Thursday, April 29, 2010

Europe in Crisis?

Walter Russell Mead on the financial crisis creeping up on Europe.
Central banks exist precisely to puncture this sort of bubble, but the European Central Bank wasn’t focused on the peripheral European economies.  The ECB was looking at the big eurozone economies, especially Germany, which was still struggling with the consequences of unification and where austerity programs and labor market reform programs were aimed at putting the economy on a sounder footing long term.  The big economies needed low interest rates and the ECB did its best to provide them.

The result was like pouring gasoline onto a fire in the Mediterranean countries (and in some northern economies like Ireland and euro-linked Latvia).

Now the inevitable bust has come.  More and more investors understand that at least some of the ‘PIGS’ (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain) may not be willing or able to service or pay off their existing debt.  They understand that spreads, the difference between what credit worthy countries like Germany pay to borrow money and what countries with bad credit need to pay, need to widen considerably within the eurozone.  Interest rates for the ‘bad’ countries are going up at the same time that their governments are having to slash public spending.  These countries may well go into recession once more, and bad economic times will reduce their governments’ tax receipts, making debt payment harder than ever.

Why the Universe is not a black hole....

Sean Carroll has a nice post explaining why the universe cannot be considered a giant black hole:
If there’s any quantitative reasoning behind the question (or claim), it comes from comparing the amount of matter within the observable universe to the radius of the observable universe, and noticing that it looks a lot like the relationship between the mass of a black hole and its Schwarzschild radius. That is: if you imagine taking all the stuff in the universe and putting it into one place, it would make a black hole the size of the universe. Slightly more formally, it looks like the the universe satisfies the hoop conjecture, so shouldn’t it form a black hole?

But a black hole is not “a place where a lot of mass has been squeezed inside its own Schwarzschild radius.” It is, as Wikipedia is happy to tell you, “a region of space from which nothing, including light, can escape.” The implication being that there is a region outside the black hole from which things could at least imagine escaping to. For the universe, there is no such outside region. So at a pretty trivial level, the universe is not a black hole.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Matheson on Meyer

Steve Matheson continues his chapter-by-chapter critique of Meyer's Signature in the Cell.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Coyne v. Futuyma

Larry Moran thinks Jerry Coyne stepped in it. Again.
I hope this was just an attempt to (over-)simplify evolution for the readers of The Nation. In that case it might be (just) excusable. But I can't wait until the creationists get a hold of this review. They'll be delighted to learn that, according to Jerry Coyne, the gradual descent and diversification of life is only a theory.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Brooke on Paley, Design, and all that...

Apropos the continuing com-storm Ed Feser has stirred up with his critical posts on "intelligent" design (all of which I agree with), I was struck by this passage from John Hedley Brooke's Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, which bears up precisely what Ed's saying:

Brooke devoted a chapter to Paley's approach to natural theology, and its popularity in Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries:
The point is not that science undermined the design argument -- certainly not in the eighteenth century. Quite the contrary. It was that religious apologists were asking too much of it. A religious burden was placed on the sciences, which they were eventually unable to carry. This overburdening can be seen in the contrasts between the style of natural theology presented by Paley and that to be found in earlier paradigms of Catholic and Protestant theology. Severe limits had been placed on the scope of natural theology by Thomas Aquinas and, at the Reformation, by Calvin.

[...]Nor would Aquinas have countenanced the facile procedure whereby divine attributes were gleaned from nature, independently of revelation. In fact, he is associated with the saying that we know of God rather what He is not than what He is. This refers to his so-called negative way of approaching the nature of God. By successively denying him the characteristics of finite things, such as materiality and mutability, a knowledge of His attributes (albeit in a negative sense) could be gained. It was a far cry from that position to the position of Paley's claim that God's caring nature could be discerned in the hinges on the wings of an earwig. (p. 195)
Brooke goes on to point out that Paley's approach was bound to be vulnerable, as indeed it turned out to be. Darwin started as much a fan of Paley's natural theology as any other naturalist of the period. But his work undermined it fatally. I think it was Edward Oakes S.J. who once quipped it was too bad Darwin hadn't studied Pascal instead of Paley when he was in school, theologians since that time might all have been spared a lot of grief.

My own feeling is that Aubrey Moore was right when he wrote in 1891, "Darwinism appeared, and,  under the guise of a foe, did the work of a friend."

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Quote of the week, from Zippy: "Of course I'm the sort who reflexively chambers a round when I hear the words 'nothing but' on general principles."

Memo to Joseph Sobran and Tom Bethell

I've wish-listed this new book on Shakespeare:
Despite the failure of early cipher-hunters such as Owen, Elizabeth Wells Gallup and Ignatius Donnelly to find anything meaningful, the idea that Shakespearean texts contain coded messages of authorship remains central. The Sonnets, with their apparently confiding, first-person voice, have proved fertile ground. Oxfordians find anagrams of “Vere” everywhere, especially in the line from Sonnet 76, “Every word doth almost tell my name”. In the famously puzzling dedication to the first edition of 1609 – ostensibly written by the publisher, Thomas Thorpe – the author is styled “our ever-living poet”. Oxfordians point out that the first three words are (almost) an anagram of one of Oxford’s mottoes, Vero nil verius (“Nothing truer than truth”). Yet the same dedicatory text, when examined by Brenda James in Henry Neville and the Shakespeare Code (2008), reveals an entirely different secret, achieved by putting the 144 letters of the dedication into a 12x12 matrix, and juggling them around according to certain cryptographic rules, whereupon there emerges first the encouraging message, “The wise Thorp hid thy poet”, and then the all-important name of the poet, “Nevill”. They cannot both be there, and this is an instance of a general problem with the anti-Stratfordian case nowadays; for Sir Henry Neville is only the latest entry in a crowded field of contenders for the authorship, which includes Christopher Marlowe, Fulke Greville, Roger Manners, 6th Earl of Rutland, and the conveniently initialled William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby. Things were easier in the old duopoly of Bacon and Oxford: you might not be able to hear the signals, but at least you knew who was supposed to be sending them. 

Hitler and Einstein and Westerns....

In yet a further irony of history, we find:
Hitler also had a penchant for the Saxon novelist Karl May’s Wild West adventure stories, which he had reissued in a special field edition for German soldiers at the front and later recommended to his military commanders as manuals of strategy. (Don’t blame the innocent May, whose entertaining tales of the wise Apache Chief Winnetou and his “white blood brother” Old Shatterhand were also a favorite of Albert Einstein.) 

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Harris Redux

Now that both sides have vented, Brandon Watson weighs in with some thoughts on Sam Harris's TED Talk.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Thus, the New Atheists’ favorite argument turns out to be just a version of the old argument from infinite regress: If you try to explain the existence of the universe by asserting God created it, you have solved nothing because then you are obliged to say where God came from, and so on ad infinitum, one turtle after another, all the way down. This is a line of attack with a long pedigree, admittedly. John Stuart Mill learned it at his father’s knee. Bertrand Russell thought it more than sufficient to put paid to the whole God issue once and for all. Dennett thinks it as unanswerable today as when Hume first advanced it—although, as a professed admirer of Hume, he might have noticed that Hume quite explicitly treats it as a formidable objection only to the God of Deism, not to the God of “traditional metaphysics.” In truth, though, there could hardly be a weaker argument. To use a feeble analogy, it is rather like asserting that it is inadequate to say that light is the cause of illumination because one is then obliged to say what it is that illuminates the light, and so on ad infinitum.

David B. Hart. From "Believe it Or Not." 

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Pope of Ironies?

I think Allen pretty much gets it right. He also says fat chance the pope can be arrested when he goes to the UK.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

God Bless Paul Harding:

For three years, Paul Harding’s unpublished novel, “Tinkers,’’ sat in a drawer. The writer, a former Boston rock drummer who grew up in Wenham, had tried selling it, but nobody was interested.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll be a writer who doesn’t publish,’ ’’ Harding, 42, said this week, a day after “Tinkers’’ earned him the Pulitzer Prize for fiction — the first book by a small publisher to do so in nearly three decades.
The author’s unlikely success story is rooted in a series of personal interactions between publishers, booksellers, and reviewers that launched a book the old-fashioned way. There were no media campaigns, Twitter feeds, or 30-city tours. Instead, the success of “Tinkers’’ can be linked to a handful of people who were so moved by the richly lyrical story of an old man facing his final days that they had to tell others about it.
“This wasn’t social media,’’ says Michael Coffey, co-editor of Publishers Weekly and a big booster of “Tinkers.’’ “It was real word of mouth and somebody picking up a lunch check.’’

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Memories from the Ward

                  (photo filtered by the author)

Memories of the War
On Monday I was in my father-in-law's room at the Neurological Institute in Montreal, listening to him tell my wife, slowly, with two words or three when he could muster the breath, about the dates that his own father spent in concentration camps during the war.

Sometime in early 1942, a Slovenian partisan shot and killed an Italian officer near my father-in-law's village, Podmelec. In retaliation, the Italians rounded up all the men there as well as the men from two neighboring villages, Sela and Borovnica, and sent them to a holding camp near Genoa, in a place called Cairo Montenotte. When Mussolini's government began to collapse and the Germans took control of Italy, they shipped all prisoners to their death camps.

The 300 Slovenians from my father-in-law's village and the neighboring ones were sent to Mauthausen in December of 1943. It was only three months they spent there before someone in the Italian ministry in February of 1944 interceded with the German authorities and said the Slovenian prisoners had been sent there by mistake.

By then, only two of the men were still alive, my wife's grandfather... and the village cobbler. She said he never spoke of the experience to her, but once, when her father as a boy asked his father about the scars on either side of his head, he told him it was from beatings he sustained when going up for seconds whenever food was served. It was the only way he stayed alive. The people killed soonest, he said, were the ones who spoke up for their rights or complained.

My father-in-law, even in his weakened condition (he suffers from normal pressure hydrocephalus, which has robbed him of the ability to walk and speak for very long), is not a small man: six-foot-four, and he told me his own father was even bigger.

Which gives you an idea of just how brutal the camps must've been.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Times uncovers another case. Do you think they could've focused any closer on the pope's signature? We get the message.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Ed Feser has a great dissection of the "Nothing but..." approach to philosophy and science.
And that is, of course, exactly what the “mechanical” conception of the world that the early modern philosophers put in place of the Scholastics’ Aristotelian philosophy of nature made possible. The world was reconceived as a machine or collection of machines. Break a natural object down into its parts and identify the efficient-causal relations holding between them, and you know (so the moderns claim) everything there is to know about its intrinsic nature. Anything irreducible to this – such as final causality or end-directedness, or a “formal cause” over and above the sum of the parts – is extrinsic to it, observer-relative, whether the observer is a human being or a divine artificer. For Aristotle, “art imitates nature” – that is to say, artifacts copy nature’s way of doing things, but only (of course) artificially since their parts have no inherent tendency to do what we make them do. The moderns reverse this – nature is for them a kind of “art,” in the sense that natural objects are to be modeled on artifacts rather than the other way around.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

All I can say is, I love a philosopher who sticks up for his profession. Here's Massimo, not only on Harris's overweaning scientism, but taking on the usual spear carriers who show up in the com boxes.
Happy 30th Anniversary to Tor Books.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Josh Roshenau, with further thoughts on why gadfly Ben Stiller Sam Harris is turning out to be a real crank.