Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Author caught out trying to write history

One of the frustrating things about not being able to get published is to see all the garbage that does make it. So, it is nice to see a publisher getting their comeuppance for printing a biography that turns out to use a novel published in France in the 1990s as a genuine historical source. Veronica Buckley has written a biography called Madame de Maintenon: the Secret Wife of King Louis XIV. As the Guardian reveals she used a book by a French academic written in 1998 called Le Journal secret de Louis XIV as an authentic diary of the Sun King. Bloomsbury have had to postpone publication and pulp the offending sections of the work. One reviewer refused to even write about the book, he thought it so awful.

It would be nice if the publishing industry took this lesson to heart but I rather doubt that they will.

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

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Doctor on Site

A brief note to say that I have finally received confirmation that my PhD thesis has passed. This means that some time in the summer I can take a trip up to Cambridge with my wife, listen to a spot of Latin and call myself Dr Hannam. It is a big relief to have finally got there after four and a half years.

My thesis is called Teaching Natural Philosophy and Mathematics At Oxford and Cambridge 1500 - 1570. It is basically the story of how scholastic natural philosophy, with the advances made in science during the Middle Ages, was replaced by humanism. That meant ditching medieval progress for a return to the pure Aristotle of ancient Greece. If anyone is interested or just want to see what a PhD thesis looks like, it is on-line in its entirely here.

I have no news on finding a publisher for my book God’s Philosophers, but hopefully the PhD will be a help in that direction too. However, I’ve contributed an introduction to the volume debunking the Christ Myth being edited by J. P. Holding of Tektonics ministries. The book is intended to bring together all the material arguing against the absurd conspiracy theory that Jesus never existed. It should be out mid-summer.

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

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Steven Pinker on Religion

I’ve been waiting a while to see if Pinker would say something about religion, rather in trepidation because I feared it would damage my regard for him. Sadly, my worst fears have been realised in his feeble response to the Templeton Foundation’s question "Has Science made Belief in God Obsolete?"

Pinker’s answer is yes, although he admits that all modern rationality is required to do the job to debunking God. The trouble is that his argument is pitiful. It is in three parts. The first says that because science has successfully rendered the Book of Genesis obsolete as a scientific text, religion has lost one of its major purposes. This is a standard atheist trope but it wholly ill-informed about what religion is about. A tiny part of the Bible and other sacred texts deal with quasi-scientific explanations. Furthermore, although many have seen God in His Creation, the design argument is such is a modern invention that only really appears in the eighteenth century. When religious people saw God in the workings of nature, they never thought this was some sort of proof he existed, but rather something to praise him for. The idea that religion primarily provided an exposition on the natural world is a throw back to the nineteenth century for which we have now realised there is almost no evidence.

In short, religion got going without the design argument and it will happily keep going without it as well. That said, I do find some mileage in both the fine tuning and the cosmological arguments. Pinker dismisses both of these with the old saw “who made God?” Fifty years ago, almost all atheists thought the universe was eternal and dismissed as nonsense the idea it had a beginning. It is odd that they won’t extend the same courtesy to God.

In the second part of his argument, Pinker moves to morality. I praised his recent article on the evolution of morals while pointing out its limitations. Pinker admits you can’t get ethics from science but insists you can’t get them from religion either. The argument he uses, Euthyphro’s Dilemma, is 2,500 years old and so I assume does not form part of modern science. The trouble is, Plato’s argument cannot be applied to a transcendent deity. It is quite possible (actually it is true) that morality is not to be derived from natural causes. But we cannot say from this that an external God who created nature cannot impose rules upon her that nature herself is unable to produce. Nor can we say that those external rules, like the truths of mathematics that Godel showed can’t be reduced to axioms, should not be objectively true.

Thirdly, Pinker claims that the Golden Rule is a rational ethical system in itself. It is good to see that Pinker has cracked all the ethical problems that have kept philosophers up at night for centuries, but I fear you cannot reduce morality to such a single rule. Nor can Pinker escape the fact that he is rationalising a system he has inherited from Christianity. Given the state of today’s world, I think it would be foolish to assume that all moral difficulties have been solved.

I’ve mentioned Russell’s Syndrome in the past. This is a medical condition whereby highly intelligent people start talking nonsense as soon as they turn their minds to religion. It is sad to find that Pinker is a sufferer. Would anyone like to hazard a guess from whom he caught it?

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

So is Shakespeare Any Good?

Last Saturday night saw my wife and me at the Roundhouse theatre in north London for a Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) performance of Shakespeare’s Henry V. It was, I thought, a reasonably good performance although King Henry himself did not dominate the stage in the way that a great actor can do. We saw Matthew Macfadyen playing Prince Hal (that is, Henry V before he became king) at the National Theatre in Henry IV Parts One and Two last year and thought he was outstandingly good. We are very keen to see him tackle the role as King.

On of the things about reading the reviews of performances of Shakespeare’s plays is that they rarely tell you if the play itself is any good. The actors are criticised without much criticism being directed at Shakespeare himself. Assuming that you can’t see all of them, it would be helpful to know which of his plays are most worthy of our time. Here are my thoughts based on the ones I’ve seen in the theatre (rather than just read or watched on TV). Note that for this reason, neither Hamlet nor Othello are on the list.

The Great:
King Lear: The 1990 performance at the National Theatre with Brian Cox as Lear and Ian McKellen as Kent is widely felt to be one of the best of all. For me it remains the finest work of art I have ever experienced. Last year’s RSC production with McKellen in the role of Lear himself was much less impressive but still deeply effecting.

Henry V: The performance on Saturday was only average but the greatness of the play is hard to disguise. This is a searingly honest portrayal of both the horrors and glory of war.

Richard III: The famous hunchback is one of art’s darkest villains, whatever resemblance he may or may not have to the historical king. Again, the performance I saw, at the Young Vic, was not one of the best and needed a better actor in the starring role to dominate the proceedings.

The Good:
Macbeth: Simon Russell Beale took the lead last year in London. He usually plays nice people and his casting against type as the man corrupted by his wife and a desire for power was inspired. I found the play itself less convincing because I couldn’t believe just how evil Macbeth becomes. Killing off your political rivals is one thing, child murder is quite another.

Richard II: The message of this play is about the consequences of rebellion. In recent history, it has been most commonly referred to when considering the downfall of Margaret Thatcher. The coup against her plunged her party into over a decade of hopeless strife. But even Kevin Spacey in the lead at the Old Vic could not disguise that Richard II himself is not Shakespeare’s most convincing character.

Much Ado About Nothing: The RSC production of 2006 was brilliantly cast and it is hard to see how it could be bettered. The play itself is genuinely funny and definitely worth seeing.

Henry IV Parts One and Two: If the best bits of each were merged into a single play, this would be one of the greats. In two parts, it slightly outstays its welcome. We saw Michael Gambon’s Falstaff at the National Theatre, but he was completely thrown into shadow by Matthew Macfadyen’s Prince Hal. Contains what is probably the rudest joke in Shakespeare’s oeuvre.

The Average:
Twelfth Night: Has its moments, but the humour is too cruel for my taste and the characters unsympathetic. As in many of the comedies, the subplot is better than the plot. Saw it at Stratford in 1993.

The Tempest: One of the last of the plays to be written with some truly opaque verse. The production at the Roundhouse that I saw about five years ago was very good if played a bit too much for the rather humourless laughs that the play provides.

Measure for Measure: The National Theatre production of 2004 (if I recall the year correctly), could scarcely have been bettered but the play itself is rather lightweight. The plot is too dark to be a comedy and the National’s production made a virtue of this by setting it in a fascist state.

The Bad:
Coriolanus: This play is really not very good. My wife and I saw it shortly after we met and it was another year before we could admit to each other how poor it was. Avoid.

While we were talking about this, my wife said she would add the Comedy of Errors (seen at the Globe in 2002) to the list of great plays and Anthony & Cleopatra (seen at Stratford some time in the 1990s with a stella cast), to the list of the bad ones. Anthony, in particular, spends an inordinately long time about dying.

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

A Prime Minister we Deserve?

Since Tony Blair left office at the beginning of last summer, British politics has been in a state of flux. Now finally, things seem to be settling down with a slew of polls showing the same thing – a government in serious trouble and the Conservative opposition well ahead for the first time in two decades. Pretty much all the commentariat in the newspapers agree that the reason for this is the dismal performance of the new Prime Minister Gordon Brown. At the moment they are crowing about the way that he is being ignored on his trip to the United States, which is hardly surprising given his lack of star appeal.

But I think the experts get the reasons for Brown’s failure wrong. We often hear journalists and politicians claim that “no one knows what he stands for”; “he has no programme” and “he has no vision.” They imagine that these are the things that the public is telling itself and if only Brown could articulate his beliefs, then all would be well for him. It is true that the Prime Minister is often over-cautious and can appear to be dithering. The election that he failed to call last October after letting everyone think he was about to is a case in point. He wanted to test the water, but it made him look like a man who couldn’t take the plunge. But much of this is media spin. The real problem is more basic and nothing to do with presentation.

Most people in Britain are not poor. While many feel themselves under pressure financially, they also have aspirations to be even better off. They would like a bigger house, a German car and a smaller ipod. Gordon Brown’s public priority has always been for the poor, especially poor children and pensioners. He has, over the last ten years while he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, used vast amounts of public money to try to improve their lot. He may even have succeeded to some extent although you would never guess it from watching the evening news. He boasts of his ‘moral compass’ and there is little doubt he possesses one. He wants a more just society where the have-nots are properly looked after. This is all extremely laudable and Christians should applaud it. But none of this has much appeal for the Middle Classes, especially while the credit crunch is making them nervous.

So I conclude that people know perfectly well what Brown cares about. The problem is, they think it isn’t them. Ask an average person if Brown is on their side and they will say no he isn’t. He may be on the side of the poor, the dispossessed and the needy, but in a democracy that is never enough. Tony Blair could always convince the Middle Classes that he was one of them and had their interests at heart. Brown cannot because he doesn’t.

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

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Noble Savages

One of my favourite television shows is Time Team. It consists of a bunch of hirsute archaeologists with three days to dig a site somewhere in the UK. Usually, it is set is a picturesque field in the rain. Despite the three day time limit and the presence of Blackadder’s sidekick Baldrick as the presenter, the archaeologists do try to do a serious job. The show has been a shot in the arm for university archaeology courses and incidentally taught me quite a lot about ancient pottery.

The academics on Time Team are entirely typical of English scholars. Quite learned, a bit politically correct and with a great fondness for beer. If you have watched the show for as long as I have, you get to know their quirks and foibles quite well. For instance, they never talk about religion, but only ritual. I have no idea why this is, but even a medieval monastery is described as a ritual site rather than a religious one.

Another view often articulated on the programme is that the great Bronze Age and Iron Age hill forts and many other smaller enclosures that dot the English countryside were just for show. The enormous ditches and palisades of stakes were, we are often assured, intended to show off the power of the local chieftain rather than provide a defensive position against enemies. For a long time I believed this. After all, the archaeologists on the show are experts. But I’ve now realised it is complete piffle. The evidence for the pacific purpose of the hill forts is that there is no sign that they were ever attacked, let alone reduced. Therefore, archaeologists have convinced themselves that everyone in prehistoric Britain was living peaceably with their neighbours.

A reader of this blog kindly put me on the book that shatters this rural arcadia and dispels the idea that the huge defensive structures were built even though there was nothing to defend against. Lawrence Keeley’s War before Civilization (1994) explains why the hill forts were not attacked and why this is no evidence that the inhabitants had nothing to fear. Instead, he shows how prehistoric life was constantly prey to small scale violence. Raiding parties conducting lightning attacks, killing and pillaging, but could not take the hill forts. So they never even tried. When raiders arrived, the population took shelter in the forts and simply waited for the raiders to go home. There was no question of a war of conquest and so the hill forts were left untouched. There is no evidence of them being attacked because they were an effective defence.

The small scale violence that blighted ancient lives leaves little trace in the archaeology. But we have plenty of evidence for it in more recent contexts, for instance in the New Guinea highlands or the Yucatan in Mexico (as explained by Jared Diamond in Collapse). Unless prehistoric Britons had some genetic trait that made them uniquely nice to each other, we have no reason to think things were any different. The green fields of England were soaked in blood.

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