Thursday, August 26, 2010

Roods, Blood and Bodies

As I briefly alluded to in my last post, during the dissolution of the monasteries, the agents of King Henry VIII destroyed pretty much everything in sight. But occasionally the reputation of some of the holiest relics gave them pause, albeit not for long.

At Durham Cathedral, probably in 1541, they pulled Saint Cuthbert out of his fine marble shrine with instructions to destroy the tomb and rebury the saint in a simple grave. But to the surprise of the reformers, the body turned out to be incorrupt. Instead of bones, plenty of skin and sinew still remained. This unnerved the vandals sufficiently that they dumped the body and sent to London for instructions as to what to do. One imagines that in the several weeks that Cuthbert’s body was left lying around, it quickly corrupted. Problem solved. In any case, word came to bury it as planned and this is what was done. Or was it?

In the eighteenth century, a legend grew up among English Catholics that during the interim, the newly unemployed monks of Durham switched the sainted body and buried the original in another spot. The secret location of Cuthbert’s body is known today to only three Catholic priests who continue to perform the old observances before it. About the only thing I can think of in favour of this legend is the huge amount of effort that Protestants have gone to in order to debunk it.

Down in Kent, at Boxley Abbey, the reformers took a more direct approach. The abbey contained a famous carved crucifix known as the Rood of Grace (rood being old English for wood) which had long attracted pilgrims. The figure of Jesus attached to the rood allegedly spoke to particular pilgrims and these miracles kept the crowds coming. In 1538, Thomas Cromwell sent Geoffrey Chamber to close down the abbey for him and investigate the rood. Chambers reported back that inside the carving he had found, “certain engines and old wire, with old rotten sticks in the back of the same that did cause the eyes to move and stare; and also the nether lip to move as though to speak.”

The monks and abbot denied all knowledge of these contrivances and judging by the description, they had not been used for many years in any case. Chambers took the rood to Maidstone where he exposed the fraud to the people and it was eventually burnt in London. But again, Catholic legend reports that the real rood was hidden away before Chambers arrived, to be replaced by the fake fraud to put the Protestants off the scent.

Another famous relic was the Blood of Hayles. This specimen of the Holy Blood of Jesus was kept sealed in a glass reliquary. Thomas Cromwell sent no lesser person than Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester and later victim of Bloody Mary, to investigate. He reported that the blood “has a certain unctuous moistness and though it seems like blood in the glass, when any parcel is taken out, it turns yellow and cleaves like glue.” Its final fate is unrecorded.

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Royal Society Prize for Science Books 2010

I am delighted to annouce that God's Philosophers has been shortlisted for the 2010 Royal Society Prize for Science Books. What's more, William Hill are quoting odds and make me the 3:1 favourite to win! The winner is announced on 21 October.

The full short list is:

A World Without Ice by Henry Pollack

Explores the relationship between ice and people – the impact of ice on Earth, its climate, and its human residents, as well as the reciprocal impact that people are now having on ice and the climate.

Everyday Practice of Science: Where Intuition and Passion Meet Objectivity and Logic by Frederick Grinnell

An insiders’ view of real-life scientific practice describing how scientists bring their own interests and passions to their work and illustrating the dynamics between researchers and the research community.

God’s Philosophers: How the medieval world laid the foundations of modern science by James Hannam

Revives the forgotten philosophers, scientists, scholars and inventors of medieval Europe, revealing the Medieval Age to be responsible for inventions and ideas that would change the world forever.

Life Ascending by Nick Lane

Charts the history of life on Earth by describing the ten greatest inventions of life, based on their historical impact, their importance in living organisms and their iconic power.

We Need To Talk About Kelvin by Marcus Chown

Takes familiar features of the world we know and shows how they can be used to explain profound truths about the ultimate nature of reality. Read the Focus review.

Why Does E=mc2? by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw

An illuminating journey to the frontier of 21st century science to consider the real meaning behind Einstein’s most famous equation, E = mc2.

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Quote of the Day

The rejection of Aristotelianism thus left the most typical of early modern thinkers with a system of physical states of affairs and a system of mental states of affairs, utterly diverse from each other and correlated only by the will and power of God. The supernaturalism of this view of the world was not unnoticed in the seventeenth century, and was not unwelcome to most of the founders of modern thought. Aristotelianism in its less theological forms, on the other hand, offered the possibility of a more integrated naturalistic world view that would not need to appeal to voluntary acts of God to explain the interaction of corporeal and mental nature.

It was an audacious move to give up that possibility of integration by rejecting Aristotelianism and splitting the world into physical and mental states of affairs between which no natural connection could be seen. This has clearly been such a good move for the progress of science that we can hardly doubt that it has brought us closer to the truth. But we may wonder whether this step would have been taken in a culture in which theism was not taken more or less for granted, as it was in seventeenth-century Europe. Without a theological explanation of the correlation between phenomenal qualia and physical states, would it have seemed plausible to reject the Aristotelian doctrine of their affinity? At any rate, a theological explanation of the correlation was the main one that was offered; and I think it is the only promising one that has been proposed. It is a theoretical advantage of theism that it makes possible such an explanation.

Robert M. Adams
"Flavors, Colors, and God"
The Virtue of Faith and Other Essays in Philosophical Theology

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Evolution and Information Theory

I've heard some critics of evolution claim that all we have evidence for is micro-evolution, and this only involves decreases in genetic information rather than increases. So, for example, there was an original bear "kind" which -- due to mutations, geographical separation, and the different environmental pressures different populations of this kind faced -- devolved into the various species of bears in the world today, such as grizzly, Kodiak, polar, etc. In other words, when various groups of bears were isolated and so had a smaller genetic stock to work with, certain traits were expressed that had not been expressed by the larger group -- such as the lack of pigment in the polar bear's fur, or the lack of certain genes which make their paws under-developed but better for swimming.

I find it ironic that this claim is championed by young-earth advocates, since it is a known paradigm of Darwinian evolution called allopatric speciation. What these critics of evolution claim is that this speciation only applies to the family or order level and, since it only allows for the loss of information not gain, it demonstrates that an intelligent agent directly created the original kinds with all of the genetic differences of the particular genera and species already in place but not expressed.

Now I've read very little about information theory, but what I have read contradicts this (although, I think these critics of evolution are partially excused because some defenders of evolution describe it in these same categories). According to Information and the Origin of Life by Bernd-Olaf K├╝ppers it's a misunderstanding of information theory to claim that these scenarios involve a loss of information. Information is, by definition, expressed. If it is not expressed, it is not information; it is potential information (or technically, "syntactic" or "Shannon" information). For example, a string of 100 characters of gibberish may have more potential information than a string of 30 characters that makes up a coherent sentence since the first string contains more characters to which one could ascribe meaning. But in point of fact, the string of 100 characters of gibberish does not convey any information insofar as it is gibberish, whereas the string of 30 characters that make up a coherent sentence does convey actual information. Thus, if the meaningless string of 100 characters turned into the meaningful string of 30 characters by losing 70 characters, this would involve an increase in information.

Let me illustrate this. If you have a string of characters

nbtldwepob( kvpkhla&u jsgv *xfndistvl,emc nbijnsmv $hsfgevlvs.ecjn

and it experiences a mutation so that only every third character is expressed, it leaves us with the following string:

two plus five is seven

Now according to the critics of evolution -- at least those who argue as I've indicated -- the first string contains more information than the second. But this is false. The first string has more characters, certainly, but it doesn't have any meaning, and hence conveys no information. The second string, on the other hand, does have meaning and does convey information. If the first string evolved into the second as I've illustrated, this would be an increase in information, since it goes from a series of characters that's meaningless to one that's meaningful.

Potential information is essentially just the building blocks before they are actually arranged into any kind of meaningful order. Any combination is equally likely or unlikely as any other, regardless of whether they have any meaning. This isn't "nothing", since it is an actual series of the building blocks in question, but the sequence is irrelevant. Potential information can "carry" information, but is not true information itself.

Beyond this is semantic information, in which there is a code where meaning is attached to certain sequences. To use one of our previous examples, 30 characters making up a coherent sentence has more semantic information than 100 characters of gibberish, since the former means something and the latter does not. The next level is pragmatic information, where the information evokes action. Obviously, these three dimensions of information are all inter-related: the pragmatic level presupposes the semantic level, which in turn presupposes the potential. Moreover, semantic information cannot exist by itself without evoking a response, and thus always leads to the pragmatic level. The point in all of this is that these critics equivocate between potential information on the one hand and semantic or pragmatic information on the other.

What this illustrates is that actual (i.e. semantic or pragmatic) information always requires a context. If our meaningless sequence of 100 characters lost 70 characters, and became a meaningful, coherent sentence, it would constitute an increase in information. If a genetic mutation prevented some kind of protein synthesis, but the overall effect was a positive one, it would constitute an increase in information. If a mutation prevented some minor aspect of an animal's normal morphological development, but the change made the animal more able to survive in its particular environment, it would constitute an increase in information. The context determines whether the change constitutes an increase or a decrease in information, and in the above contexts, the acquired meaning, or the improved adaptability of the cell or the individual animal means that the changes in question were increases in information.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Did Christianity Spell the End of Classical Civilisation?

I recently received an email, several in fact, from a correspondent who believed that Christianity caused the fall of classical civilisation. His emails were prompted by some of the material on my website that shows the positive effect that Christianity has had on science. He followed his original email with several more which contained many quotations from historians and the primary sources like the Theodosian Code. He even included a couple of lines from our friend and regular poster Charles Freeman.

Here is an excerpt from a rather longer email that he sent me:

The Christian devout try very hard to rescue their religion from the bitter reproach that its advent caused the eclipse of learning and science in the West for many centuries. They claim Christianity preserved the remnants of classical learning during the barbarian era, so far from being guilty of destroying it.

I think this is a rather desperate apologia. It seems unconvincing to hold the barbarians responsible for so many centuries of darkness in terms of learning and science. It requires us to believe that the classical world, so sophisticated in its intellectual culture, with such vast intellectual and cultural resources, was largely wiped out by barbarian invasions, and took many many centuries to recover.

It is much more likely that, absent some other deculturising factor, the unsettlement caused by the barbarians would have been relatively brief, the barbarians would have been absorbed by the superior civilisation, and the process of intellectual development would have resumed. But of course there was another factor present, and that was the takeover of Western society by the Church. There is no doubt that the Church was bitterly hostile to the intellectual and cultural presence and challenge posed by Graeco-Roman polytheism. To conquer the populace securely for the new faith, it would have had to resort to vast and sustained destruction of the classical heritage. That was the only way in which it could have prevented itself from being absorbed by the old culture. We know from the historical record that Christian destruction of the classical temples and texts was on a huge scale. This is surely not contested by yourself. We know that the destruction was on such a vast scale that in the end it took the transmission by the Arabs of the classical texts, many centuries later, for sustained learning to resumed in the West in a big way.

Far from being an non-believer, my correspondent is a Hindu and sees parallels between his own religion and ancient paganism. I don't know enough about the Hindu pantheon to comment on this, but it may account for some of the evident sympathy that he feels for paganism. It may also account for the fact that he makes a fundamental mistake about Christianity's role in late antiquity. Despite the fact that Tim O'Neill has corrected this misapprehension many times, I want to note the error again because it is so widespread. Indeed, Freeman himself wrote an entire book, The Closing of the Western Mind, which is simply the age old mistake in extra-long format.

Christianity did destroy ancient paganism. It caused enormous damage to many wonderful works of art and fine buildings. Even the art and architecture produced in the name of Christianity can scarcely hide the fact that if you happen to prefer classicism to gothic, the end of paganism was an aesthetic set back. It also seems likely that many pagan religious texts have been lost, although judging by the survivals, such as the Hermetic corpus, this is rather less of a misfortune. And it is false to say that Christians targeted pagan literature. Indeed, they preserved some of the best of it including Homer and Virgil, despite these epic's explicitly polytheistic subject matter.

The central confusion of my correspondent, of Charles Freeman and of so many others is to imagine that a campaign against pagan religion should have caused a decline in science. It is just assumed that ancient paganism and ancient science were one and the same. But they had almost nothing to do with each other. O'Neill puts it better than anyone:

As a humanist with a fondness for most aspects of the ancient and Medieval past, I'd certainly lament the destruction of pretty buildings. And the oppression of pagans by Christians is about the same as the oppression of Christians by pagans to me, since (i) I'm a non-believer and (ii) I avoid value judgements about the supposed sins of the distant past. But how "mounting evidence" that Christians closed down the irrational, superstituous cults of their religious rivals and no longer allowed painted priests to shake rattles and intone chants at incense-wreathed statues of Olympian gods somehow supports your thesis I really can't fathom. The fact that the Flamen Dialis in Rome could no longer wear his magical hat, no longer observed his strange taboos against touching raw meat or beans and no longer had to carefully guard against sleeping in a bed whose legs were smeared with clay (?!) may be sad if you're into that kind of thing, but I can't see what the death of such weird superstitions have to do with any argument about rationality.

I would add that the similar level of cultural vandalism that accompanied the Reformation in England, when a large chunk of the country's medieval heritage was trashed, appears in no way to have set back the development of science. And why should it? Knocking down temples does not cause men to stop studying mathematics. Melting down reliquaries does not impact the advance of physics. And banning ancient rituals does not encompass holding back scientific advance.

Finally, my correspondent suggests that a pagan Roman Empire would have been better able to absorb the barbarian invasions than the Christian one could. This is an interesting reversal of the historical orthodoxy that Christianity helped produce a united polity that allowed the Empire to survive another thousand years in the East. But that is for another post.

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Group selection: why I now think it is important

Group selection has been out of fashion for a while, subject to withering attack by Richard Dawkins and others. In general, I found the criticisms of Dawkins convincing and so missed the point of group selection. But as Jeff Schloss pointed out in his talk at the Faraday Institute that I noted last week, modern group selection theory is different from the now discredited idea that groups themselves can be selected for (and Dawkins is correct to dismiss this idea). However, there is an alternative sort of group selection that makes a great deal of sense and is fully compatible with the neo-Darwinian emphasis on the gene a the unit of selection. Today, these ideas are most associated with David Sloan Wilson, but my treatment shamelessly rips off what Jeff had to say at the Faraday.

Instead of groups, let’s think about football teams. Consider first, a rubbish team. We’ll call them England. The manager of England pays only for each goal that a player scores. As a result, all the players are desperate to score, but never pass the ball. This means that England are not very good. Consider second, a good team which we’ll call Spain. Players in this team also get paid for scoring goals, but less per score. But, additionally, the manager of Spain pays the whole team a bonus if they win, such that he expects his wages bill to be the same as England's. As a result, Spanish players pass the ball a lot to maximise the team’s goal scoring chances. This means that Spain are much better than England and each player actually scores more goals.

Now group selection says that your reproductive chances are boosted when you are a member of a successful group just as you’ll score more often if you are a member of a successful football team. Indeed, your reproductive chances are also increased if you are a member of a successful football team. In other words, the group forms part of the environment within which the individual’s genes are selected and genes that help the group will be favoured. So in Spain genes for passing the ball are favoured over those of selfishly trying to score yourself.

But as the group favours particular genes (or distributions of genes), the nature of the group itself will change over time and evolve. Just as a football team has room for strikers and midfield play-makers, so groups can accommodate different kinds of individual. This means that in a limited sense the group can be subject to natural selection, at least relative to other groups, such that it is fair to speak of group selection.

We can fruitfully speculate that altruism within the group, even altruism that does not directly favour the genes of each individual, could evolve in these circumstances. And it seems just as likely, as David Sloan Wilson has proposed, that group selection can help to account for some of the complex of behaviours associated with religion.

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Sunday, August 08, 2010

Religious SF

I'm interested in science-fiction written from a Christian perspective, but here's a website about Judaism in SF and here's another about Islam in SF.

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More Sad News

Tony Judt, whom I wrote about a few months ago, has died. Like many of the secular left, he was a good man who could not understand why his fellow human beings would not live up to the ideals he set for them. And his criticism of US policy towards Israel sometimes veered too close to being a conspiracy theory.

There is an appreciation in the Observer today.

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Friday, August 06, 2010

2010 Faraday Lectures

Following on from my post on the Faraday Summer Course below, here are links to some of the other talks. Unfortunately, not all of them were filmed so some are available only in audio (for copyright reasons, I understand). Search for "Summer Course 5".

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Thursday, August 05, 2010

Royal Excess

In these times of fiscal austerity it’s perhaps worth contemplating the excesses of British Royal Courts of both the Tudors and Stuarts. When the Earl of Danby introduced measures to restore the fiscal credit of Charles II’s regime there was one area he failed to penetrate; the royal household. Charles was especially generous to his favourite mistress Barbara Palmer, the Countess of Castlemaine and the 1st duchess of Cleveland. The Countess was awarded her salary as a lady of the queen’s bedchamber of at least £200 pounds a year; in other words Charles forced his wife to accept his favourite mistress as a lady in waiting. He also paid her:
  • Ten thousand pounds a year out of customs revenue;
  • Ten thousand pounds a year out of the beer and ale excise;
  • Five thousand pounds a year out of the post office;
  • A thousand pounds a year out of first fruits and tenths (a tax which used to go from the clergy to the Pope).
  • Individual debts which were amounts that ranged up to thirty thousand pounds. These were mostly gambling debts.
  • Grants of royal lands and the right to dispose of and sell places in the customs.
Castlemaine was only the most prominent of an army of mistresses, courtier and household servants, all of whom had their hands in Charles's pockets. You might say it’s a good thing we don’t still operate this kind of system. Imagine having to pay a subsidy to Camilla Parker Bowles or Monica Lewinsky every time you send a letter or buy a pack of beers. Mind you there was that Tory MP who claimed for the £1,645 duck house.

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My week at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion

I spent the week before last at a Summer Course at the Faraday Institute where I gave a presentation on the importance of medieval science. I had a wonderful time, meeting loads of people who ranged from legendary academics like Ernan McMullin and Simon Conway Morris, to ordinary people who are just interested in the topic of science and religion.

Unfortunately, work commitments prevented me from attending all the talks. But, of those that I did make, the stand out presentations included the following (in no particular order):

Professor Peter Harrison of the University of Oxford, spoke about science and religion in the early modern period and gave a fantastic introduction to the topic. He was particularly interesting on how religious commitments could legitimate and inform scientific investigation.

Professor Jeff Schloss from Westmonst College gave a fascinating talk about the evolution of altruism and the various theories that have been put forward to account for it. His comments on group selection (which I now finally understand) explained how Richard Dawkins has got the wrong end of the stick over this issue. Time for me to revisit David Sloan Wilson's work in this area since I had previously been convinced by Dawkins' critique.

Professor Peter Clark from the University of Lausanne made the case for a physical theory of the mind being compatible with Christianity and the Resurrection. I agree with him that it is compatible, although I’m still something of a dualist myself. But Peter said he thought many Protestant theologians had now accepted a physical mind (what is technically called monism as opposed to dualism) as linking biblical doctrine to modern science most effectively.

These talks will soon be available on the Faraday Institute website as videos. I’ll post a link when they are up.

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Sad News

In his Daily Telegraph blog, Damian Thompson has revealed that Christopher Hitchens' throat cancer is terminal and that he does not expect to live long. The Hitch has written at length about his illness in the next issue of Vanity Fair. By all accounts, the approach of death has not mellowed him.

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