Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Can Aristotle be Rescued?

Stephen Barr, writing in Faith:
In short, Aristotelian/Thomistic philosophy has paid a heavy price for the two and a half centuries in which it largely ignored what was going on in the natural sciences. A sustained re-engagement with science would enrich its conceptual and linguistic resources. This re-engagement cannot simply be an attempt to translate statements of modern science into existing Aristotelian terms. That cannot be done in many cases. Rather, many more Aristotelian/ Thomistic metaphysicians than currently do must learn to listen to and understand science in its own native tongue. Modern physics has made discoveries (e.g. quantum mechanics) which undoubtedly have profound metaphysical implications, but what those implications are cannot be explored unless the physics is understood directly and not "in translation".

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Gaskell Case

I haven't been following the case of astronomer Martin Gaskell, who is suing University of Kentucky for denying him a job (for which he was apparently a leading candidate) because of his faith. But Lee Kottner at Cocktail Party Physics makes a lot of sense to me on this.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Quantum Loops, Black Holes, and Sony Playstations

My post for this week is up at Forbes, discussing the work of UMass Dartmouth physicist Gaurav Khanna and his networking of gravity-simulating PS3s....

Monday, November 08, 2010

Mead on the Aftermath

He makes a lot of sense:
I continue to wish that the immensely talented and driven figure now in the White House had finished his term in the Senate, run for governor of Illinois and served at least one term there before coming to Washington.  The painful lessons he has been learning on the national and international stage could have been mastered in a more forgiving environment and his presidency would have had much greater chances for the kind of historic success he so deeply craves.
But wishes are vain; I still wish that John McCain had done better in the South Carolina primary back in 1999. 
Still, however we got here, and whomever should be blamed, President Obama’s current term is not yet half over.  Senator McConnell can talk about the importance of ensuring that President Obama serves only one term; I am still interested in ensuring that the next two years unfold in the best possible way for the United States.  Particularly overseas, I do not want this President to fail.  I do not want him humiliated, frustrated, or in any way diminished–and neither should any American.  The world is a hard and a dangerous place; there are many people out there who would like to do much worse things to this country than stick it with an unpopular health plan.  Somehow, despite what is going to be an inevitably contentious contest between the two parties, this country still needs to stand behind our President when he faces the world.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Problem with Fine Tuning...

James Chastek has a good post on why Cosmic 'Fine Tuning' arguments are unsatisfactory:
Fine tuning arguments play on one of the great blind-spots of modern thinkers- the muddling of logical and real possibility. The arguments can only swiftly reach a conclusion because we think we can go from imagining things happening in a different way to concluding that there is a real possibility that they could have been so. Descartes famously  muddles these two when he assumes he must take an evil deceiver as a real possibility (indeed the true original sin of modern thought is not “how do I know that I know?” but the more fundamental error of identifying logical and real possibility). Again, Analytic philosophers – especially the theists – are prone to make the same sort of mistake (Plantinga’s argument for mind-body dualism is a good example; so is the popular Analytic claim that God exists because he is possible; and  in general the interest one takes in the ontological argument is proportionate to the degree to which he muddles the diverse kinds of possibility… and talk about “possible worlds” is a category of its own in this confusion…)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Space Exploration

Michael Robinson has a decent article on why we need to come up with more persuasive reasons for going to Mars (and out into space in general.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Newsflash...yet another revolution in biology

I'm still chuckling over this breathless post by Paul Cella at What's Wrong with the World. Once again a conservative with no obvious acquaintance with working biologists is touting the 'news' that a 'revolution' in how biologists do biology is in the offing.
Larry Moran applies the cold water.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Defection

PZ Myers writes that one of Michael Behe's sons has become an atheist.
It's actually a bit sad: he comes right out and says that he's an anti-theist, but that he's never told his parents (I guess the news is out now!). It also sounds like he's a bit estranged from his father, saying "I really dislike my father". He's still living with them, but is "quarantined" in the basement so he doesn't contaminate his brothers and sisters with his weird godless ideas.
It's a very interesting discussion, but I just have to say that seeing fathers and sons unreconciled, even if the father is a bit squirrely, is rather depressing to me. I simultaneously want to praise the younger Behe for being smart and articulate, and also urge him to make peace with his family while he can.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Joseph Sobran: 1946-2010

Like many truly tragic figures, I think Joe Sobran brought the greatest hardships of his life upon himself. He was a gifted writer. Jody Bottum has a brief tribute here.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Evolution in Science Fiction

I agree with PZ Myers:
I'm very pleased to see that Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio gets mentioned for its bad biology. That one has annoyed me for years: Bear does a very good job of throwing around the jargon of molecular genetics and gives the impression of being sciencey and modern, but it's terrible, a completely nonsensical vision of hopeful monsters directed by viruses and junk DNA. It's also the SF book most often cited to me as an example of good biology-based science fiction, when it's nothing of the kind.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Darwin as All-Purpose Boogey Man?

My first post at Huffington. Going to try and get something up regularly if possible.

Apropos of 'The Implosion...'

Jay Fitzgerald picks up my point and ups the ante: "Radical conservatives haven't become mirror-image opponents of lefties through simple osmossis. They're actively striving to become like them."

I ain't going to disagree with him.

Mead's Advice? Read More SF.

Wear cheap ties, shop Walmart, and read lots of science fiction.  Follow this advice, friends, and you are sure to go far.
I like it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Implosion of Intellectual Conservatism

Scott Carson pretty much nails it:
Today, as I look through the sources of "conservative thought" available on the Internet, TV, and radio, I find that the likes of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Andrew Breitbard make the John Birch Society look like Plato's Academy by comparison. The capacity to communicate the conservative stance by means of intellectual disquisition and rational argumentation has vanished, only to be replaced by the same sort of shrill, knee-jerk bigotry that characterizes so much of the left. While it is true that even Glenn Beck will, on occasion, say something that I find congenial, one must sadly note that even a broken clock is right twice a day, and as any reader of Plato's Theaetetus will know (hence, none of the current "conservative" pundits), getting something right once in a while is not a sufficient condition for knowledge or even intelligence.

Read the entire thing.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Restoration Project

Ever since Final Cut Pro 7 came out (with Final Cut Studio) and more tools like BorisFX have made the whole workflow more manageable, I've been meaning to set aside some time to fully restore my  adaptation of Richard the Second. While I was happy with the DVD that Sub Rosa brought out in 2004, and Ron Bonk at SRS has been a great guy to work with throughout, a technical snag during the DVD authoring process forced the manufacturer to master the DVD from an S-VHS dub, rather than the DV-master tapes. Not exactly the optimum resolution and quality I had wanted, though it was a step up from its previous web-sized resolution, which first got the attention of film journals and DV magazines.

But having the tools now, especially in Final Cut and BorisFX, to make this look and sound the way we intended it to, back in the quixotic days when we thought we could raise the money to complete the 35mm film transfer, I'm going to roll up my sleeves and dive in again. I'm not going to rush it, but hope to complete a final director's cut for DVD on Amazon by the end of the year.

Monday, September 13, 2010

I. Kid. You. Not.

Yep. And what better way to get attention than hold your "conference" nearby a university, to give it more respectability.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Book Reviews

The Wall Street Journal has hired a former Atlantic editor to broaden it's book review coverage. I wouldn't mind getting in on this.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Quote for the Day...

Larry Moran at Sandwalk:

 "The writings of people like Michael Ruse and Dan Dennett should convince most other philosophers to back off before they discredit the entire discipline of philosophy."

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

"So, there were these two Irish biologists..."

Larry Moran had a chance to meet Michael Lynch at the recent 18th Annual Meeting of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution in Lyons, France.
He gave a talk on Evolution of Mutation Rates, a topic many of us treat with a large degree of skepticism—until we're confronted by Michael Lynch. He makes a convincing case for variable rates of mutation in different species and he challenged us (me) to defend the idea that there was a linkage between DNA replication rates and mutation rates. That's a linkage I've always assumed would constrain mutation rates to a narrow range. Now I'm not so sure.

Lynch's paper is here.

Buck Up, America

Great post by Walter Russell Mead:

The problems we face today are urgent and complex, but they are not the problems of failure.  We are suffering the consequences of success. 
We are not like Pakistan, Egypt, Russia, or dozens of other countries who are struggling with the consequences of decades and even centuries of failures to keep up with a changing world.  America’s failures are the failures of a country on the cutting edge. 
Countries like China and India are doing some amazing things, but they are playing catch-up.  They are trying to get where we are, while the United States is moving forward into unexplored terrain.  They are building industrial societies; we are seeing what comes next.  They have a clear idea of the target in mind: a country where people are as rich as Americans.  Our quest is different — harder, but perhaps also more rewarding. 
We aren’t trying to recreate somebody else’s achievement or to replicate an already existing model.  We are trying to do something new and different — we are making up a new kind of society as we go along.  The challenges of America’s today are the challenges of everyone else’s tomorrow. We were the first “Fordist” society, where mass affluence was built on mass production in the factories of the twentieth century.  We are now trying to be the first successful post-Fordist society, trying to work out a way to have a prosperous country that depends on something other than mass employment in manufacturing.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Prescient Pope

I saw Sunday that Zoe Pollock at Daily Dish had kindly picked up on my Friday piece for the Journal, but Mark Shea alerted me to a follow up today.
A reader writes:
I think you misread Farrell's piece. While giving Pius some credit for dealing with the issue of evolution, Farrell's main point was the caveat you mention second: modern biology shows man descends (as do virtually all species) from a population, not a single individual (or couple), and this contradicts Pius's assertion that the doctrine of original sin requires "a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own" (full text of Pius's Humani Generis here). Far from being prescient, Pius, as interpreted by Farrell, was thus wrong about what would be learned subsequently. Farrell is a bit off in not realizing that Pius was mostly concerned with addressing a 19th century idea (polygenism; not held by Darwin) that held that modern Homo sapiens has several independent origins (we didn't), and not with addressing modern evolutionary theory. I'm also not sure that Farrell's theologically correct: it's not self evident to me that common ancestry through populations violates the doctrine of original sin, although it might-- I'll leave that for Catholic theologians to decide.

I'm glad this elicited some feedback. [Only other gripe I came across was this predictable disagreement from a Baptist theologian.] Now, there are a couple of points to make. The first is, I am indeed aware that Pius did not define polygenism in the same way most biologists do now. He was quite right to reject the notion (which was popular in the 19th century) that the separate races had different origins. Still, his issue with the notion of a founding population of humans, rather than a single couple, is broached in the same paragraph of the encyclical, which makes it easier to confuse the two (also the Journal did not give me space to go into this detail).

The second is, I think Pius was wise enough not to be absolute about the issue. He wrote, "Now it is no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own."

At the time he was, I think, on safe ground to say this. Science since then has raised this opinion to a fact, however. And this now requires invoking Galileo's approach to scripture, which he adopted from Augustine: when scripture is at odds with what can be factually determined, then scripture must be re-interpreted. So, I doubt any claim to making dogma out of Pius' statement on Adam will stand. [Even though some Catholics do treat it that way. See for example Mark's post and the comments here.]

Was the Pope mistaken about a founding population? Yes. Does it spell doom for original sin? Hardly. Even Chesterton dealt with this long before Pius. My own opinion is that what we've learned about human origins from evolution solidifies the doctrine more than any other religious notion. But there are entire books on the subject now.

What tends to get overlooked about Pope John Paul's thoughts on the subject are two things: one, that whatever separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is something only theology can be attuned to. What actually happened, the moment humanity made what he termed the ontological leap to something more than all the other species, is lost to history. But John Paul still urged theologians to think about this more.

UPDATE: 9.3.10: Some discussion now going on over at dotCommonweal. 

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Are British Authors Overrated?

Yes, says former Oxford professor Gabriel Josipovici.

The fact that such writers had won so many awards was "a mystery", Josipovici told the Guardian. He added: "It's an ill-educated public being fed by the media – 'This is what great art is' – and they lap it up."
It is a view apparently now shared by at least some others, given that the latest offerings by Martin Amis, McEwan and Rushdie were among the more prominent omissions from this year's Man Booker longlist, revealed earlier this week.
"We are in a very fallow period," Josipovici said, calling the contemporary English novel "profoundly disappointing – a poor relation of its ground-breaking modernist forebears".
He said: "Reading Barnes, like reading so many other English writers of his generation – Martin Amis, McEwan – leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner. The irony which at first made one smile, the precision of language which was at first so satisfying, the cynicism which at first was used only to puncture pretension, in the end come to seem like a terrible constriction, a fear of opening oneself up to the world.




Monday, August 30, 2010

Barr v. Behe

I'm not sure how long this has been available for viewing online, but a very good debate between Stephen Barr and Michael Behe from this past April on Intelligent Design in the science class. Naturally, I take Barr's side. I wish they had included the Q/A from the audience members as well.

Why It Didn't Help

Jay Fitzgerald lays it out:
But I’ll restate my case (made here and here and here, even before the stimulus bill was officially passed): It wasn’t a “stimulus” bill. It was more of a “stabilization” bill. The Stabilization Bill was primarily aimed at propping up the public sector, not the private sector, where the true problems lay. There was nothing wrong per se with spending money to preserve public-sector jobs. But that’s not “stimulating” the economy. That’s merely “stabilizing” the economy, i.e. preventing things from getting worse. The Dems either never understood this -- or didn’t care. They eagerly embraced the argument that federal debt spending actually creates jobs, latching onto a “jobs multiplier” theory uttered by one economist at Moody’s Economy.com, and launched a massive spending spree on programs that had nothing to do with the underlying economic problems at hand. Sure, they preserved public-sector jobs. But how can you have a new jobs multiplier effect by preserving already existing jobs? You’re merely preserving the already existing jobs-multiplier effect. Right? Repeat: The “stimulus” bill was largely a “stabilization” bill.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Memo to Mike Flynn

Razib Khan has a nice short story idea.
But, the logical conclusion of generations of genetic screening of particular Arab lineages is that the clans of the Persian Gulf will eventually transform themselves into clones with very low mutational load. Even if the power of screening shields these lineages from the ill effects of inbreeding (by literally yanking out all the deleterious alleles from the gene pool by discarding eggs with problematic genotypes every generation), biological uniformity is going to have problematic long term consequences when it comes to battling co-evolving pathogens. Monocultures aren’t built to last.

In any case, interesting idea for a science fiction short story. The formula would be to take a pre-modern custom (e.g., cousin marriage) and mix it with future technology, and iterate forward.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Quote for the Day...

Via Ed Feser: As the Thomist A. D. Sertillanges once put it, a paint brush can’t move itself even if it has a very long handle. And it still couldn’t move itself even if it had an infinitely long handle.

PZ's Heart

Okay, he may be a common crackerophile, but I'm happy to see PZ's operation went well, and he'll still be blogging.

[I tried not to pray for him, but couldn't help it. Don't tell anyone.]

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

PW Takes Note

Publisher's Weekly will start a new listing of self-published books, and will pick the most interesting among submissions from authors to be reviewed. Of course, authors will have to pay for it.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

"No True Scotsman" Gambit

And Mark Chu-Carroll has had enough if it:

If you talk to a christian about, say, the holocaust, they’ll say that the Nazi’s weren’t really christian. The crusaders who raped and pillaged their way across Europe? Not really christian. The inquisitioners, who tortured and killed all of those innocent people in the name of christianity? Not really christian. Tim McVeigh? Not really christian. Anyone who’s ever done anything bad? Not really christian. But man, those damned muslims and atheists – look at how many people they’ve murdered! They’re evil, pure evil!
And the atheists? Same damn thing. One of the atheists who persistently peppers my mailbox every time I mention my Judaism has repeatedly said “Only religious people blow themselves up, there are no atheist suicide bombers”. I pointed out a number of purely secular groups that have used suicide bombers. “They’re not really atheists; just because they’re part of a secular movement doesn’t mean that they’re atheists”. How do you know that they’re not atheists? “Because only religious people blow themselves up.” Wait, isn’t that circular? “No, because atheists are rational, and blowing yourself up is irrational, therefore if you blow yourself up, you’re not an atheist”.

Same stupid argument: People like me are good and reasonable; anyone who isn’t good and reasonable can’t be like me. It doesn’t matter what they say they think. It doesn’t matter what they say they believe. I know better – if they do something that I don’t like, then they’re not part of my group. 

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Frank Kermode RIP

Anything he wrote was well worth reading, more than once.
Prominent in literary criticism since the 1950s, Kermode held "virtually every endowed chair worth having in the British Isles", according to his former colleague John Sutherland, from King Edward VII professor of English literature at Cambridge to Lord Northcliffe professor of modern English literature at University College London and professor of poetry at Harvard, along with honorary doctorates from universities around the world. He was knighted in 1991, the first literary critic to be so honoured since William Empson.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On Literary Immortality

Bill Vallicella has a tough piece on Hitchens and his hope to live on in his works.

For what he takes to be the illusion of immortality, Hitch substitutes literary immortality.  "As an adult whose hopes lay assuredly in the intellect, not in the hereafter, he concluded, 'Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and — since there is no other metaphor — also the soul.'" (Here) But to the clearheaded, literary immortality is little more than a joke, and itself an illusion.  Only a few read Hitch now, and soon enough he will be unread, his books remaindered, put into storage, forgotten.  This is a fate that awaits all scribblers but a tiny few.  And even they will drink the dust of oblivion in the fullness of time.
To live on in one's books is a paltry substitute for immortality, especially when one recalls Georg Christoph Lichtenberg's aphorism: Ein Buch ist ein Spiegel, aus dem kein Apostel herausgucken kann, wenn ein Affe hineinguckt. "A book is a mirror:  if an ape peers in, no apostle will look out."  Most readers are more apish than apostolic.
To live on in one's books is only marginally better than to live on in the flickering and mainly indifferent memories of a few friends and relatives. And how can reduction to the status of a merely intentional object count as living on?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Friday, August 13, 2010

History for Squid Lovers

The inimitable Thony C. corrects PZ Myers' abysmal knowledge of history:
The three periods of ‘lift’ that he identifies were anything but periods of secular thought. Contrary to the popular claims about logos replacing mythos in ancient Greece and this being the reason for the birth of Greek science, if you actually look at the works of the leading Greek thinkers they are full of religious claims and statements. Turning to the Renaissance all of the major figures who erected the structure that became modern science were deeply and actively religious, a fact that they openly acknowledge in their scientific writings. Again in the 18th century the period of both the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution nearly all of the leading participants were again deeply and actively religious.
As I have pointed out more than once on this blog the Church was not anti-scientific during the Middle Ages and in fact members of the Church actively laid the foundations on which other members of the Church created modern science in the Early Modern Period.
I did not know that the New Atheists had started an Orwellian revisionist rewriting of history.

Biblical Fever = Influenza?

Tara Smith is all over this:
Seriously. I'm not even sure what to do with this. From the wording of the abstract, it very much appears that the authors are Christians--so are they saying that Jesus could not have miraculously cured a bacterial infection, but he could have done so for flu? Or that the flu, on its own, resolved the instant Jesus stood over/touched the ill woman, without any divine intervention? 

As the late Stanley Jaki often wrote, concordism does not good science make.

Quote for the Week...

I am reminded of Charles Darwin’s comment about his close friendship with his fellow magistrate and constant dining companion, Brodie Innes, the vicar of Downe. Darwin said that on one memorable occasion they found themselves in agreement and spent the rest of the meal in astonished silence, convinced that the other was very ill!

From Michael Ruse's poignant tribute to philosopher of science David Hull, who just passed away.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

On This Day . . .

Sixty years ago today Pope Pius XII issued the first and to date only papal encyclical treating a scientific theory. Humani Generis adopted the Catholic Church's position that the evolutionary origin of the human body was a legitimate area of scientific study, provided one reserved a special status for the human soul, as directly created by God.

There is a lot more to the encyclical, which I hope to address in more depth shortly. But for now I'd like to tip my cap to a pope who has become just about everyone's favorite punching bag for other reasons, and commend his interest and enthusiasm for science. We've learned a lot in sixty years....

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Book Notes

Hesiod and the 'mythographers' had developed the method to understand the stories of the gods, but we know of no one before Herodotos who had tried to gather memories and documents together on such a scale to tell a connected story about the past. It was a very brave undertaking: the Persian Wars had finished around the time of his birth and had been over more than a generation by the time he was writing. We owe Herodotus so much that, for all his unreliability and untidiness, it would be unjust to pick up the gibe made about him by some ancient authors who, following the lead of a prolonged and peevish attack on him by the later historian Plutarch, claimed that he was the Father of Lies rather than the Father of History.

From Diarmaid MacCulloch's Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Harvard Scientist Under Scrutiny

Harvard professor Marc Hauser (author of Moral Minds), about whom I blogged last July, has taken a leave of absence from his post at Harvard while the university looks into questions about the data backing up papers of his, dating back to the mid 90s at least.

Monday, August 09, 2010

On Bad Company

Siris is all over the latest of PZ Myers' increasingly empty critiques of philosophical positions he dislikes. Worth quoting:
There was a time when he was a fairly sharp commentator, and would never have made the amateurish and in some cases, frankly, dimwitted maneuvers that he makes here. But reason is in great measure social, and that means it is heavily influenced by the company one keeps; and any look at the Pharyngula comment boxes or some of the places on the web Myers links shows exactly what the quality of company he has been keeping is. And, very noticeably, his arguments have increasingly taken on some of the worst features of the glib and mindless people with whom he is constantly interacting: the tendency to begin not with the actual arguments but with a simplistic caricature of them; the attempt to build an argument not on the basis of relevant examples but on the basis of vague, incantatory rhetoric; the tendency to assume that if his opponents argue for a qualification of some claim that they are arguing for the complete falsehood of that claim; the increasing framing of every particular point as an either/or between his preferred view and irrationality; the sneering at positions in ways that show clearly that no effort was actually made to understand the position in the first place; the appeals, which were always a weakness of Myers's and have only become more common, to pseudo-history rather than actual historical evidence; the increasingly common failure to consider that if he doesn't understand an argument that it might be better to raise an elucidating objection than to dismiss the argument out of hand. The list could be made much longer.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

There Be Dragons

Here's the new trailer for the Roland Joffe film about Josemaria Escriva and the Spanish Civil War. My friend and former classmate John Wauck, who works in Rome now at the University of Santa Croce, was an advisor on the film.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010


I'm still cracking up over this post by Peter Steinfels.

Siris is finding the paperwork a major chore in the Texan August (and I don't blame him).

John Pieret dope slaps Bruce Chapman.

Steve Matheson discusses Developmental Buffering.

Lab Rat discusses models for the evolution of bacterial resistance.

And Christopher Hitchens reflects on his current battle with cancer.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Quote of the Day, or maybe the Whole Week

John Wilkins: "Correlation doesn't imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing 'look over there'."

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

myStanza Goes Live

Well, poetry lovers, here it is. The iTunes screen shot scrolls horizontally, but it gives you a nice sense of the look and feel. If you wonder whether iPhone Apps can mean more than games, check it out. We're not asking much ($3.99) mainly because good actors don't work for peanuts, but I'm hoping we can sustain enough of a draw to build an extensive media library. The key here I think will be to draw students of English as a second language, in addition to students of literature.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Friday, July 02, 2010

The Tragedy of Pascal

Thony Christie has a nice post on the 17th century genius:
Pascal’s religious fervour deprived the world of his mathematical abilities but not of his astounding intellect. The main centre of Jansenism was the Port-Royal Cloister in Paris and it was from here that the Port-Royal Logic was issued, an important textbook in the history of logic. Originally published anonymously in 1662 it was attributed to the Jansenist theologians Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole but it is now accepted that Pascal played a significant role in its conception. In France Pascal is most celebrated not as a mathematician but as an author of literature, his Provincial Letters and his Pensées are both regarded as classics of French literature and although both are intrinsically religious even a deist like Voltaire called the Letters the best-written book that has yet appeared in France.

Having been a child prodigy, a scientific genius and a literary giant Pascal completed the requirements necessary to become a bona fide legend by dying tragically at the age of 39.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Friday, June 25, 2010

Monday, June 21, 2010

Different Sensibilities

One of the last dinners before the close of the Templeton-Cambridge seminars for my fellowship took place at Trinity College. Along with my co-fellows, I was delighted to see (again after a space of 20 years or so) the Rev. John Polkinghorne, and also to meet for the first time Keith Ward, who was to be our last official speaker the next morning, on unity and diversity in world religions.

Polkinghorne is 80, and working on a new book. I hope I look as fit as he does when I reach that age. We had a chance to chat about his former colleagues, including Steven Weinberg.

Now, one should not take too seriously what one banters about over the dinner table, but after introducing myself and getting a chance to talk about his experience teaching and writing, I asked Keith Ward how St. Thomas More was regarded in the UK these days. Now, Ward's not a Catholic, so I wasn't expecting a great deal of enthusiasm, but he thought that very few people seem to be aware of More at all at any level in the UK, historical or otherwise, in spite of the popularity of films like Man for All Seasons in the U.S.

Peter Akroyd did write an excellent biography of More, not more than 15 years ago, and one which I enjoyed and thought was, on the whole, pretty fair to More. But Ward, after thinking about it for a few moments, sort of shrugged and told me with a wry smile, he thought More was a 'bit of a nasty piece of work.'

Perhaps it depends on your sensibility.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


One of my Templeton co-fellows, Qanta Ahmed, was kind enough to send me this snap she took of me chatting with Rev. John Polkinghorne during the dinner last week at Trinity College. He just turned 80, and he's writing another book.

A Question of Pace

Blogging may be light for the next month or so as I work on my essay and presentation for Templeton. What little I do post will probably be on sporadic excitement with the hometown baseball team and links to other posts in the blogosphere.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Science and Religion on the Cam

My 2010 Templeton-Cambridge co-fellow Chris Mooney writes up his thoughts on the Fellowship as this first part of the program comes to a close.

Part I.

Part II.

Well worth reading.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Literary iPad Apps?

This sounds good to me:
Lindenbaum continued: "We want to help independents get on to the device, to put their catalog in an app. We're going to be licensing our platform to any independent that's interested. They can just email us. We want to help them get on the iPad.

He concluded: "The licensing fee is going to be very minimal, because we are interested in leveling the playing field. We don't want it to be the case where Random House and Macmillan are the only publishers that have enough money to get on this device. Instead of spending $10,000 on an app as an indie publisher, you could work with us to add a couple hundred bucks on the end of your printing costs."


The Inimitable Thony C. on the new film Agora, which apparently is still looking for a US distributor:
The NANAs* Larry Moran at Sandwalk and Murdo MacMeasly at Pharyngoogoo have got their collective knickers in a twist because they haven’t yet had the chance to see Agora the Spanish film, staring Rachel Weisz, about the life of the fourth century Alexandrian mathematician Hypatia.
Now personally, I’m not really bothered that I haven’t seen the film as there is a strong possibility bordering on certainty that the film is both historically and scientifically crap! Now you may argue that as I haven’t yet seen the film how can I make such a statement? Well let’s start with one of the reasons why the NANAs* are so eager to see it, the film blurb claims that Hypatia was an atheist. There is no evidence what so ever that Hypatia was an atheist and in fact what little we do know strongly suggests that she was anything but. This brings us to the main point , how much do we know? The known facts about Hypatia wouldn’t fill up the back of a postage stamp let alone a 90 minute film script so virtually everything in the film is going to be a product of the script writer’s imagination.

 * NANA = North American New Atheist.

Emily Pfeiffer

Hunger that strivest in the restless arms
Of the sea-flower, that drivest rooted things
To break their moorings, that unfoldest wings
In creatures to be rapt above thy harms;
Hunger, of whom the hungry-seeming waves
Were the first ministers, till, free to range.
Thou mad'st the Universe thy park and grange,
What is it thine insatiate heart still craves?

Sacred disquietude, divine unrest!
Maker of all that breathes the breath of life.
No unthrift greed spurs thine unflagging zest,
No lust self-slaying hounds thee to the strife;
Thou art the Unknown God on whom we wait:
Thy path the course of our unfolded fate.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010


Jason Rosenhouse can't let the slightest criticism of atheists go by without comment. John Pieret thinks he should think a little harder first.

Darwin's Plots

This afternoon's speaker, Dame Gillian Beer, is the author of a book I very much want to read now, coming as I am (or have been for what seems an eternity) to the closing pages of a novel I've been working on myself.

Sports Break

I love this guy. He's going to be 44 soon, and he just keeps going. Through thick and thin, good times and bad. No matter how many pot holes he runs over.

I hope Tim Wakefield is pitching when he's fifty.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Not Exactly What I Had in Mind

There was no afternoon session today, so I took an hour after lunch to visit Heffer's on Trinity Street near King's College. I went in thinking I'd quite like to buy Christopher Lee's revised autobiography. But they didn't have it.

So, I wandled downstairs to the philosophy section. Ed Feser will be happy to know they had his Aquinas right there on the Medieval Philosophy shelf. (I don't think you can find a shelf dedicated to medieval philosophy at any book store in Boston.)

They also had the Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, On God and Evil by one of my heroes, Herbert McCabe. Brian Davies' Aquinas, and a new offering, Gyula Klima's new book John Buridan. (Mike Flynn, are you jealous?)

Not a bad haul. Although I may have to throw out some clothing in order to fit them into my bags for the trip home.

iPhone gets its own Book Store

Steve Jobs says the iBookStore will soon be available for iPhones.
iBookstore app for the iPhone works across multiple platforms. Over at Engadget, Jobs explained: "[Y]ou can purchase and download a book. It will download wirelessly. You can download the same book to all your devices at no extra charge. Buy it on your iPad, download to your iPhone. And iBooks will automatically and wirelessly sync your current place, all your bookmarks, and all your notes."

This should be fun to test....

Steve Matheson pens an Open Letter...

to Stephen Meyer:
3. Your Discovery Institute is a horrific mistake, an epic intellectual tragedy that is degrading the minds of those who consume its products and bringing dishonor to you and to the church. It is for good reason that Casey Luskin is held in such extreme contempt by your movement's critics, and there's something truly sick about the pattern of attacks that your operatives launched in the weeks after the Biola event. It's clear that you have a cadre of attack dogs that do this work for you, and some of them seem unconstrained by standards of integrity. I can't state this strongly enough: the Discovery Institute is a dangerous cancer on the Christian intellect, both because of its unyielding commitment to dishonesty and because of its creepy mission to undermine science itself. I'd like to see you do better, but I have no such hope for your institute. It needs to be destroyed, and I will do what I can to bring that about.

My own feeling, on good days, is that Casey Luskin is actually an embedded atheist. If PZ Myers was covertly paying him to write specious moronic press releases, carefully designed to make Christian arguments look as stupid as possible, it's hard to imagine how he could do worse....

Monday, June 07, 2010

The flotilla...

Jay Fitzgerald sums it up:
The Israelis could have and should have found another non-military option to counter a propaganda ploy. The leading "peace activists" could and should have known some among them were itching for a fight. ... But the bottom line remains: Israel botched this one. Big time. What did it gain? Nothing.

John Gray

Up for this afternoon's lecture will be John Gray on the New Atheists. A couple of years back he had a good piece in the Guardian, which I imagine will come up during the Q&A.
The influence of secular revolutionary movements on terrorism extends well beyond Islamists. In God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens notes that, long before Hizbullah and al-Qaida, the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka pioneered what he rightly calls "the disgusting tactic of suicide murder". He omits to mention that the Tigers are Marxist-Leninists who, while recruiting mainly from the island's Hindu population, reject religion in all its varieties. Tiger suicide bombers do not go to certain death in the belief that they will be rewarded in any postmortem paradise. Nor did the suicide bombers who drove American and French forces out of Lebanon in the 80s, most of whom belonged to organisations of the left such as the Lebanese communist party. These secular terrorists believed they were expediting a historical process from which will come a world better than any that has ever existed. It is a view of things more remote from human realities, and more reliably lethal in its consequences, than most religious myths.

"Omitting to mention" seems to be a habit of Hitchens. Theodore Dalrymple scored him on the same point when he reviewed his autobiography for First Things.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

How Advantageous

Speaking of, "it was only a matter of time", I see a lucky journalist has just signed a six-figure deal to write about BP.

Friday, June 04, 2010

It Was Just a Matter of Time

The Discovery Institute has not met a scientist yet, agnostic, atheist, Christian, or otherwise, that it hasn't been happy to lie about. Steve Matheson is just the latest.

Larry Moran discusses.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Memorial Day

My dad did not see action in World War II. He was a naval cadet training at Chapel Hill, North Carolina in the summer of 1945 when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. "Some kind of super bomb" was how they first heard it described. The training program was canceled once the war ended, and he came back home to finish college. I never really knew as a kid how disappointed he was not to have completed that program, until my oldest brother got his own wings as a Marine pilot and landed jets on aircraft carriers in the Pacific. That was the first time I ever saw tears in my dad's eyes, he was so proud when my brother came to the front door after he earned his wings.

I always thought it ironic that although he regretted never getting his wings, once he married my mom and they started a family, my dad never set foot on an airplane. Only after we'd all grown up and were independent, did he get on a 747 to Bermuda or to Florida.

He never got to visit Normandy where the crosses of all the D-Day soldiers mark their graves. My mother and sister did. That's a pilgrimage I hope to make one day soon, too.

For now, here's to the memory of all our soldiers everywhere, wherever they are buried, or wherever they lie. And to the men and women who serve now.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Monday, May 24, 2010

It's Official

Well, I'm embarrassed to admit how long it took me, considering how long I've been eligible, but today I'm an official member of the NASW.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Question for iPad Competitors: Now what?

Question for iPad Competitors: Now what?

And God Took His Pipette and...

Oh, wait, no it was Craig Venter. And he introduced a synthetic genome into a bacterial cell. Is this as huge as some bloggers claim or fear? Christina Agapakis has some thoughts:
Synthia, the transplant of a single synthetic genome, does not inherently change the biosafety landscape of synthetic biology (sometimes called the "halfpipe of doom") but it does place the discussion in a more prominent, public and hopefully open and thoughtful position. A poll last year showed that while only 20% of people had heard of synthetic biology, 90% thought that the public should be better informed about groundbreaking research. Today, synthetic biology is harder to ignore and there are more ways than ever to learn about what is going on in labs around the world and to have your voice heard. Science magazine has set up an open forum on their website for questions, comments, and discussion on the topic with a lot of people contributing from many different viewpoints and perspectives.

Synthia is important for showing what big budgets and bigger patience can do, and for continuing and broadening the public discussion on synthetic biology. Synthetic biology will continue to grow slowly from many different directions, with new and potentially useful genetic networks designed and inserted into natural or redesigned synthetic genomes. It's important to understand how these technologies work, their potential benefits and risks, as well as their limitations. Synthia isn't going to make you live forever and there probably won't ever be any mer-Venters, but designed bacteria growing in controlled environments have been producing useful chemicals for a while now and the technology will certainly get better over the next few years with more advances in synthetic biology. After that, who knows? The possibilities are endless and it's up to all of us to make sure that it's good for everyone.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Memo to Jerry Coyne: We Can't Imagine You Giving a Commencement Address Either

Apropos Eugenie Scott's recent commencement address at University of Missouri, the always deep-thinking Jerry Coyne is once again scratching his head. Why? Because she encouraged the use of critical thinking skills--but wasn't as absolute as Coyne would like.
But why is it always the psychics, the homeopaths, and the astrologers who take it in the neck when scientists attack irrationality? What about the most widespread form of irrationality?

That would be religion, you see. You know who we're talking about. People who go to church and to temple. Worse, people who go to church and temple and then (splutters over his coffee) their lab!!?

Coyne: "Isn’t it weird that pro-science organizations gleefully take out after every form of superstition save the one that’s most pervasive?"

Yeah. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the fact that a majority of pro-science American high school and college students subscribe to that last "superstition" and that they don't seem to be exactly out-competing U.S. non-science majors (or their counterparts in other countries) for their degrees. But hey, why should the National Center for Science Education care about that?

Earlier in the post Coyne writes that he can't imagine giving a commencement address. Given his cluelessness about science education, we can't either. And we hope he never does.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Global Green Meltdown

Walter Russell Mead takes stock of the movement to remake the world in...some intellectuals' image.

Meyer, Matheson and Hunt at Biola

Arthur Hunt and Steve Matheson got a chance on Friday to question Stephen Meyer on some of the points in his book Signature in the Cell. Hunt's post on the experience is here. Steve's will be online soon.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Little Hypocrisy Now and Then...

Is PZ Merkwurdige a hypocrite? John Pieret thinks so. I think he's right. And in this case, it's an improvement.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A New Look

This blog, which dates back to March 2002, has been long overdue for a redesign. I had to move the entire archive from my own farrellmedia website some weeks back, and once that was done cleanly, I realized it was much easier to change the design.

Blogroll, book links and other distractions will be added asap.

UPDATE: 5.13.10: Unfortunately, comments older than thirty days seem to have been lost in the redesign process.

Not that there were huge numbers....

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Most Distant Galaxy Cluster Revealed by Invisible Light

Deep Space Viewing
An international team of astronomers from Germany and Japan has discovered the most distant cluster of galaxies known so far -- 9.6 billion light years away. The X-ray and infrared observations showed that the cluster hosts predominantly old, massive galaxies, demonstrating that the galaxies formed when the universe was still very young. These and similar observations therefore provide new information not only about early galaxy evolution but also about history of the universe as a whole.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Promising Start-up in India

Two childhood friends from India are making real progress with putting the best features of Office and Google in the clouds.
In early 2005 Bhatia met with Raghavendra and Cavale to see what they were working on, including an instant messaging platform. "I knew that [they] were technically savvy to have figured out a lot of the issues in terms of real-time communication," Bhatia recalls.
The relationship blossomed. The two friends and their mentor devised an ambitious plan of creating a full-fledged Office suite hosted in the cloud--taking all the best features of Microsoft, Google and the upstart challenger Zoho. Instacoll, the threesome's ambitious venture, is now ready with Live Documents, which they call the "future of Office."
Their marketing plan? "We don't want to go directly against Microsoft. We want to offer Office in different formats. Office-as-a-service is one model where people can subscribe for free on the web. People who want to go beyond a certain usage point or unlock advanced features would then advance to a paid version," says Raghavendra. This is the segment they're going to launch in the next few weeks. They already have 70,000 beta users.
Instacoll also plans to offer the software as an appliance. "Right now when workers create documents, they leave them on the desktops. Corporations have very little control over their document management," explains Raghavendra. "We are offering a server that you can install in-house that allows all documents to be stored centrally. You can integrate them with other applications such as workflow management applications. We are partnering with [companies] like IBM and Sun for this."
In addition, Instacoll intends to sell its product through Internet service providers as a value-added service to their customers. "Every time a customer signs up for a broadband connection they could get an Office suite from us," says Raghavendra.

The Crisis Ahead?

Robert Samuelson on why things can get a lot worse:
Countries everywhere already have high budget deficits, aggravated by the recession. Greece is exceptional only by degree. In 2009, its budget deficit was 13.6 percent of its gross domestic product (a measure of its economy); its debt, the accumulation of past deficits, was 115 percent of GDP. Spain's deficit was 11.2 percent of GDP, its debt 56.2 percent; Portugal's figures were 9.4 percent and 76.8 percent. Comparable figures for the United States -- calculated slightly differently -- were 9.9 percent and 53 percent.

There are no hard rules as to what's excessive, but financial markets -- the banks and investors that buy government bonds -- are obviously worried. Aging populations make the outlook worse. In Greece, the 65-and-over population is projected to go from 18 percent of the total in 2005 to 25 percent in 2030. For Spain, the increase is from 17 percent to 25 percent.

The welfare state's death spiral is this: Almost anything governments might do with their budgets threatens to make matters worse by slowing the economy or triggering a recession. By allowing deficits to balloon, they risk a financial crisis as investors one day -- no one knows when -- doubt governments' ability to service their debts and, as with Greece, refuse to lend except at exorbitant rates. Cutting welfare benefits or raising taxes all would, at least temporarily, weaken the economy. Perversely, that would make paying the remaining benefits harder.

Friday, May 07, 2010

The Future of Euro

Charlemagne lays it out. Are you a 'neuro' or a 'souro'?

More Bad News for Mainstream Media

Newsweek will be up for sale.
John C. Avise has a new paper, basically summarizing the more detailed points of his book, Inside the Human Genome, that will no doubt be keeping some of the folks in Seattle busy. I've been in contact with Avise, hoping to do a review and interview about it, for this blog if not another journal.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Digital Rights and Authors

Steve Wasserman in a follow-up segment at Mediabistro discusses whether authors should worry about the challenges facing the publishing industry by digital delivery. (It's safe to say he won't be running out to buy an iPad anytome soon.)

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Budget Crisis

Arnold Kling does the historical break down.
 In any event, in a non-recessionary economy, the federal government's ratio of revenue to GDP is generally around 20 percent. While a $1 trillion primary deficit represents less than 7 percent of GDP, it represents about 30 percent of full-employment revenues. Eliminating a primary deficit of that magnitude will not be easy, particularly when the major expenditure components are entitlements, which are under pressure to expand rather than contract.

I do not think it is overstating things to describe our current budget situation as a crisis.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Steve Wasserman is an agent working with Jill Kneerim and Ike Williams. Here he is discussing how he got started. Interesting that it was through Christopher Hitchens.

Apple. Jobs and Flash

Steve Jobs discusses why Apple won't be adopting Flash for the iPhone or its other mobile devices anytime soon:
Adobe has repeatedly said that Apple mobile devices cannot access “the full web” because 75% of video on the web is in Flash. What they don’t say is that almost all this video is also available in a more modern format, H.264, and viewable on iPhones, iPods and iPads. YouTube, with an estimated 40% of the web’s video, shines in an app bundled on all Apple mobile devices, with the iPad offering perhaps the best YouTube discovery and viewing experience ever. Add to this video from Vimeo, Netflix, Facebook, ABC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, ESPN, NPR, Time, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, People, National Geographic, and many, many others. iPhone, iPod and iPad users aren’t missing much video.

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.

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.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Fowler. I still have the copy my dad gave me when I started high school. Nice to see it's still a source of inspiration.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Siris: Dembski's disciples are now turning their guns on the Thomists. Needless to say, he's not impressed.
You don't need to presuppose CSI, or any sort of design theory, to have final causes in the Thomistic sense; if the point of ID or CSI is to give you final causes in this sense, they are both completely otiose. It is this very suggestion that shows just how alien ID and Thomism are to each other. Yes, in some sense of the term Thomism is teleological, and in some sense of the term, so is ID; but the senses are not only different, they are mutually exclusive.
File under "No Kidding, really?" Dept.
The official projections for health-care reform, which show it greatly reducing the number of uninsured and also reducing the budget deficit, are simply not credible. There are three basic issues.
  1. The cost and revenue projections rely on unrealistic assumptions and accounting tricks. If you make some adjustments for these, the cost of the plan is much higher.
  2. The so-called “individual mandate” isn’t really a mandate at all. Under the new system, many young and healthy people will still have a strong incentive to go uninsured.
  3. Once the reforms are up and running, some employers will have a big incentive to end their group coverage plans and dump their employees onto the taxpayer-subsidized individual plans, greatly adding to their cost.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Brendan O'Neill offers some perspective:

Many contemporary opinion-formers are not concerned with getting to the truth of how widespread Catholic sexual abuse was, or what were the specific circumstances in which it occurred; rather they want to milk incidents of abuse and make them into an indictment of religion itself. They frequently flit between discussing priests who abuse children and the profound stupidity of people who believe in God. One commentator wildly refers to the Vatican’s ‘international criminal conspiracy to protect child-rapists’ and says most ordinary Catholics turn a blind eye to this because ‘people behave in bizarre ways when they decide it is a good thing to abandon any commitment to fact and instead act on faith’.

Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, unwittingly reveals what draws the new atheists towards the Catholic-abuse story: their belief that religion is itself a form of abuse. ‘Odious as the physical abuse of children by priests undoubtedly is, I suspect that it may do them less lasting damage than the mental abuse of bringing them up Catholic in the first place’, he argues. He admits that physical abuse by priests is rare, but only to flag up what he sees as a more serious form of abuse: ‘Only a minority of priests abuse the bodies of the children in their care. But how many priests abuse their minds?’ In this spectacularly crude critique of religion, no moral distinction is made between being educated by a priest and raped by one – indeed, the former is considered worse than the latter, since as one Observer columnist recently darkly warned: ‘We have no idea what children are being taught in those classrooms…’
I wonder if Alcuin knew back in the 8th century how much easier he was going to make life for bloggers?
He was a respected teacher in Northumbria before being brought to court, where he had an enormous affect on the scholarship — establishing the liberal arts (the trivium and quadrivium) as the basis for the curriculum, and convincing Charlemagne not to put pagans to death if they refused to convert. He also produced a textbook of math problems with solutions, from which we learn that medieval word problems were more colorful than those we have today — these include the problem of the three jealous husbands and the problem of the wolf, goat and cabbage.

But it’s clear to me what Alcuin’s greatest achievement really was: he’s the guy who invented lower case letters. Can you imagine a world in which everything was written in ALL CAPS? Every time we read a crazy person ranting on the internet, we should give thanks to Alcuin that not everybody sounds like that.