Monday, March 31, 2008
Friday, March 28, 2008
The late Professor William Alfred, who passed away in 1999, probably defines the word mentor for me better than anyone else I can think of. Long before I came fumbling my way through Harvard, he had inspired and guided huge talents like Tommy Lee Jones, Stockard Channing, and most famously Faye Dunaway, whom he discovered when he was casting his most famous Broadway play, Hogan's Goat.
I've been able to find only one clip of him, and that by accident. It's not great quality, but it does give you a sense of what a great teacher Alfred was, and what a great sense of humor he had.
Alfred taught both playwriting and Old English. And he does look a little like the most famous Old English scholar, J.R.R. Tolkien, in this clip. While he was not my thesis advisor (I wrote about Tolkien's use of Old English in the narrative), he was always available to offer advice. I'll never forget when I first told him that I planned to write about Lord of the Rings, which to the Harvard English faculty of that time was still quite 'suspect', he said I was going to have to put a lot of linguistic research in to ground my paper, because "they're going to be waiting for you --with baseball bats." It was sound advice, and I got two high recommendations from both my eventual readers, one of whom was Larry Benson, the department chairman.
Sociology is a humble affair and definitely not constructed after the model of rocket science or quantum mechanics. That is because it is a subject with a human subject matter. It does, however, operate within certain evidential constraints on matters where mere opinion is supposed to be king, and I hope that within those constraints I have offered considerations undermining the idea that religion recedes as science advances. At least if I were an atheist anxious to disturb the faith of an intelligent young friend, I would recommend a course in biblical criticism, ‘penny plain and tuppence coloured’, or in psychobabble and sociobabble, or, best of all, a vigorous drench in romantic literary Weltschmertz. But not, definitely not, a bracing course in astrophysics. He or she might rather too easily suppose he or she was tracing ‘the Mind of the Maker’.
Hat tip: Elliot.
Thursday, March 27, 2008
Patterns in fiction, as in life, may proliferate and obscure other patterns. They can yield rich but sometimes far-from-evident implications. They may be open-ended: they and their implications often do not come preannounced and predigested. Sometimes they feed into efficient, evolved pattern-detection systems, but often they have to be discovered through attention and curiosity, and sometimes in ways that neither audiences nor authors fully anticipate.
At a more general level, humans are extraordinary open-ended pattern detectors, because we so compulsively inhabit the cognitive niche. Art plays with cognitive patterns at high intensity. The pleasure this generates is an essential part of what it is to be human and matters both at the individual level, for audiences and artists, and at the social level, for the patterns we share (in design, music, dance, and story). The pleasure art’s intense play with patterns affords compels our engagement again and again and helps shape our capacity to create and process pattern more swiftly. Perhaps it even helps explain the so-called Flynn effect, the fact—and it seems to be one—that IQs have risen with each of the last few generations: perhaps as a consequence of the modern bombardment of the high-density patterns of art through television, dvds, music and iPods, computer games, YouTube and the like.
In Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf, 2006), in the section Are Atheists Evil?, Sam Harris writes:If you are right to believe that religious faith offers the only real basis for morality, then atheists should be less moral than believers. In fact, they should be utterly immoral. (pp. 38-39)
Harris then goes on to point out something that I don't doubt is true, namely, that atheists ". . . are at least as well behaved as the general population." (Ibid.) Harris' enthymeme can be spelled out as an instance of modus tollendo tollens, if you will forgive the pedantry:(show)1. If religious faith offers the only real basis for morality, then atheists should be less moral than believers.
2. Atheists are not less moral than believers.
3. Religious faith does not offer the only real basis for morality.
The problem with this argument lies in its first premise. It simply doesn't follow that if religious faith offers the only real basis for morality, then atheists should be less moral than theists. This blatant non sequitur trades on a confusion of two questions which it is essential to distinguish...
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Former Boston Globe columnist David Wilson has passed away. My father worked with him during the 1980s (they were both regulars on the op-ed page). In fact, as I recall it, he also worked at the Herald under Hal Clancy, and took the offer from the Globe on my dad's advice (I think they both knew the old Traveler was going down in flames by then). R.I.P.
I maintain that if we have an "outspoken atheists" problem, the way to solve it is not to silence the voices with which we disagree, but to engage them, debate them, even refute them. Here are some thoughts on how to do that.Bingo.
1. Put Myers and Dawkins into a more complete context. They're both science writers of renown, because they're both brilliant thinkers and wordsmiths. But neither is a scientist of any significant distinction.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
This indeed was one of the things I loved about England. The English version of continental eruptions suggested a national character in control of itself. In France, Germany, Italy and Spain, political activism at its extremes included murder, kidnap and bombs. My Italian publisher, one of the most sophisticated, charming and charismatic people I’d ever met, was later killed by his own explosives while trying to blow up an electricity pylon outside Milan.
Monday, March 24, 2008
What breed of Middle Eastern charlatans would that be, one wonders? The Middle East is rather a big place. This is like describing the US as a nation established by gun nuts from the island north of Normandy.
Apparently there are specificities of place and race that even "new" atheists are not quite prepared to be blunt about.
Friday, March 21, 2008
When the sepulchers ruptured
And expelled cadavers haltingly
To strut their shrouded knees and elbows forth,
Those ashen eyes did not perceive the stars above
Or in what orbit Venus moved
While the moon obscured the sun.
This exalted carrion chased instead the gale
Along the streets and roads of
Jerusalem’s outer quarter,
To engage the startled rabble,
Before the squall released its puppet’s grip
And let them fall clattering upon
Once-familiar thresholds and passageways,
Bearing--before startled eyes--brief witness
To the passing of the medial swain,
Who dangled on a tree between two thieves.
...I still think Obama's speech was as honest and compelling as anything I've read or heard from a politician. To put a local spin on it, I have a strong hunch he's both read and internalized 'Common Ground.' If he hasn't read the book, then it's clear from his speech he's truly experienced both sides of the race saga. ... Here's a thoughtful and refreshing new approach to solving social problems: 'social entrepreneurship.' But he lost me when he noted that a 'consortium' of these entrepreneurs are now urging national 'scalability.' Does it always have to lead back to the federal government? ...Well said.
PZ Myers was escorted out of a private screening of the new "Expelled" movie. Apparently the chowderskulls who produced it didn't realize Richard Dawkins as well as Myers' family was in attendance with him.
They were well within their rights to exclude anyone. When I was told I would not be allowed in and threatened with arrest, I told the security guard that I would not cause any trouble. I stopped to talk with my family when they came over with a theater manager to evict me; again, I left peacefully. Apparently, the guards were talking about carrying out further measures when they saw me standing outside the theater, and speculated that I was going to harass other attendees. This was not true; I'd just had to leave my friends and family behind, and all I really wanted to do was tell them where I'd be. The last thing I wanted to do was spend two hours hanging around a movie theater.
This account is a complete fabrication. I was not disturbing anyone, was not trying to make a scene, and was only standing quietly in line. When I was taken aside by the guard, it was a complete surprise.
I was the only person evicted. The people I was with, which included my wife, my daughter Skatje, her boyfriend Collin, Richard Dawkins, and the entire staff of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, were overlooked. I was the lucky one.
Afterwards, we went out to eat and have a beer or two, which is why I didn't give you all a more complete summary right away. We laughed over the movie, which I hear is not only boring and poorly made, but is ludicrous in its dishonesty. Apparently, a standard tactic is to do lots of fast cuts between biologists like me or Dawkins or Eugenie Scott and shots of Nazi atrocities. It's all very ham-handed. The audience apparently ate it up, though. Figures. Christians have a growing reputation for their appreciation of dishonesty.
Sadly, this is all too true. Thanks to the 'brains' behind the Expelled movie. Nothing like giving militant atheists even more reason to substantiate their hostility.
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Scientists have used Hubble to detect methane in the atmosphere of a planet orbiting another star for the first time and to confirm the existence of water vapor there as well.
I had the pleasure of seeing him on the London Stage in 1986, in a West End production of I'm Not Rappaport.
Edward J. Oakes, SJ, with some striking thoughts on Ian McEwan's Atonement (the novel and the movie), in light of Pope Benedict's recent encyclical.
What struck me in reading this intricate work of metafiction was the implicit motor of the plot: Briony knew the devastation she wreaked and knew equally she had to atone for it. Lies that are consequential demand atonement, as the title of the novel already tells us. But Briony lives in an a-religious world (religion never comes up in the novel, even as a topic of conversation), and so her only way to expiate her lie is by living a life of yet more lying. “Horkheimer radically excluded the possibility of ever finding a this-worldly substitute for God, while at the same time he rejected the image of a good and just God,” says Pope Benedict.
I suspect McEwan has taken the same position as Horkheimer, rejecting God while eschewing easy substitutes for Him, precisely by writing a novel about a character who herself tried to find a this-worldly substitute for God (fiction) as a way of atoning for her sins. But such a project, such a hope, is itself a lie. Indeed, it is, according to the Bible, the greatest lie of all: substituting a no-god for the real God.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
"As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me ... I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother -- a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe." It was an intriguing leap, but I didn't buy it. I don't think Obama's elderly grandmother, who still lives in Hawaii and is reportedly too frail to travel, who was a product of her time and place and yet did her best to raise her half-black grandson, deserved to be compared to Wright, a public figure who's built his career around a particularly divisive analysis of American racial politics. It is easily the most tin-eared thing I've ever heard Obama say.
But haven't George Bush and other Republican politicians accepted the support of Jerry Falwell, who spouted hate of his own? Yes, but they didn't financially support his ministry and sit directly under his teaching for decades.
The better analogy is this: What if a Republican presidential candidate spent years in the pew of a theonomist church -- a fanatical fragment of Protestantism that teaches the modern political validity of ancient Hebrew law? What if the church's pastor attacked the American government as illegitimate and accepted the stoning of homosexuals and recalcitrant children as appropriate legal penalties (which some theonomists interpret as biblical requirements)? Surely we would conclude, at the very least, that the Republican candidate attending this church lacked judgment, and that his donations were subsidizing hatred. And we would be right.
Andrew Sullivan, in contrast, seems to have suspended his usually reliable critical judgment.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Just over five years ago, on the date of the Columbia disaster — February 1, 2003 — I wrote an essay for Locus Online arguing that this was not the right time in human history to pursue a vigorous space program, and suggesting that our stubborn determination to continue venturing into space at this time was due in large part to the influence of science fiction, which falsely promoted the idea that space travel was safe and easy. To say the least, these messages were not well received in the science fiction community, and after pondering the vociferously negative reactions (http://locusmag.com/2003/Features/Letters02.html, http://locusmag.com/2003/Features/Letters02b.html, and elsewhere), I wrote a brief response and privately resolved to say nothing further about the space program for the next five years, in print or at conventions, breaking this vow only to make a requested contribution to a Chinese friend's website.Further:
I cannot claim to be a detailed student of all the plans now being hatched by the new, profit-driven, would-be pioneers of space. But the things I have heard about do not sound particularly exciting. First, it seems, companies are planning to send small vehicles into suborbital space or Earth orbit and charge people big money for a brief ride through outer space. Then, they will eventually place some sort of enormous tin can in orbit, call it a "space hotel," and charge people big money for a brief stay in outer space. And all of these achievements will only require technology equivalent to the technology developed long ago for the Gemini program's comparable achievements. In other words, while NASA is now planning to re-accomplish everything that it had accomplished by 1969, the bold champions of private enterprise are now planning to re-accomplish everything that NASA had accomplished by 1965.
Sunday, March 16, 2008
I've just finished reading Philip Lawler's new book, The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture. It's an excellent overview of the clergy-abuse scandal, specifically in the degree to which it documents and strongly condemns the corruption of the American hierarchy. But it's more ambitious, stepping back to take a wider view of how the Church has declined since the alleged 'good old days' before Vatican II when bishops had real clout. The truth is, as Lawler points out, the church was already ossifying from a lack of spiritual leadership among bishops that were too much caught up in the institution of the church as a secular corporation. In many ways the scandals that followed over the decades were predictable, if not inevitable.
The book suffers from a thin index and a complete lack of notes. Lawler is a veteran journalist, so I'm prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, right smack in the middle of the book he unloads a real howler, which I have to say is astonishing in someone who, according to the back book flap was "born and raised in the Boston area."
From p. 113, where Lawler is discussing the unpopularity of pro-life politicians running for office in Massachusetts, he writes:
Shamie, Hyatt, McCarthy, and McNamara had something else in common: they were all pro-life Catholics. And in the Boston of the 1980s, who would come to the defense of a pro-life Catholic Republican? Neither political party was hospitable. The Globe was an implacable enemy, the Herald at best an inconstant friend. There were liberal op-ed columnists and talk-show hosts aplenty around the Boston area, whose intellectual hegemony was contested by a few feisty libertarians. There were two tradition-minded Jewish columnists (Don Feder and Jeff Jacoby), and a conservative Baptist (Joe Fitzgerald), but not a single prominent newspaper columnist or talk-show host who could plausibly be described as a Catholic conservative. [emphasis mine]Huh?? I almost threw the book at the wall. Let me see...you could ask Globe op-ed columnist Ellen Goodman if she thought my late father, David J. Farrell --who was an op-ed columnist for the Globe from 1972 until November 1985-- could not plausibly be described as a Catholic conservative. Ask her colleague Joan Vennochi, or Don Feder and Jeff Jacoby. Or ask Mike Barnicle. Dave Nyhan, RIP, isn't around, but he'd chime in too, if he could.
And David J. wasn't alone. David B. Wilson, who retired from the Globe just a year or so before my dad left the paper (if I recall correctly), also wrote regularly against abortion among other things (although Wilson's a Protestant).
Sheesh. I don't mind saying, this made me take the rest of the book's facts, sans notes, with just a grain of salt. I don't know what Lawler was reading during the 1980s, but I guess it wasn't the Globe.
Tough questions remain about how civilian commanders should choose and interact with military professionals. Bush's record, in my view, has been far from ideal. He has seemed content with letting others choose military commanders and then accepting their advice with little of the abrasive interaction recommended by Eliot Cohen in his 2002 book "Supreme Command." Only after the debacle of the 2006 elections did he call on David Petraeus.
One wonders how much he pondered the installation at Central Command of Petraeus' critic Fallon. It is surely a difficult thing for civilian presidents to choose able and apt military commanders -- looking back in our history Franklin Roosevelt seems to have been the only commander in chief who had a consistent record of doing so early on. But at least Bush -- and Gates -- have rectified what they must now consider a mistake. And they have reaffirmed the ancient principle of civilian control.
Friday, March 14, 2008
Since I spend most of my spare time outside of work either producing videos or working on stories, articles and proposals that I hope to sell to publishers of books and journals, I think of my media log here as just that: nothing ambitious, just a log to quickly reference links to articles, sites and blogs I find interesting and want to remember. I don't so often write posts in the same detail as so many of the bloggers on my blogroll down below left, whom I enjoy reading regularly.
Having said that... when I look at my list of feeds at bloglines and consider the number of subscribers Scott and Steve and Mark and DarwinCatholic, et al have compared to me...well, it's pretty pathetic.
Thursday, March 13, 2008
The apparent contradiction is between a view of things that says we are the purposeful creations of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God, and a view that says that we are the chance result of tens of millions of years of bloody and violent evolution. Yeah, it's real hard to imagine how anyone sees opposition between the two stories.Indeed, especially when one has been hanging out for a while with Mike Liccione.
Mr. Liberal has come around to the anti-casino position, but he still wants more data and for "cooler heads to prevail." I'm not sure why. Patrick's three-casino proposal is the most damaging idea any governor has come up with in a long time. What's needed is to defeat it — soundly, and by a wide enough margin that he doesn't try again.
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Polish priest and physicist Michael Heller has won the Templeton Prize. Heller's two books on Lemaitre were key sources for my own book. In his statement released today, he has some interesting comments on that brand of creationism peculiar to the U.S.:
"Adherents of the so-called intelligent design ideology commit a grave theological error. They claim that scientific theories, that ascribe the great role to chance and random events in the evolutionary processes, should be replaced, or supplemented, by theories acknowledging the thread of intelligent design in the universe. Such views are theologically erroneous. They implicitly revive the old manicheistic error postulating the existence of two forces acting against each other: God and an inert matter; in this case, chance and intelligent design."Hat tip: Amy Welborn.
I'd observed that lust, greed, envy, sloth, and their pals are giving the world a good run for its money, but that nonetheless, people in general seem to get from day to day; and that we in the United States get from day to day under rather wonderful and privileged circumstances—that we are not and never have been the villains that some of the world and some of our citizens make us out to be, but that we are a confection of normal (greedy, lustful, duplicitous, corrupt, inspired—in short, human) individuals living under a spectacularly effective compact called the Constitution, and lucky to get it.
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
The dot-com crash of the early 2000s should have been followed by decades of soul-searching; instead, even before the old bubble had fully deflated, a new mania began to take hold on the foundation of our long-standing American faith that the wide expansion of home ownership can produce social harmony and national economic well-being. Spurred by the actions of the Federal Reserve, financed by exotic credit derivatives and debt securitization, an already massive real estate sales-and-marketing program expanded to include the desperate issuance of mortgages to the poor and feckless, compounding their troubles and ours.
Friday, March 07, 2008
Few American presidents have enjoyed a warmer embrace than John Kennedy visiting France in June of 1961. French newspapers swooned at the first lady's perfect French and the better Parisian shops sold silk scarves embroidered "Jackie." But President Charles de Gaulle remained more interested in the cultivation of French self-esteem than in trans-Atlantic unity. Having withdrawn the French Mediterranean fleet from NATO in 1959, he later ordered the removal of NATO troops from French soil. President Lyndon Johnson (in one of his finest hours) instructed his secretary of state to ask de Gaulle: "Does your order include the bodies of American soldiers in France's cemeteries?"
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
I didn't realize until just recently that Jim Broadbent's satirical masterpiece, A Sense of History, is online.
Mike Leigh directed it, and no doubt added his own touch, but Broadbent, one of the treasures of modern British comedy, wrote and starred. It's as merciless a send up of the WASP sensibility as you can imagine. The whole thing is not quite a half hour and should be passed along.
Part two here.
Part three here.
Monday, March 03, 2008
And it's not as if anybody is looking for coded language in which to say: "Health care—who needs it?" or "Special interests and lobbyists—give them a break," let alone "Dr. King's dream—what a snooze." It's more that the prevailing drivel assumes that every adult in the country is a completely illiterate jerk who would rather feel than think and who must furthermore be assumed, for a special season every four years, to imagine that everyone else "in America" or in "this country" is unemployed or starving or sleeping under a bridge. The next assumption made by the drivel is that only a new president (or perhaps a sitting president who is somehow eager to run against Washington and everything else in his home town) can possibly cure all these ills. The non sequitur is breathtaking.