lift a finger after two and a half hours of being grilled on sixteenth century natural philosophy and mathematics.

In a recent post on his blog, Richard Carrier has attacked the work of the distinguished American medieval historian Lynn White. Scroll down to the section headed ‘Horse S**t’ in the blog post here. Carrier’s motive is quite clear from his references to the ‘Horse collar of Christ’ and heavy cavalry as a miracle of Jesus. In fact, the relevant book by Lynn White, Medieval Technology and Social Change, makes almost no mention of Christianity. While White was certainly a Christian, he is most famous for a 1967 article blaming our current environmental problems on Christianity, which is hardly the action of an unqualified admirer of the religion. Carrier, of course, is up to his normal anti-Christian bashing that we have come to expect from this luminary of Internet Infidels.

Carrier mentions White's theory about the stirrup. White correctly notes that this made heavy cavalry possible and that European warfare was revolutionised by it. Carrier sneers at this. He points out that the Romans used four horned saddles which worked almost as well as stirrups. What he doesn’t tell us is that these saddles were big, heavy and expensive. There is simply no way that you could equip a large contingent of light cavalry with them and stay within budget. And Carrier admits they were no good for heavy cavalry who really did need stirrups to function. He then tries to suggest that heavy cavalry did not radically alter warfare because it could be seen off by infantry in a defended position. True enough – everyone knew attacking dug-in troops with cavalry was suicidal (though that didn’t stop some fools from trying it). But once the infantry started to move, heavy cavalry could smash it to pieces in the field and often did. Witness the Battle of Hastings where the Saxon shield wall held off the Norman cavalry all day. But as soon as they broke formation they were dead meat. It was not until the fourteenth century that the real answer to heavy cavalry appeared – the pike. These long spears allowed infantry to form a prickly hedgehog that cavalry could not penetrate. The trouble was that pikes require trained professional soldiers who are able to move in formation. These didn’t exist in the feudal armies of the High Middle Ages or the barbarian hordes that preceded them. Warfare is a game of paper, scissors, stone. If you have heavy cavalry, you rule the roost until someone invents scissors.

The horse-collar too, was an improvement that, coupled with horse shoes, three field rotation and heavy ploughs, allowed agriculture to increase yields well beyond what the Romans managed. Where White went wrong was to assume these changes happened overnight. Of course, as we learn from Robert Fossier in the New Cambridge Medieval History, progress was actually much slower and the agricultural system that White assumed was in place by 900AD did not in fact become ubiquitous until after 1200.

So, White’s work has been criticised, adapted and finessed. That’s all within the rules of the game. But his fundamental point that the Middle Ages were a period of technological advance is unchallenged. Carrier’s blinkered hatred of Christianity is also preventing him from see the facts.

By the way, further to my recent post, it seems the Jesus Project is coming a part at the seams. Jim West and others have been finding all sorts of people are listed as fellows who know nothing about it including Richard Bauckham and Dom Crossan. Both have asked to be removed. Richard Carrier is still listed as a fellow though....

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

Monday, July 30, 2007

Religion as an extended phenotypes

A few posts ago I explained why I didn’t find two popular evolutionary explanations for religion very convincing. I attacked the idea that religion was a harmful by-product of something useful and the idea that it was a meme that was good at spreading itself despite being harmful to its host.

Ironically, it was Richard Dawkins who also produced the most popular exposition of what I think is the best way to study man’s religious impulse, in his book The Extended Phenotype. In that book, he explained that it was not just bodies that genes could build and evolution could act on. Things like a bird of paradise’s dance, a termite nest and a beaver’s dam are also evolutionary adaptations just as much as the peacock’s tail and gubby’s spots. That, I think, is probably also true of the religious instinct. It is a part of our extended phenotype, an adaptation that humans have evolved because it is good for us. After all we have been religious for an extremely long time if archaeological evidence of burial practices and cave paintings are anything to go by. Even if it started off as a by-product, the religious instinct has clearly been selected for in the meantime. In fact, many evolutionary adaptations start off as useless appendages or features that natural selection works into something much more productive. Perhaps the initial impetus was from our desire to see causes in the world or to impart personality to rocks and the sky. This is certainly an area worthy of study and I expect that archaeologists can tell us rather more about this than has percolated into evolutionary biology.

The fact that religion is preserved by evolution doesn’t tell us which religions might be true but nor does it mean that they are all false. Imagine that we lived in a world where religion really had held back progress as Hitchens and Dawkins absurdly believe. In that case, it wouldn’t exist because religious societies would have been wiped out by the non-religious way back in prehistory. So, the next question I want to ask (skipping the ultimate origins of religion) is exactly how it has improved mankind’s lot. How does religion increase our ability to survive and procreate? To answer the question, I will be linking what we’ve discussed about game theory, the decline of violence and in-groups/out-groups.

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

Friday, July 27, 2007

Steven Pinker fails to boil blood

A correspondent kindly informed me that Steven Pinker, whose work I often find very interesting, has been trying to stoke up some controversy. He has suggested some questions that he thinks so controversial they will make people’s blood boil. Well, after reading through them, I reached for a thermometer and found my body temperature had not increased by a fraction of a degree. So, I thought I might try and answer his questions as well. But before I do so, I’d like to pose one of my own that Pinker did not feel it worth asking:

“In a hundred years time, will people look upon our attitudes towards abortion with the same horrified incomprehension that we feel about nineteenth century slavery?”

I’d be interested in Pinker’s answer. Now to his questions:

1: "Do women, on average, have a different profile of aptitudes and emotions than men?" A: Yes, obviously.

2: "Were the events in the Bible fictitious -- not just the miracles, but those involving kings and empires?" A: No. Many of them are confirmed by other sources.

3: "Has the state of the environment improved in the last 50 years?" A: Possibly. The fall of communism led to a big improvement.

4: "Do most victims of sexual abuse suffer no lifelong damage? A: If it is anything like as prevalent as we have been led to believe, then many people are able to make a full recovery.

5: "Did Native Americans engage in genocide and despoil the landscape?" A: Yes, according to Jared Diamond’s new book Collapse (which I will review in a few weeks time when I’ve finished it).

6: "Do men have an innate tendency to rape?" A: Most don’t. Some do.

7: "Did the crime rate go down in the 1990s because two decades earlier poor women aborted children who would have been prone to violence?" A: Yes. But it was not a crime worth paying.

8: "Are suicide terrorists well-educated, mentally healthy and morally driven?" A: Yes.

9: "Would the incidence of rape go down if prostitution were legalized?" A: I doubt it. Increasing supply tends to increase demand.

10: "Do African-American men have higher levels of testosterone, on average, than white men?" A: No idea.

11: "Is morality just a product of the evolution of our brains, with no inherent reality?" A: Some elements of morality have evolutionary explanations. Others are much harder to explain in this way.

12: "Would society be better off if heroin and cocaine were legalized?" A: No.

13: "Is homosexuality the symptom of an infectious disease?" A: Never heard of this one before.

14: "Would it be consistent with our moral principles to give parents the option of euthanizing newborns with birth defects that would consign them to a life of pain and disability?" A: No.

15: "Do parents have any effect on the character or intelligence of their children?" A: Obviously, yes.

16: "Have religions killed a greater proportion of people than Nazism?" A: A trick question, I think. Nazism was only around for 15 years. At that tie it certainly killed more than religions.

17: "Would damage from terrorism be reduced if the police could torture suspects in special circumstances?" A: No. Torture is ineffective as the victim just tells the torturer what he thinks he wants to hear. Even the Inquisition realised this.

18: "Would Africa have a better chance of rising out of poverty if it hosted more polluting industries or accepted Europe's nuclear waste?" A: Yes possibly. But the decision should be made by Africans, not western environmentalists or African dictators.

19: "Is the average intelligence of Western nations declining because duller people are having more children than smarter people?" A: It’s possible but I’ve only seen evidence that IQs are increasing.

20: "Would unwanted children be better off if there were a market in adoption rights, with babies going to the highest bidder?" A: A well-regulated market might work and help reduce abortion. But it would be hard to avoid abuses.

21: "Would lives be saved if we instituted a free market in organs for transplantation?" A: I’ve already argued in favour of this.

22: "Should people have the right to clone themselves, or enhance the genetic traits of their children?" A: I’m not convinced this would be beneficial.

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