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.