Archive for 2005

The triumph of capitalism

Friday, December 30th, 2005

Scott Rosenberg reports that you can’t even mention the words “socialist” or “Socialism” in comments on Salon blogs any more. For why? It’s the Scunthorpe problem: the words contain a brand name for a viagra-type medication — cialis. So the unresticted global capitalism of the spammers’ economy has finally made it impossible even to mention an alternative.

Cardinal Schönborn has a posse

Wednesday, December 28th, 2005

A comment on the previous entry leads me to a blog devoted to the thought of Cardinal Schönborn. I’m more confused than ever. I think that the distinction he is trying to make is between full-on Dawkins style atheism or scientism, which he calls neo-Darwinism, and a belief in the fact of evolution, which most other people call neo-Darwinism.

According the the blog’s summary of his position:

That point is: Christianity can accept science that attempts to explain how development occurs in living creatures, but it cannot accept an ideology that attempts to explain away Who causes that developments, or in other words, it cannot accept an ideology which refuses to see that God ultimately causes and guides the universe: “Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.”

and we’re back to the bald claim that there is “overwhelming evidence for design” in biology which science must recognise. But the whole point about science is that it shows us a world which works as if there were no designer, but only some regularities. Now, if the claim is that this doesn’t prove that there is no designer, I’m with the Cardinal. But Darwinism does show how we can get design without a designer. The theory of evolution by natural selection really does disprove Paley. It doesn’t — it couldn’t — disprove the Aquinas anthropic argument, that the fact that the world is intelligible proves that there must be an intellegence behind it; but that’s not a scientific hypothesis. It’s a philosophical argument. So where is this “overwhelming evidence for design”?

Is the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna nuts?

Tuesday, December 27th, 2005

Or have I missed something subtle in this piece about Intelligent Design? He seems to be arguing that we have “philosophical”, i.e mediaeval scholastic, knowledge of certain truths about the world, which take precedence over scientific understandings. For example, we know that the universe is the product of an intelligence not by faith — since that would imply that there was no warrant for the belief — nor by science — since science excludes, by its nature, any such teleology — but by philosophy and natural reason: the fact that we can understand the world proves that it was made by some other intelligent being. Intelligibility is a conversation. This argument apparently derives for Aquinas. I don’t find it wholly convincing, but it’s certainly worth thinking about.

And he has a subtle and wholly defensible position on the two magisteria:

If the Darwinist, taking up Descartes’ and Bacon’s project of understanding nature according only to material and efficient causes, studies the history of living things and says that he can see no organizing, active principles of whole living substances (formal causes) and no real plan, purpose or design in living things (final causes), then I accept his report without surprise.

But then he has to go and spoil it by claiming that there is warrant for his philosophical intuition in the stories that modern biology tells:

“The Darwinian biologist looking at the history of life faces a precisely analogous question. If he takes a very narrow view of the supposedly random variation that meets his gaze, it may well be impossible to correlate it to anything interesting, and thus variation remains simply unintelligible. He then summarizes his ignorance of any pattern in variation by means of the rather respectable term ‘random.’ But if he steps back and looks at the sweep of life, he sees an obvious, indeed an overwhelming pattern. The variation that actually occurred in the history of life was exactly the sort needed to bring about the complete set of plants and animals that exist today. In particular, it was exactly the variation needed to give rise to an upward sweep of evolution resulting in human beings. If that is not a powerful and relevant correlation, then I don’t know what could count as evidence against actual randomness in the mind of an observer.”

But why does he suppose evolution has “an upward sweep” What on earth makes him suppose that the complete set of plants an animals living today — the overwhelming majority of animals nematode worms; the majority of living things being neither plants nor animals, but fungi and bacteria and possibly viruses — would make anyone think of purpose?

I think his argument could reasonably be reduced to this: because we are capable of experiencing and believing in God, God must exist — and have the qualities that the Catechism of the Catholic Church (which Schönborn edits) ascribes to Him. Richard Dawkins once dismissed a silliness by Hugh Montefiore as “the argument from episcopal incredulity”. Here we have, in a very pure form, something that looks like the argument from Archiepiscopal credulity.

Questions to Santa

Saturday, December 24th, 2005
Q: I have here a 35mm film canister containing “Creosote salve”, which says it can cure Självsprickor, excema, and weeping sores, as well as repelling mosquitoes and midges. Will it also cure colds?
A: Not entirely, but if you rub it on your upper lip, the smell is pleasant and the resemblance to central European dictators slight.
Q: What are Självsprickor, anyway?
A: I’d guess chapped lips. Better informed opinions welcome.
Q: What are the ingedients of this wonderworking substance?
A: Creosote, Beeswax, Vegetable oil.
Q: An Ajax live machine translation service is very clever, but Jack Schofield says it doesn’t work in IE. Does it work in anything else?
A: Ich traf ein Laufstück von einem antiken Land sagte, das — zwei beträchtlich und trunkless Beine des Steins, Standplatz im Ödland.
Q: Did you steal that last link from John Naughton?
A: It was a presssent, yes it was. It’s mine.
Q: What is the funniest thing you have heard on the radio all year?
A: Andrew Marr’s history of Mornington Crescent and especially the cricket commentary at around 22 minutes in.
Q: Is this sophisticated humour?
A: Not unduly.

Civilisation in Cambridge

Friday, December 23rd, 2005

In keeping with the spirit of Christmas I would point out that the Cambridge Wine Merchants of Cambridge, England, are selling some venerable Riesling at prices which are almost incredible. I found in their Bridge Street shop last week a superlative 1982 bottle for ten pounds something; and hope this afternoon to pick up the 1973 Riesling which was eighteen pounds something, a price I shrank from like a fool.

These have to be the most fantastic bargains on the planet right now. I can’t remember the names, and they were not the dry rieslings I prefer to drink — which hardly matters when a wine is this good. Nor do they show up on the web site. You’ll just have to go there.

More formal programme plug

Friday, December 23rd, 2005

The Analysis programme on American religion goes out next Thursday, 29 December, at 8.30 GMT, and can be heard for a week thereafter by any of this blog’s remarkably far-flung readers who have broadband. The cast ranges from a former president of the USA to a current commentator here. We have, in no particular order:

  • Jimmy Carter
  • Joseph Q. Wilson (apparently the man who came up with the slogan Just say No )
  • Professor Nicholas Boyle, the originator of the Transcendental Turkey Baster theory, though the phrase is due to
  • Harriet Baber, philosopher of this parish
  • Joseph Bottum, the editor of First Things magazine
  • The Rev’d Richard Cizik, chief lobbyist for the National Evangelical Association
  • Gordon Atkinson, better known as Real Live Preacher
  • The Rev’d Dr Judith Maltby (American chaplain of an Oxford college)
  • Professor James Morone, historian at Brown University.

People seriously interested in this topic should on no account neglect Clifford Longley’s excellent book Chosen People.

The Saffron Walden Quadrilateral

Friday, December 23rd, 2005

I loathe these things, and refuse to transmit this one even to He or qB whose answers might be interesting. But Mrs Tilton has brought such beautiful legs into my life – eight at a time — that I must obey her. Besides. It’s Friday morning. The programme is all recorded. I have only one two columns1 to write over the weekend. (I know there’s something else happening then, but I have almost managed to forget it). So, here goes:

Four jobs you’ve had in your life: Factory worker, barman, nursing auxilary, religion and royal affairs correspondent
Four films you could watch over and over erk — Godfather II, Spirited Away, Leningrad Cowboys Go America, Some LIke it Hot
Four places you’ve lived Belgrade, Stockholm, LIlla Edet, London
Four TV shows you love to watch double erk. The Simpsons, some Buffy, Ice Hockey world championships, University Challenge
Four places you’ve been on holiday Ljubljana, Vienna, Trysil, Avignon
Four websites you visit daily Bloglines, and from there Making light,,Scott Rosenberg
Four of your favourite foods Fresh grayling, trout, perch. Sauerkraut.
Four places you’d rather be Vienna, Rome, New York, San Francisco

2 oops!

Why no posts

Wednesday, December 21st, 2005

I have been totally consumed by the radio programme I am making — it goes out on the 29th of December and the 1st of January: the details will he here. It’s about the role played by religion in American self-understanding. 25 minutes should be plenty to cover that, don’t you think?

Actually, I think I have got the message down to one unusable soundbite inspired by Jamie Zawinski . America is inconveivable without God because of Thomas Jefferson, who, at the conception of America, used God as his turkey baster.

Something more straightforward and less offensive will be used for the programme, but the underlying argument is a serious one. America imagines itself as a community of people with rights. Where do these rights come from? Well, from the creator. That’s what it says in the Declaration of Independence. What mattered to Jefferson was to limit the powers of government. The Bill of Rights is therefore a set of political assertions, but they are dressed up to make them seem beyond politics, self-evident truths deriving from human nature. That may be how constitutioins have to function. All political arguments have to stop somewhere. Either way, we reach a situation where to be an American is to be a certain sort of human being, one whose rights are fully recognised (even if everyone has them in potentia ) and this is a centrally important fact about America and Americans. Yet these rights or the power to recognise them were given to America, and to Americans, by the creator. They have to have been. If they don’t come from somewhere outside the political process, they can’t serve their constitutional function. Of course, in reality, they were brought into being, and have been maintained, by power and in the least resort by violence. But the belief that they have an extra-political sanction is necessary for them to perform their political function.

It doesn’t matter, in this context, whether Jefferson himself distinguished between God and Nature, or meant one rather than the other — and he almost certainly didn’t mean the God of the Bible.

Etiquette question

Monday, December 12th, 2005

How do you address a former president of the United States? I think I’ve got to phone one up on Wednesday.

Crusading values

Monday, December 12th, 2005

I had to write a review of the year for the Church Times yesterday, and found myself unable to think for even a minute about a religion which is currently convulsed over the question of whether homosexuals are human beings. Quite apart from anything else, the same arguments have continued for something like twenty years, which means that only the nastiest and least adequate people still care very much. But they’re the ones driving the story.

Anyway, I just thought of a way in which this theological hatred might come to matter. Last week, James Lovelock told me that by the end of the century, there will be no Arctic, and no rain forests either. The world will be eight degrees warmer, on average, and almost all the tropics will be completely uninhabitable. It won’t, in other words, just be the flooding that makes global warming dangerous. It will be the warmth. Civilisation, if it survives, will survive in the Arctic latitudes. So, what will happen to all the people currently living in what will become the southern annexe of the Sahara desert, or the Eastern extension of Death Valley? They’re going to want to move North. But they are going to need some ideology to justify this. Just as we conquered their countries on the grounds that we were bringing civilisation and christianity, in exchange for all their wealth, so they will be able to claim that Europe, or Canada, is a spiritual desert, full of liberals and queers. If ever I steal something from you, I may feel guilty, but I’m much more likely to feel superior, because I have got away with it. Arguments proving my own superiority will thus gain credibility.

You think I’m joking. I hope I’m joking.

But — if the coming century is full of wars over energy, and food and land, which looks increasingly inevitable who can doubt that religion will have a huge part to play? If the USA, under some future Pat Robertson-esque president, should ever invade Canada, will it be oil shales or gay marriage that figure loudest in the propaganda?