Wednesday, May 28, 2008

My New Discussion Forum

As many of you know, I have for some years steered people towards my Yahoo group to discuss or criticise my work. This worked very well for a while and the group went through a golden era when a few regulars made it their home on the net. However, since I enabled comments on the blog, most people have been content to post here rather than at the yahoo group. Sadly, the yahoo group has since died down and become little more than a spam trap. I never really wanted it to grow into a debate forum and tended to discourage people from engaging in lengthy arguments.

As the yahoo group appears to be on its last legs, I've decided to close it down in favour of a public discussion forum. In contrast to my previous policy, I am quite happy for people to debate and argue to their hearts' content as long as they remain civil. Also, for the moment, no registration is required. Anyone can post but I will eliminate spam and trolling as soon as I see it.

So do please post on the new discussion forum rather than on the comments thread of my blog posts or the yahoo group. I will probably stop comments on the blog at some point so that I do not have to keep an eye on two places at once. Also, some people comment on ancient posts which means that they get a bit lost.

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

Monday, May 26, 2008

Evangelising Muslims

A cat, in the form of evangelical Christian Paul Eddy, is loose among the pigeons of the Church of England. As the BBC reports, Eddy wants the Church to take seriously its duty to evangelise those of other faiths and none, specifically Muslims. The Alpha Course, which is the CofE's premier evangelism route (hated, of course, by many liberals) is aimed at lapsed Christians and sceptics - some might say white middle class lapsed Christians and sceptics.

There are two points I'd make here. First, Eddy's opponents are being pathetic. There is no question that Christians can and should engage with Islam with an eye on conversions. They should also take very seriously their duty of care towards Muslims who convert at great personal risk. Secondly, and in contrast, I do not think that active 'Jehovah's witness' style door stopping is anything but counter-productive. I evangelise. Bede's Library is intended specifically for that purpose. However, it is a passive medium that holds itself out to those who need it. I hope I never intrude where I am unwelcome (with the possible exception of the Internet Infidels discussion board).

Many atheists seem to imagine that all revelatory religions must, by necessity, be aggressively evangelising. Oliver Kamm certainly labours under this delusion. He seems to believe that theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr took their universalism from humane liberalism rather than from the Christian tradition. But of course, Jews do not evangelise and few Christians would accept the possibility of going beyond polite persuasion. It is beyond me how such behavior can be labelled 'destructive' by Kamm without his taking a profoundly illiberal stance.

Overall, I think Eddy deserves some support for his stand which is brave and bracing. I doubt he and I would see eye to eye on many aspects of Christian theology, but his motion at the Church of England's general synod seems little more than an assertion of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

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

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Cochlear Implants

After a week of being an invalid, I am feeling much better this weekend. My ear is still a bit sore and somehow I don't feel as well glued together as I would like, but I am up and able to cook, read and write.

On Tuesday, I have an MRI scan to check that the implant is in the right place. Not sure what happens if it isn't. Then on Wednesday, I meet the consultant surgeon who will check he is happy with healing and other developments. Hopefully, the dressing comes off soon afterwards and I am back to work a week tomorrow. Thank you, by the way, for all the good wishes both here and through other mediums.

The implant gets turned on in three weeks time, all being well. It has, if I recall, twelve electrodes that are threaded through my inner ear. These should be able to stimulate the aural nerve that previously carried signals from the hair cells in the cochlear. These hair cells vibrate at different sound frequencies, sending messages to the brain as they do so. Sadly, mine have been dying off at an accelerating rate, starting at the outer mouth of the cochlear (the high frequencies) and working inwards. I now have natural hearing only at the very lowest frequencies, the hair cells for which are at the centre of the cochlear. The implant will have destroyed any remnant of natural hearing on my left hand side, so I am currently existing on one dodgy ear.

The implant is controlled by a processor that lodges behind the ear and looks like a super-sized hearing aid. This has a microphone on it to pick up sound. These sounds are converted into very small electrical impulses that are sent down to the implant itself. The implant is completely internal and the signals have to be sent through the skin via a special magnetic disc. The twelve electrodes in the implant should each be keyed to particular sound frequencies. They stimulate the nerve-endings close to them which send signals to the hearing centre in the brain. The signals initially don't bear much resemblance to what the brain is used to so it must reprogram itself to cope with the new information. This can happen very quickly or take a while. I will be interested to see what 'sound' sounds like through the implant and how quickly my brain can piece it back together again.

Some more news next week.

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

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

More on behavioral genetics

I am aware that I promised to blog again on exactly how we know that our upbringing does not affect personality and that ideas like attachment theory are only so much psycho-babble. Sadly, I haven’t had time to really sit down and think about how to explain this as my previous efforts have obviously not worked. And at the moment my ear hurts.

So let me just point to this review of Personality: What Makes Us the Way We Are (Oxford) by Daniel Nettle. The key passage is:

Behavioural-genetic studies have consistently found that the heritability of personality traits, whether the Big Five or one of many others from aggressiveness to happiness, is around 50 per cent. This means that within a group of people, about 50 per cent of the variation in such traits is attributable to genetic differences among the individuals in the group. Most people have assumed that the other 50 per cent comes from the “shared environment” of the home: parental child-rearing methods and the experiences the child shares with siblings and parents. If it did, studies should find a strong correlation between the personality traits of adopted children and those of their adoptive parents. In fact, the correlation is weak to nonexistent. This means that when children resemble their parents and grandparents temperamentally, it is because they share genes with these relatives, not experiences. What, then, is going on in the “unshared environment”, the other half of the influences that “make you the way you are”? Put simply, Nettle argues, we don’t know.

Although this is hardly the explanation I’ve been promising, it does at least prove that it is not just me and Steven Pinker who are harping on about this!

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

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Back from Hospital

Feeling a bit sore but OK. The hospital experience was not as bad as I feared but I'm glad to be home. I don't find out for another month how well the implant is working as they don't turn it on until all the swelling is down. Still, the surgeon said the signs are good and he seemed quite pleased with how it went.

Off to sleep now but will post a bit more on this in a few days.

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

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Under the Knife Tomorrow

I'm off to the hospital first thing tomorrow morning. If all goes well, I'll be out and blogging come Saturday evening. It will be another month before we find out if the implant will be effective.

If anyone is wondering what a cochlear implant is, this website appears reasonably reliable.

Thank you for your thoughts and prays. Hopefully I'll be back on Saturday.

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

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

On the Internet No One Knows You're a Dog

Peter Steiner’s famous cartoon appeared in the New Yorker back in 1993. The fundamental point that the internet allows us to appear as something we are not goes much further than people who lie about their sex, age or social group. Sometimes, we can hide something without ever really meaning to. This means that a trait that is central to our everyday lives totally evaporates when on-line. That implicit identity change can be very liberating for people who are treated as more normal on-line than off.

Actually, I’m not a dog. And I’ve never said anything about myself on-line that is untrue. But I have concealed something that would be immediately obvious if you ever met me in real life. I am, in fact, profoundly deaf.

So, why mention this now? I do have a good reason. It’s not that deafness is the current disability a la mode. Admittedly, David Lodge has written a novel, Deaf Sentence, based on his own experience of deafness (although he’s nothing like as far gone as me). If you are curious about what it’s like, his recent article in the Sunday Times is reasonably accurate. I too sat squinting at Shakespeare’s text in a dark theatre many a time, but now captioning means I can enjoy plays much more easily. Also, the actor who played Jesus in the BBC's recent The Passion was deaf which meant he starred intently at people to lip read.

The truth is, deafness is a bore and I’d rather not write about boring stuff. I bring it up now because mine may, shortly, become quite interesting. On Friday, I am due to have a cochlear implant fitted. God willing, it will considerably improve my hearing. I’m going to blog here, in addition to my usual wonderings, on the experience of the implant in the hope that it might be helpful to people who are considering having one fitted. It might also be of interest to anyone else who is curious about what it might be like to hear again after not doing so for a few years.

In later posts, I’ll give a bit of the inevitably boring background to my own deafness as well as the fascinating technological miracle that allows an implant to work. I hope this won’t lose me too many readers and perhaps it may even gain one or two.

In the meantime, any prayers for a safe operation would be much appreciated.

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

Friday, May 09, 2008

The Virtue of the Labour Party

I wrote recently on why Gordon Brown is politically doomed. Since then, things have got ever worse for him but I am still not sure the mainstream press quite understand why. They are all twittering on about his need for narrative or big ideas. This is rubbish. I explained earlier than Brown could never win the trust of the middle classes because they do not believe that he has their interests at heart (a belief which is, incidentally, 100% accurate).

So how can the Labour win elections and why did Tony Blair manage so well? Labour still has one priceless advantage over the Conservative Party. They are still perceived as fundamentally good. This is clear from the fact that even today people lie to pollsters about who they are going to vote for. The polls overstate Labour support and understate Conservative support consistently and continually. People just won’t admit to being anti-Labour because voting Labour is perceived as virtuous. Only You Gov, the internet pollster, gets the level of Conservative support right. Why? Because anonymously on-line people do things (for example looking at porn or admitting to supporting the Conservatives) that they would never do in public. Of course, in a secret ballot people don’t have to feel embarrassed about voting Conservative and Labour do correspondingly worse in real elections than in polls.

All this is common knowledge, but we can take the analysis a step further by noting that the middle classes actually want to be virtuous. As well as their material aspirations for conservatories, early retirement and luxury German cars, we aspire to be good. We feel better about ourselves if we can believe we are doing something for the less fortunate. A vote for Labour, in other words, is a kind of civic duty that allows the middle classes to feel that they have done their bit. And Labour still has that advantage, as all those people lying to opinion pollsters shows.

But there is a problem. The aspiration to virtue cannot override material desires. Only if people feel secure will they hanker after the spiritual goods that Labour can offer. With the economy looking shaky, it was always going to be hard for Labour (the Conservatives, conversely, can win when the economy looks bad, as they did in 1992, even if the economic problems were their own fault). But with the middle classes also deeply suspicious that Brown doesn’t care about them, Labour is in big trouble. Tony Blair made the middle classes a wonderful offer – painless virtue. They could feel good by voting Labour safe in the knowledge that it would cost them nothing.

The Labour Party doesn’t need a new narrative. It needs a new Tony Blair.

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

Saliba v Huff

Take some pity on Toby Huff. In 1995 he wrote a book called The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West. Let me say from the outset that I thought Huff’s book was quite good. It asked the right questions and attempted to answer them in a sensible way. It was disadvantaged by being based entirely on secondary scholarship, but frankly, given amount of the ground it covered, that was not unforgivable. Huff is a sociologist by trade, not a historian, but he made a reasonable fist of writing a historical analysis. He attempted to explain why modern science arose only in western Europe by considering social and institutional factors like the existence of corporations and a modicum of intellectual freedom. His analysis was quite easy to argue against, but deserved to be taken seriously.

Sadly, as far as I can tell, the academic history of science community was united in heaping opprobrium upon poor Huff. My supervisor urged me not to refer to The Rise of Early Modern Science in my PhD thesis lest I be tarred by the same brush. The famously shouty Sir Geoffrey Lloyd told me he recalled giving it QUITE A BAD REVIEW. But nobody was more upset about Huff’s book than the historian of Islamic science, George Saliba.

Saliba teaches at Columbia University where he has been accused of virulent anti-Israeli views. It is clear from his academic work that he is strongly influenced by Marxist theories and may even be one of those who took Edward Said’s Orientalism thesis seriously. He does tend to refer to European scholars of Islam as Orientalists shortly before disparaging their views. I am currently reading his Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance. It is very good – provocative, packed with facts and impeccably researched. It’s also quite hard going as Saliba makes no effort to produce flowing prose or make allowances for the general reader.

The dispute with Huff began in an essay review of The Rise of Early Modern Science that Saliba wrote for an obscure journal under the auspices of the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies, an organisation based in Amman, Jordan. Saliba’s main beef with Huff appears to be with Huff’s contention that modern western science is something special. Saliba rejects the idea that modern science is either unique or a product of western civilisation. If this is Saliba’s main objection, it is, in my opinion, misguided. It is a fact that modern, western science has no parallel in its success in explaining nature and its origin does require a historical explanation. It is not sufficient to point to the scientific achievements of other civilisations and say they are ‘valid’ too. Any explanation of western science is likely to compare it with the inability of other scientific traditions to properly account for or describe the workings of nature. What we must not do is cast aspersions on these other traditions just because they did not achieve the mastery of nature that western science has. But Huff never does that. He tries to understand both Islamic and Chinese science in their own terms. Saliba is entitled to correct his errors of fact (of which there are quite a few), but it is clear that his real problem is with any historical project that suggests western civilisation is in any way better or more successful than any other. This is ironic because the main point of his own books is that Islamic science was better than anyone else’s for most of its history!

Huff’s reply shows he is a bit bemused by Saliba’s attack, while Saliba rounds off the discussion by completely losing his rag.

The moral of the story seems to be that political blood is thicker than historical water. Huff has since brought out a second edition of his book, responding to his critics, which I will try to read when I get a moment. My supervisor remained deeply unimpressed and I doubt that Saliba will be singing its praises either.

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