Thursday, February 25, 2010

Shaking Mistel Branches at Statues is not Science

A Common Conflation

One Tim O'Neill raises an interesting point on his blog Armariam Magnum in response to a communication received regarding his post ""Agora" and Hypatia - Hollywood Strikes Again":  Mr. O'Neill is himself an atheist, but is devoted to empirical evidence and sound reasoning.  I've edited out his direct responses to the communicator. 

It's bizarre the way whenever these people who scream so hysterically about how Christianity murdered ancient learning and philosophy are challenged to produce some evidence they are always forced to fall back on some vague reference to the Christian suppression of pagan cults. As though this irrelevant side issue somehow supports their case.

What the hell the trashing of some gloomy Mithraeums and the closing down of weird superstitious cults where men in silly hats waved incense at painted statues had to do with the preservation of science and reason.

The truth is that these people have a misty-eyed romanticised view of the ancient world that conflates anything "pagan" with the things they like (eg science and reason). Therefore any attack on anything pagan simply has to be an attack on the things they like.

This is nonsense.

The early Christians who defended the use of pagan wisdom (and who won the debate on that topic, thus enshrining the rational analysis of the world in the Western tradition for centuries to come) were perfectly capable of differentiating the wisdom of philosophers who happened to be pagans from the silly superstitions of gelded priests shaking rattles at garish statues of Cybele. 

Friday, February 19, 2010

Iwo Jima Day

Sixty-five years ago today, a young man named Joe Flynn was the first to climb down the netting from the side of his troopship and enter a smaller craft that would take him to an LST.  He fell off the netting, but a fortunate sway of the boat brought it underneath him, so he landed on his backpack in the boat rather than in the Pacific Ocean between the pitching boat and the hull of the troopship. 

LST is an abbreviation, Marines will tell you, for Large Slow Target. 

The boat got lost among the fleet and could not find the LST.  The navy pilot had to stop and ask for directions.  There were a lot of ships there.  (On one of them was a young navy rating who was my wife's uncle.)  When they finally reached the LST, all the good spots were taken by Marines from the later boats, who had not gotten lost and so arrived ahead of them.  So young Joe found a spot on deck: a tarp stretched across a hatchway.  He lay down to get some sack-time, figuring it might be a long while before he had the chance again. 

The LST was packed to the deckline with supplies, so the tarp was covering boxes and crates.  It was hard to get comfortable.  Finally, he grew curious.  Just what was he sacked out on?  So he lifted the edge of the tarp. 

The entire hold beneath him was packed with boxes labeled "Grenades." 

Well, he figured, if something did go wrong, at least he would never know it; and he stretched out and went to sleep. 
+ + +

Witchcraft and the Dark Ages

Although some folk apply the term "Dark Ages" to the entire medieval period, others apply it only to the early middle ages and refer to the High Middle Ages as the Early Renaissance.  This is done in service to belief, of course.  It is not how the historians generally view things.  (In fact, those have been abandoning such propaganda labels in favor of century labels.)  But in any case, one of the most cherished foundation myths of the Modern Ages is that of the West's struggle to free itself from the violence of religious intolerance.  This is almost as basic as the myth of Galileo springing pristine from the brow of Copernicus. 

One aspect of that violence was the witch mania. 

1. The Age of Faith

Now, belief in sorcery had been common enough among the Romans, who distinguished three classes of witches and prescribed death for the worst class.  It was common, too, among the Germans, though the details differed.  So it's no surprise if the folk of the Middle Ages, who were after all the descendants of those self-same Romans and Germans, also believed in such things. 

The Church however either ignored magic or treated it leniently; this for the very good reason that she taught that magic was a mere superstition.  St. Patrick's Synod in the 5th century anathematized anyone who believed that there really were witches with magical powers.  Charlemagne issued a Capitulary for Saxony that declared it criminal for anyone acting on a heathen belief in magic to burn or devour the flesh of accused sorcerers.  (This suggests that pagan Germans did not treat sorcerers very nicely.)  The Canon episcopi about the same time declares that women who believe they fly through the air in Diana's train are simply deluded and orders expelled from the congregation anyone who insists on the reality of it. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The End of Darwinism Evolution

Evolutionism vs. Creationism

The surest way to gin up some traffic here is to put those terms into the post. Heheh.

Now, I cheated in the title, as will become apparent in a moment. Aristo-Thomists might already suspect the pun. If so, keep quiet until I'm done here.

On one side of the debate is a group of people with deeply held metaphysical beliefs who tell fables. On the other, a group of people who desire above all that their beliefs be recognized as a science. I speak, of course, of evolutionists and creationists, respectively. The atheist philosopher, Michael Ruse, once made an important distinction between evolution and evolutionism, the latter being a pseudo-religious commitment to the former. A similar distinction can be made between creation and creationism, with the latter desiring the former to be stamped a science. There is a symmetry to it all that is pleasing to geometers, string theorists, and auld curmudgeons.

Mary Midgley addresses this in her book Evolution as Religion. Another atheist critic of over-the-top evolutionism is David Stove: So you think you are a Darwinian?

1. Evolutionism.
You cannot draw a metaphysical conclusion from the physics. But it is baldly asserted by evolutionists that the "fact" of evolution has "proven" God unnecessary. This is as if the fact of the piano and the physics of vibrating strings "proves" there is no need for the pianist, as the music has been completely explained by the acoustics. 

The statement is silly on several levels. First of all, in philosophy God is not an hypothesis put forward to explain particular physical phenomena. Rather it is a conclusion reasoned from various facts about the world. (No, you don't have to accept the reasoning.  Just be aware that in classic theology, God is at the end of the string, not at the beginning.)  This is not the time for that discussion; but let it be said that neither God nor evolution is "necessary" for auto repair.  So what?  As Cardinal Schoenborn once said, "I certainly hope that God is not invoked in the course of an ordinary scientific explanation." 

But what gives evolution such lofty credentials? Does it possess the Subtle Knife? Why not suppose that Maxwell's Equations made God obsolete? Back in the old days, Gregory of Nyssa engaged his dying sister Macrina in a Platonic dialogue, which is what people did before Twitter, I suppose. Gregory told her that mechanical automata were said to prove that God was unnecessary. So this sort of thing has been going on for a long time, with the death of God announced breathlessly every generation or so.

For St. Macrina's answer, see: Gregory of Nyssa, On the soul and ressurection and scroll down to the part beginning "But what, I asked, if, insisting on the great differences..." Basically, she said that such automata provided supporting evidence for God's existence. And the same is true of evolution.

Secondly, as James Chastek has pointed out:
Presumably, evolution means we can stop looking for some magical elf-and-Santa-workshop where God busily assembles new species. Great. Call off the search. If evolution were to fail, what then? Would it leave the sort of hole that could be filled by the the magical mystery species shop? No. We would just look for another natural explanation, whatever it was. If evolution were to fail, it would not leave a God-shaped hole, and so it follows that it is not filling one now, nor has it ever done so.


The Finnish Harmonica Quartet

And the music is actually in rag time and follows the classic Joplin structure. 

There is hope for the world, after all.

(h/t Mark Shea)

Monday, February 15, 2010

Quote of the Day

When Selfish Gene author Richard Dawkins challenged physicist John Barrow on his formulation of the constants of nature at last summer’s Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship lectures, Barrow laughed and said, “You have a problem with these ideas, Richard, because you’re not really a scientist. You’re a biologist.”


Thursday, February 11, 2010

How the Greeks Lost Their Groove (redux)

An Alert Reader writes to ask regarding the earlier post:
You say that according to the ancient Greeks, there was intention in nature. But didn't Greece's intellectuals disavow this worldview?

If Greek philosophers didn't believe that the pantheon of gods animated the world around them, what did they think caused motion in the universe, and how did Christianity "fix" their misconception?

1. There was no single ancient Greek view of nature. Some, like Parmenides, accounted for motion by denying that there was any. The senses are deceptive and things only "appear" to be in motion. This was Parmenides' answer to Heraclitus. The realist philosophers - Plato and Aristotle - were retorts to Parmenides. One of the reasons why Early Moderns could make no sense of Aristotle was that he consisted of answers to questions they had forgotten. But in addition to the Four Schools, there was also the great mass of Greek civilization. We forget how irrational Greek civilization was because the medievals preferentially copied and preserved their rationalist writings.

2. What goes around comes around. Dawkins, Dennett, and others have resurrected Heraclitus' old conundrum of the world as being in constant flux. Can the post-modern Parmenides be far behind?

3. Greek society failed to invent science in our modern sense because they never embedded the study of nature into society. It remained the hobby of a few gentlemen of leisure. Science does not depend on the existence of this-or-that Great Man. Brilliant and creative individuals have adorned every culture. Abelard and al Ghazali were contemporaries. So were John of Salisbury and ibn Rushd; al-Tusi and Aquinas; ibn Taymiyya and William of Ockham. In China, we need only think of Wang Chhung, Shen Kua, or Chu Hsi. Clearly, there is no shortage of powerful intellects in any culture. But only in the Latin West was the study of nature institutionalized and systematically taught from a standard curriculum, even to those who did not make it their life's work.

4. Aristotle did not disavow intentionality in nature. He called it final cause. He observed that nature worked "always or for the most part" toward an end. "End" does not mean "purpose," although it may. And end may simply be a point of cessation, as when a falling rock reaches the minimum achievable gravitational potential; or it may mean perfection of a potential, as when a tiger cub matures into an adult tiger; it may mean unconscious purpose, as when a robin gathers materials for a nest. In any case, without finality, there would be no reason why A->B "always or for the most part." Thus, there had to be something in A which "directs it toward" B, and not to C or D or nothing at all. Moderns suppose that demonstrating teleology is hard, but once you have getting to God is an easy step. But to Aquinas, demonstrating teleology in nature was easy; but it was not obvious how to get from there to God. Aristotle saw the telos, but did not reason his way from it to the First Mover.

5. Aristotle did reason his way from motion in the world (i.e., from change) to a First Mover (i.e., First Changer) and derived all motion from that first unmoved mover. Parmenides had declared motion to be impossible -- everything comes from its contrary; but the contrary of "being" is "non-being" and non-being, since it does not exist by definition, is incapable of causing being. Aristotle's answer was that being consisted of potentiality and actuality. A big blue bouncy ball is actually blue but potentially red. (It could be painted.) It is actually round, but potentially flat. (It could be melted.) And so on. These are all trans-form-ations, since the body is moved from one form to another. Through melting, the ball loses the form of roundness and takes on the form of flatness. In doing so, it ceases to be a "ball." (Being painted red does not deprive it of its roundness, so we call that an accidental, rather than an essential form of the ball.) Thus, Aristotle refuted Parmenides by introducing potential being in between non-being and being.

[Potential does not mean "anything goes." A big blue bouncy ball is not potentially a steel ingot or a ground squirrel. Although in topology, a donut is potentially a coffee cup, the matter on which the form is imposed also "matters."] 

6. The Christians viewed the world through Genesis -- though not indeed through modernist scientific literalism, but as a "polemic against pagan superstition."
For example, whereas the sun and moon were the objects of worship in pagan religion, the Book of Genesis taught that they were nothing but lamps set in the heavens to give light to day and night: not gods, but mere things, creatures of the one true God. Nor were animals and the forces of nature to be bowed down to by man as in pagan religion...

The Bible’s supernaturalism is concentrated in a God who is outside of Nature, and radically distinguished from the world He has made. Therefore the world of nature is no longer seen as populated by capricious supernatural beings, by fates and furies, dryads and naiads, gods of war or goddesses of sex and fertility. The natural world has been “disenchanted.”
-- Stephen Barr

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Blast from the Past

M&M the millennial couple!

Here is a photo of a photo, taken by one of my bros from one of Pere's photo albums.  She is still every bit as beautiful as then.  I, on the other hand....

It seems like only yesterday.

Friday, February 5, 2010

H.G. Wells Did Not Like Metropolis

In a review of the movie in the New York Times, 17 April 1927, he wrote:

It gives in one eddying concentration almost every possible foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general served up with a sauce of sentimentality that is all its own.

It is a German film and there have been some amazingly good German films, before they began to cultivate bad work under cover of a protective quota. And this film has been adapted to the Anglo-Saxon taste, and quite possibly it has suffered in the process, but even when every allowance has been made for that, there remains enough to convince the intelligent observer that most of its silliness must be fundamental.

Possibly I dislike this soupy whirlpool none the less because I find decaying fragments of my own juvenile work of thirty years ago, The Sleeper Awakes, floating about in it.

Capek's Robots have been lifted without apology, and that soulless mechanical monster of Mary Shelley's, who has fathered so many German inventions, breeds once more in this confusion.

Originality there is none. Independent thought, none.

The remainder of the review can be found here:
Food for Thought

You've always wanted to hear a chef talk about how the "calcium reacts with sodium." 

Bibber, Swigger, or Tippler?

Wine, Beer, or Spirits?

This was on Strange Maps

My old history professor John Lukacs used to describe the border of the Roman Empire thusly: "On one side were Latins, and light, and wine.  On the other side were Germans, and darkness, and beer."  You can pretty much still see that border in modern preferences for wine and beer.  In Roman times, of course, vineyards prospered much farther north ("The Roman Climatic Optimum") and again during the medieval Optimum than they do in today's chilly times. 

But if you look closely at Western Poland, you can also see where wodka gives way to beer and... it's the old German border from pre-WW1: East Prussia and Silesia!  Except for the irruption of beer-swigging Slavs into the western Balkans and of Saxons into England, the wine-bibbing region is still basically the old Roman Empire.  Note beer-swigging Transylvania between the upper and lower jaws of wine-bibbing Romania. 

Beer drinking is the cereal belt of Europe.  North and east of there, grains don't grow as well, and distilled spirits like vodka become the tipple of choice.  The Ukraine ought to drink more beer, though.

The Benefits of Youth

One of the benefits of youth is the ability to go to sleep anywhere at any time:

Monday, February 1, 2010

This is Important

If you go to buy UP JIM RIVER on Amazon, you will find this:
together with a link to "tell the publisher I'd like to read this book on Kindle"

Apparently, Macmillian, of which Tor is a part, has balked at the $9.99 price for Kindle books, that it is not enough to recoup the costs of buying the rights from the authors, editing, and publishing it.  In retaliation, Amazon has pulled all it's "buy" buttons from all Macmillan books.  All of them.  Nancy Kress' new book is out in the cold, and Amazon is hinting that UP JIM RIVER may not be available until November.  A misdirection: the book will be published in April as a really truly *book*.  Amazon apparently thinks that if you can't get it through their proprietary Kindle, then you don't deserve to have it in any form; and the helpful link is to get you to put pressure on the publisher.  Is Amazon getting too big?  Should the government break it up?  Meanwhile, you can get it on Barnes and Noble:

Meanwhile, I have changed all the links in the book covers to the left to B&N.


After a weekend snit, Amazon has thrown in the towel. 

Charlie Stross' Diary:
Go down to "

Scott Westerfeld here:

John Scalzi here:

All of whom aI like one of Mr. Westerfeld's comments: Amazon, if you are going to blacklist an entire publisher (one-sixth of all US books) don't pick the one that  published the vast majority of SF books, because they will blog you dead.  

Chance and Causation

Demons from the Vasty Deep

In the  previous post, we looked at the question of how can something immaterial [gravity] could affect something material [matter]. This generated much discussion in the LiveJournal version of this blog.  Check out the comments here.

This was bound up in the problem of whether gravity is a substance, composed of matter and form, that swims outward from a mass (like sperm, perhaps) to attract other masses.  But if gravity were a substance, then a gravitating body would lose mass over time as the gravitational fluid left the body.  It would also be hard to explain how the gravitational fluid pressing out would attract other masses in.  Also, since gravity is produced by all matter -- and that included "energy"; even light rays have gravity -- then gravity to the extent it consisted of matter, would have gravity.  [And this gravity would have its own gravity, ad inf.] 

The modern vision of gravity as a warping of space-time by the presence of mass -- a particular state of the Ricci tensors -- is no less problematical, since space and time, under general relativity, have no objective existence themselves.  We are faced with the problem of how a material thing [matter] can affect an immaterial thing [space-time]. 

In neither case do we have a problem saying it does.  We just don't know how it does it.  Recall Newton's words: "we have explained the phænomena of the heavens ... by the power of gravity, but have not yet assigned the cause of this power."  The Aristotelian answer is that gravity is not a force, per se, but a natural property of matter itself.  (Einstein is more in line with Aristotle.)  Thus, to ask how an immaterial concept like "gravity" could cause the motion of "matter" is akin to asking how a mental abstraction like three-sidedness could cause a real life triangle.   

Newton also noted the difference between gravity and mechanical forces: "This is certain, that [gravity] must proceed from a cause ... that operates not according to the quantity of the surfaces of the particles upon which it acts (as mechanical causes use to do), but according to the quantity of the solid matter which they contain."  That is, it doesn't matter how big a surface area is attracted; it only matters how big the attractor is.  This is a hint that gravity is not a force in the same sense that being hit with a hammer is a force.

This led, by insensible increments to the denial of causation itself, with the usual invocation of quantum mechanics, and the conjuring up of Chance from the vasty deeps. 

Now the claim that quantum theory involves uncaused effects is seldom backed up with an example of one of these uncaused effects.  Sometimes people say: Particles can appear from nothing!  But this conflates the meaning of "nothing" with the meaning of "zero."  When pressed, the admission is that particles come from fluctuations in the quantum state of the vacuum energy.  In which case, there is not nothing: there is vacuum energy; there are quantum states. 

Then, too, I am told by my physicist friends that quantum mechanics consists of many equations and these equations work out to with precision.  This could not be if there were no causation at the quantum level. 

Now, what about CHANCE, that great bugaboo that is sometimes invoked to deny causation. 

New Story from Michael F. Flynn

 Greetings All.    Mike (Dad) has a new story in the July/August edition of Analog . I know Analog is available on Kindle store and Analog ...