Archive for June, 2007

Horrible historical irony

Sunday, June 24th, 2007

You know that silly trope about anti-Semitism: “You can’t call me an anti-Semite because that would mean I hated Arabs, too”. Well, it turns out to have had some foundation in the nineteenth century. According to Jamil Ragep, there was a very notable tendency in nineteenth Century scholarship for the Germans to value Islamic science much more highly than the French. This was partly because the most influential French writer on the subject was Ernest Renan, who was anxious to prove that religion was all darkness as part of the secularisation wars, partly because a number of the German scholars involved were Jewish, and therefore anxious to point out the “Semitic” contributions to Western civilisation. So they searched out every Arab achievement they could find.

There is no God

Sunday, June 24th, 2007

Quick chart from the Wall Street Journal showing that Richard Dawkins has sold half a million hardback copies of The God Delusion, and Hitchens may have made a million dollars from selling 300,000 copies of his book. Poor old Dennett is trailing in at 64,000 copies — probably because he is the only one to have approached the subject with anything like an open mind or any interest in other people’s opinions. If the New Atheist movement were actually about reasoned enquiry, and distrust of authority these proportions would be pretty much reversed.

Catholic bioethics: still crazy

Saturday, June 23rd, 2007

One of the people we had to talk to us at the Templeton seminars was an official Catholic bioethicist, who was put up against two FRSs to defend or at least expound RC teaching on embryos. The session produced some real enlightenment — it turns out that the theory that life begins at conception was adopted first by Pius IX in 1869 and that his reasons had nothing to do with science or fact at all.

The old Pope was preparing to define (infallibly) the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. The idea that Mary had always been sinless seemed to him to demand that her sinless soul had been present from the moment of conception rather than (as Aquinas would have had it) after eighty days. This, however, was told us by Brian Heap. The official contribution — at least what I will remember — was one phrase: “Incarnation means that God was an embryo”

Human spam

Saturday, June 23rd, 2007

The FWB was reading a Travis McGee book, to celebrate the fact that we have at least completed our collection with the latest delivery from Amazon.

“What’s an Avon Lady?” she asked.
and I, reaching across the generation gap for an analogy, replied:
“A sort of human spam”.

Proper blogging will resume tomorrow

Friday, June 22nd, 2007

In the meantime, here is the most completely outrageous EULA clause I have ever seen, from the download manager for the Bill Graham website mentioned last week: Concert Vault may change the EULA, and Terms of Use by posting a new version or additional terms applicable thereto on the Concert Vault website without notice of such posting to you. Use of the Concert Vault Download Manager (“Software”) after such change constitutes acceptance of such changes.

Any lawyers out there? Is this even remotely enforceable?

Sunday shorts

Sunday, June 17th, 2007
  • Thank you mefi. I could spend the whole weekend fooling around at this huge collection of legal streamed music, trying to put together the most perfect possible radio station of concerts promoted by Bill Graham.
  • Language Log shows how to make language whimper and beg for mercy: They had not just been dishonest, which is a bad enough sin in academia; they had insulted my intelligence, which is an utter no-no to the nth power with a side order of fries, and will cause me to wreak my awful vengeance. Don’t ever insult my intelligence.
  • A glimpse of absolute hubris, from the plug piece for Andrew Rawnsley’s upcoming Blair documentary: Very shortly before the war, in early 2003, there was an Anglo-French summit. Over lunch, Jacques Chirac warned the Prime Minister that he knew what to expect because the French President had been a young soldier in Algeria. Sir Stephen Wall, a former ambassador and one of Blair’s senior advisers, was privy to this conversation. He recalls Chirac telling Blair that there would be a civil war in Iraq. ‘We came out and Tony Blair rolled his eyes and said, “Poor old Jacques, he doesn’t get it, does he?”‘ Wall remarks: ‘We now know Jacques “got it” rather better than we did.’
    Of course, if Chirac had been a conscript in Algeria, that would explain everything about his understanding of colonial wars. Stephen Wall went on to be Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor’s adviser for a while: I remember his coming to lunch at the Guardian, very smooth and smart.

God knows no better than Heisenberg

Wednesday, June 13th, 2007

I have thought for many years that the point of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle was that you could not measure a system without disturbing it. Hence the idea that your measurement of one aspect (say, momentum) must disturb another, like position, since all measurement involves interaction.

I was wrong. It turns out, at least according to John Barrow, that this is a vulgar misunderstanding of the Heisenberg principle, perpetrated as a way around the mathematical difficulties. What it in fact states is that the concepts of position and momentum stop making clear sense at a sufficiently small scale. So my clever idea that God might be the sort of entity (or fact about the universe) that could know without observing turns out to be as otiose as any other idea about God.

A snippet from the Culture Wars

Wednesday, June 13th, 2007

An astrophysicist’s story: I was giving a talk in Houston and I was told that there was a group of people coming who were going to make their protest by walking out when they heard the word “Evolution”. So I was very careful to use circumlocutions until I got to the evolution of Red Dwarf stars. And they didn’t know what to do. So they stayed to the end.

This co-ordinated walkout seems to be an accepted creationist tactic. I suppose they call it dialogue. At any rate, I have heard it reported from the Bible Belt around Vancouver, as well. The really frightening thing is the growth of what Damian Thompson calls Counterknowledge — developed, consistent, yet mendacious systems of counterfactual belief. I know it is easy, and right, to tease a neocon supporter of the Iraq war about his criticisms of other forms of counterknowledge. But that doesn’t make them less frightening. The same lecturer said “There are a lot of people who believe that there is _scientific_evidence for YEC. I don’t know what you can do about these people.”

Science and Religion (1)

Wednesday, June 13th, 2007

One of the theological points of Pope Benedict’s speech in Regensburg last year was that the Muslim conception of God was flawed because it allowed him complete and unfettered freedom, even from logic:

The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: “For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.” Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us.

On Monday, I heard Denis Alexander argue that this same belief, present in Christianity, was one of the foundations of Western science. Newton and his contemporaries argued that is was precisely because God could not be bound by human logic that it was necessary to divine his purposes by experiment. Pure thinking would not do.

I think this is very probably true; but then Ratzinger has never struck me as someone terribly interested in the foxy ways that the world actually is. He wants to know the mind of the cosmic hedgehog.

Miscellany post

Tuesday, June 12th, 2007

I’m in Cambridge for the next ten days or so, working on a Templeton journalism Fellowship, but hoping to socialise in the evenings — hi, Bill! hi John! — with readers. I mean to put some of the little fragments from the lecture programme up here when I have a moment. I don’t have one now: only time to point out that in all the annals of rapacity in the British tourist industry, a prominent place belongs to the Garden House Hotel, which charges £16.00 a day for wifi access. That is, for American readers, $32.00; possibly more, depending on the rapacity of your credit card company.