Thursday, December 26, 2013

Discussing Peter Jackson's Second Installment of 'The Hobbit' with Mark Shea

Mark Shea and I vented for a while about the latest installment of The Hobbit and its director, Peter Jackson. (26 minutes in mp3 format. Probably for Tolkien geeks only… )

Monday, December 16, 2013

Review: Why The Hobbit And Peter Jackson Are Going Underhill and Overhill

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug is easily the worst of Peter Jackson's Tolkien films yet.
English: The location of Hobbiton, as used in ...
English: The location of Hobbiton, as used in the Lord of the Rings films. Near Matamata in New Zealand. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I’m mystified by critics who say the film is lousy--but better than the first. Ty Burr of the Boston Globe typifies this. He gives the film 3 out of 4 stars, but spends most of his review (quite rightly) mocking the film for all its shortcomings.

With apologies to readers not familiar with the story or the genre: here follow some gripes, picked at random:

Halfway through the film it takes 10 minutes for Bilbo and Company to escape their Elvish captors, careening about half a mile down a river in a crowd of floating barrels while chased by villainous orcs. This sequence is lots of fun.

But scaling the Lonely Mountain, a peak that must be at least 15,000 feet high from the looks of it, and the most important goal for Bilbo and the 13 dwarves since the very beginning of the story-- takes all of 30 seconds.

This is typical of the film director's problem: Making too much of the minor events and not enough of the major events in the story.

After hours of hearing about the importance of finding the secret keyhole to the secret door in the side of the mountain, so that the dwarves, led by the grim Thorin Oakenshield, can enter and retake the mounds of gold usurped by the treacherous dragon-- it takes less than a minute of screen time for Thorin to completely give up and exit stage right. (It also takes his crew just 5 seconds to pass down about 100 feet of treacherous mountain pass in their despair, but whatever.)

In the end, it is the intrepid hobbit who figures it out for them. All joyous determination is instantly restored.
Bear in mind, these guys know their own mountain inside and out--but Jackson falls back on the same cheesy template over and over again: induce an unearned emotional despair in the characters, then cash out an equally unearned emotional peak for cheap cheers--instead of mining the interesting drama and exchanges that could have attended a real problem facing the company. They’re dwarves, right? This is where they freakin’ belong.

This is not a momentary lapse of judgement on the part of the director. This is apparently all Jackson knows and can translate onto the screen at this point: Bring the audience down and up, down and up, keep the rollercoaster going, no matter how increasingly stupid the whole plot comes across. Even my young daughters, huge fans of the Lord of the Rings films, were exasperated.

Another example: The Elf Tauriel, a cut and paste job if ever there was one (probably fully repeating half of the dialogue originally written for Liv Tyler for her scenes in The Two Towers before she was cut) has to utterly loathe all dwarves before the cutest one gets wounded with a poisoned arrow and she decides hundreds of years of prejudice against the greedy miners can be tossed in a moment of revelation and daring so she can come to his utterly unbelievable rescue.

Then there’s the conscious decision to imprint the entire story--written originally by Tolkien for his children-- with the same metaphysical stakes as LOTR--essentially vitiating the power of the latter in the attempt to make the more light-hearted prologue as equally serious. The fate of Middle Earth has to hang in the balance. Why? Doesn’t a perilous trip to rescue a hoard from a slimy dragon pose high enough stakes for the characters?

Thus the coveted Arkenstone, alone among all the jewels in the dragon's hoard, becomes Thorin’s deep obsession, driving him to dark moments of wordless brooding, and hints that he may turn on his own friends. And he hasn't even set eyes on it yet. Yawn.

And Bilbo similarly begins falling prey to a power of his magic ring that is never even hinted at yet in the actual book. Nor does it make any sense, since Sauron the Necromancer who devised it is not even aware the ring has been found, let alone that it still exists. But whatever.

Instead of having fun --as Tolkien did--with the talisman’s ability to make Bilbo invisible and to help his friends escape from their various travails--we’re treated to the same tedious screen filters and sounds of what the eerie twilight zone appears like to Bilbo as he wears the ring--again imbuing the whole story with a ponderous gloom it does not merit.

The Orcs--basically all CGI--are a bore.

It may be that the final chapter restores some integrity to the entire story--but I'm skeptical after this installment.

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fetal Stem Cells To Treat ALS

Neuralstem’s treatment for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), now into Phase 2 clinical trials, is getting more enthusiastic attention.
Ted Harada, diagnosed with the disease in 2010, has been a walking advertisement for their treatment after two surgeries that he underwent as part of the Phase 1 clinical trials at Emory University. The surgeries restored his balance and ability to walk.
Continue reading at Forbes...

Monday, September 23, 2013

Assessing Scientism

It's way too tempting to dub the recent debates about Steven Pinker's essay 'The Scientism Wars' but I loathe the rhetoric that finds a war in every corner....

Continue reading at my Forbes blog.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Newman vs Paley

In my recent review of Stephen Meyer's book, Darwin's Doubt, I closed with a quote from a letter that John Henry Newman wrote to one of his friends in 1870, summing up his problems with the Argument from Design. It's a great quote, one that was first brought to my attention by Father Edward Oakes, when he reviewed an Intelligent Design book for First Things back in 2001.

But in fact, Newman had lectured in more detail on the topic before, and here is a lengthy selection, worth reading in full, from the closing paragraphs of Lecture 7 in his Idea of a University:

And now we come to the case of Physical Theology, which is directly before us. I confess, in spite of whatever may be said in its favour, I have ever viewed it with the greatest suspicion. As one class of thinkers has substituted what is called a Scriptural Religion, and another a Patristical or Primitive Religion, for the theological teaching of Catholicism, so a Physical Religion or Theology is the very gospel of many persons of the Physical School, and therefore, true as it may be in itself, still under the circumstances is a false gospel. Half of the truth is a falsehood:—consider, Gentlemen, what this so-called Theology teaches, and then say whether what I have asserted is extravagant.
Any one divine attribute of course virtually includes all; still if a preacher always insisted on the Divine Justice, he would practically be obscuring the Divine Mercy, and if he insisted only on the incommunicableness and distance from the creature of the Uncreated Essence, he would tend to throw into the shade the doctrine of a Particular Providence. Observe, then, Gentlemen, that Physical Theology teaches three Divine Attributes, I may say, exclusively; and of these, most of Power, and least of Goodness.
And in the next place, what, on the contrary, are those special Attributes, which are the immediate correlatives of religious sentiment? Sanctity, omniscience, justice, mercy, faithfulness. What does Physical Theology, what does the Argument from Design, what do fine disquisitions about final causes, teach us, except very indirectly, faintly, enigmatically, of these transcendently important, these essential portions of the idea of Religion? Religion is more than Theology; it is something relative to us; and it includes our relation towards the Object of it. What does Physical Theology tell us of duty and conscience? of a particular providence? and, coming at length to Christianity, what does it teach us even of the four last things, death, judgment, heaven, and hell, the mere elements of Christianity? It cannot tell us anything of Christianity at all.
Gentlemen, let me press this point upon your earnest attention. I say Physical Theology cannot, from the nature of the case, tell us one word about Christianity proper; it cannot be Christian, in any true sense, at all:—and from this plain reason, because it is derived from informations which existed just as they are now, before man was created, and Adam fell. How can that be a real substantive Theology, though it takes the name, which is but an abstraction, a particular aspect of the whole truth, and is dumb almost as regards the moral attributes of the Creator, and utterly so as regards the evangelical? 
Nay, more than this; I do not hesitate to say that, taking men as they are, this so-called science tends, if it occupies the mind, to dispose it against Christianity. And for this plain reason, because it speaks only of laws; and cannot contemplate their suspension, that is, miracles, which are of the essence of the idea of a Revelation. Thus, the God of Physical Theology may very easily become a mere idol; for He comes to the inductive mind in the medium of fixed appointments, so excellent, so skilful, so beneficent, that, when it has for a long time gazed upon them, it will think them too beautiful to be broken, and will at length so contract its notion of Him as to conclude that He never could have the heart (if I may dare use such a term) to undo or mar His own work; and this conclusion will be the first step towards its degrading its idea of God a second time, and identifying Him with His works. Indeed, a Being of Power, Wisdom, and Goodness, and nothing else, is not very different from the God of the Pantheist.
In thus speaking of the Theology of the modern Physical School, I have said but a few words on a large subject; yet, though few words, I trust they are clear enough not to hazard the risk of being taken in a sense which I do not intend. Graft the science, if it is so to be called, on Theology proper, and it will be in its right place, and will be a religious science. Then it will illustrate the awful, incomprehensible, adorable Fertility of the Divine Omnipotence; it will serve to prove the real miraculousness of the Revelation in its various parts, by impressing on the mind vividly what are the laws of nature, and how immutable they are in their own order; and it will in other ways subserve theological truth. Separate it from the supernatural teaching, and make it stand on its own base, and (though of course it is better for the individual philosopher himself), yet, as regards his influence on the world and the interests of Religion, I really doubt whether I should not prefer that he should be an Atheist at once than such a naturalistic, pantheistic religionist. His profession of Theology deceives others, perhaps deceives himself.
Do not for an instant suppose, Gentlemen, that I would identify the great mind of Bacon with so serious a delusion: he has expressly warned us against it; but I cannot deny that many of his school have from time to time in this way turned physical research against Christianity.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Fabrizio Amerini on Aquinas

It can’t be easy translating Latin for your daily research, and it must be even harder if it’s Latin that’s over 800 years old.
Following up on my post earlier this month on Fabrizio Amerini’s new book Aquinas on the Beginning and End of Human Life, I wondered what drew the Italian scholar to the study of medieval philosophy in the first place.
Continue reading at Forbes.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

About that NOMA thingy....

Over at Big Questions Online, astronomer Nidhal Guessoum asks Why Should Scientists Care About Religion?
“As a Muslim scientist,” he writes, “I spend much time and expend much energy trying to convince Muslims and other believers to take modern science seriously, with all its methodology and results – and its limits.”
Continue reading, at Forbes

Monday, August 19, 2013

Selling 'Doubt'

My review of Stephen C. Meyer's 'Darwin's Doubt' is up at National Review. It will appear in the Sept. 2nd print edition.

Our contemporary debates about evolution are basically an extension of the argument Christians have been having with one another since the Middle Ages, about how much autonomy God granted to the natural world. Creationists claim that it was very little. Stephen C. Meyer, a philosopher of science at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, is not a creationist in the standard definition of the term: He does not embrace the Genesis account of the world’s origins literally, nor does he argue that God made the world in six days. What he does is reject two bedrock principles of modern evolutionary biology: the common ancestry of all living things, and natural selection as the driving force of the evolution of new species.

Continue reading (for twenty-five) cents at NRO.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Paul Knoepfler: Stem Cell Researcher--and Advocate

Paul Knoepfler, who runs his own research lab atUniversity of California, Davis, will receive specialrecognition by the Genetics Policy Institute for his advocacy of stem cell research via the blog that he’s beenhosting since 2009.
Readers of my Forbes blog may recognize Knoepfler’s name, as I’ve often reported his views on stem cell papers and aspects of current therapies in development.
Continue reading...

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Book Notes: Fabrizio Amerini on Aquinas and the Beginning and End of Human Life

Fabrizio Amerini is not an author most Americans are likely to have heard of, but if you’re a fan of Umberto Eco, you might want to check out his new book.
‘New’ is not entirely accurate, perhaps, as it was first published in Italian in 2009. But Georgetown University professor Mark Henninger’s translation hit the shelves in early June.
Continue reading...

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Looking Beyond Correlations...

Following up on my recent post on Via Science, I wanted to dig a little deeper into how their machine learning platform, REFS™ works, and why it requires so much CPU power.
Dr. Jeremy Taylor has a Ph.D. in physics from McGill, and he brings years of experience in software development for complex modeling to his current role as Via Science’s lead scientist. He and company CEO Colin Gounden outlined for me how it all works.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Augustine and the Evolution of the Soul

By the term 'soul' (anima) Augustine meant the highest immaterial element in man, the art of man to which mind (mens, more rarely animus) is but a function. Exactly what 'soul' is and how God creates souls he regarded as beyond human knowledge. It would make for simplicity, he once remarked apropos of infant baptism, if all Adam's posterity derived souls as well as bodies from their first parent by heredity. But this doctrine (traducianism) that souls are acquired by heredity carried more physical implications than at least some Platonists could feel at ease with. Perhaps it would be preferable to say that God expressly creates a soul for each individual as conceived. [Augustine ignored as silly the objection that the Creator should be spared endless fuss.] Or, more platonically, all souls exist in God from the first, and are either sent or even choose to come and inhabit bodies on earth. Neoplatonic philosophers disagreed among themselves on the correct answer, and the Bible offered no guidance. In Augustine's mind none of these options could be finally excluded. His refusal to give a decision incurred sharp criticism from some who felt that such a question simply could not be left in the limbo of indecision. He remained unmoved.

--Augustine, by Henry Chadwick. Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 49-50.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday

“Now the kind of acceptance that Jesus offered created around him a commune of people who were liberated, able to love one another, able to accept one another. There are many things to be said about this little group, but one of the most obvious things is that it posed a threat to the established society -- whether the Roman colonial set-up or the established religion. It was bound to pose a threat to any society based on less than love. This is why Jesus had to be destroyed. He was not killed by accident, nor was he murdered by a chance meeting with individually wicked men. The people who killed him, both the chief priests and the Roman colonial authorities, in their different ways had a point. He was subversive, not so much because of a theory he preached (though his preaching was deeply disrespectful especially of the priests), but because of what he had created simply by being around the place. Jesus posed a political threat not by being a politician but by making people secure, by creating a kind of relationship that couldn’t be accommodated within a society ultimately based on domination and fear....

“Be that as it may, however, the need to kill Jesus showed the Palestinian society for what it was. But more than that, it showed up the human race for what it was. For what was being offered in Jesus was not just a kind of friendship, not just a limited sort of love, but the love which is the meaning of all human existence. To believe that Jesus is of God is to believe that, in rejecting him, people are making the most ultimate kind of rejection, the final contradiction of themselves. The crucifixion is not just one more case of a particular society showing its inhumanity. It is the whole human race showing the rejection of itself. The resurrection is the Father’s refusal to accept this self-rejection of man.”

Herbert McCabe, OP, God Still Matters, p. 175-176.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Fisking ENCODE

A recent slew of ENCODE Consortium publications, specifically the article signed by all Consortium members, put forward the idea that more than 80% of the human genome is functional. This claim flies in the face of current estimates according to which the fraction of the genome that is evolutionarily conserved through purifying selection is under 10%. Thus, according to the ENCODE Consortium, a biological function can be maintained indefinitely without selection, which implies that at least 80 – 10 = 70% of the genome is perfectly invulnerable to deleterious mutations, either because no mutation can ever occur in these “functional” regions, or because no mutation in these regions can ever be deleterious. This absurd conclusion was reached through various means, chiefly (1) by employing the seldom used “causal role” definition of biological function and then applying it inconsistently to different biochemical properties, (2) by committing a logical fallacy known as “affirming the consequent,” (3) by failing to appreciate the crucial difference between “junk DNA” and “garbage DNA,” (4) by using analytical methods that yield biased errors and inflate estimates of functionality, (5) by favoring statistical sensitivity over specificity, and (6) by emphasizing statistical significance rather than the magnitude of the effect. Here, we detail the many logical and methodological transgressions involved in assigning functionality to almost every nucleotide in the human genome. The ENCODE results were predicted by one of its authors to necessitate the rewriting of textbooks. We agree, many textbooks dealing with marketing, mass-media hype, and public relations may well have to be rewritten.

--On the immortality of television sets: “function” in the human genome according to the evolution-free gospel of ENCODE
by Dan Graur, Yichen Zheng, Nicholas Price, Ricardo B. R. Azevedo, Rebecca A. Zufall, and Eran Elhaik

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Limits of Natural Law

In abstraction from specific religious or metaphysical traditions, there really is very little that natural law theory can meaningfully say about the relative worthiness of the employments of the will. There are, of course, generally observable facts about the characteristics of our humanity (the desire for life and happiness, the capacity for allegiance and affinity, the spontaneity of affection for one’s family) and about the things that usually conduce to the fulfillment of innate human needs (health, a well-ordered family and polity, sufficient food, aesthetic bliss, a sense of spiritual mystery, leisure, and so forth); and if we all lived in a Platonic or Aristotelian or Christian intellectual world, in which everyone presumed some necessary moral analogy between the teleology of nature and the proper objects of the will, it would be fairly easy to connect these facts to moral prescriptions in ways that our society would find persuasive. We do not live in such a world, however.

--David Bentley Hart, First Things (March 2013 issue).

Friday, February 08, 2013

The Middle Ages ... and Your Latest Laptop

Those rules of argument became increasingly complex. Many, after several centuries, now seem almost banal: it is perhaps a testimony to the effectiveness and importance of the foundations laid down in the twelfth century that stages in argumentative processes which then had to be carefully thought through and elucidated are now taken for granted, with stages in the process being skipped as not needing individual proof.... 
It was on these rules that twelfth-century thinkers like Abelard raised their logical and argumentative edifices, with ramifications way beyond the basics of logic. (It was, perhaps, on the basis of teaching such fundamentals that some of them also earned their livings.) The fluidity of the times and the constant flow of novelties meant that everything was always in flux: all resolutions became provisional, because the questions were constantly changing, and the resources available from which to construct a solution changed as well. This constant and continuing challenge to thought was important: it forced development, made old ideas constantly outdated. Abelard, although the most dynamic thinker of his time, was rapidly overtaken and outmoded. The progress of twelfth-century thought in some ways matches the current succession of computer generations. Individuals had immediate impact, but it was often transient, as new ideas came along to supplant them. Once supplanted, they were rarely recalled. 
R.N. Swanson, The Twelfth-Century Renaissance, pp. 110-111.

Now, there's no way to know for sure, eight centuries later, what St. Thomas Aquinas meant when he stopped working on his Summa, after reportedly experiencing a mystical vision, and declared that everything he had written amounted to only just so much straw.

But Swanson's passage makes me wonder whether (in addition to the sheer intellectual exhaustion at this stage of his short life) Aquinas wasn't acutely aware (as Abelard was not) of how quickly his own work might suffer the fate of Abelard's and others.

It didn't of course, at least in terms of its importance for the Catholic Church. But Swanson's passage does bring home a sense of how dynamic the 'flux' of that age was for those living in the center of it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Return of Traducianism?

In the doctrine of the soul [Origen] was faced by a choice between three possible doctrines: (a) the Creationist view that God creates each soul for each individual as conceived and born; (b) the Traducianist view that the soul is derived, like the body, from the parents; (c) the Platonic Pre-existence theory, according to which immortal and pre-existent souls temporarily reside in the body. Creationism seemed to involve God in endless fuss; Traducianism seemed to endanger the transcendence of the soul in relation to the body by making it something corporeal. Pre-existence had the merit of making a theodicy possible which answered the Gnostics' complaint against the justice and goodness of the Creator. But the final result was a mythological theory of the creation which bore at least a superficial resemblance to the theory it was intended to refute; and orthodox churchmen were disturbed by a doctrine apparently more Platonic than biblical and strongly suggesting the corollary of transmigration. On several occasions Origen disclaims the myth of transmigration as false. Yet his own system presupposes a picture of the soul's course which is strikingly similar.

Interesting that in a sense the challenge of (b.) is now presented by evolution, and that at least since Darwin the Catholic Church has felt pressured into a stronger embrace of (a.). But the 'endless fuss' Origen referred to remains a problem, I think. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Medieval Dinner Conversation

I have amused myself while writing this book by trying to identify which, if any, late antique or early medieval writers (that is, those whose personality we can recapture, at any rate in part, with least mediation) I could imagine meeting with any real pleasure. It comes down to remarkably few: Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Gregory the Great, Einhard, maybe Braulio of Zaragoza -- and, with less enthusiasm, Augustine, for his remarkable intelligence and self-awareness however, not for his tolerance. But for all its distance from us, and in large part because of it, the early Middle Ages -- the many different early medieval realities -- are interesting.

Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome, p. 553.