Monday, August 07, 2017

Blowing up the flat earth

Daniel J. Boorstin was a historian and Librarian of Congress. He is known among historians of science for his absurd claims about the flat earth myth in his book The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself. The following is a fisking of one of the more egregious passages from chapter 14, "The Flat Earth Returns." At first I was going to make this a quote of the day with some comments afterwards, but there were so many details I wanted to comment on that I decided to intersperse my comments throughout. As is my pattern (see here and here), Boorstin's text is in red font and indented with my comments in normal text.

"Can any one be so foolish," asked the revered Lactantius, "the Christian Cicero," whom Constantine chose to tutor his son, 

OK, stop. Lactantius's views were controversial enough to be condemned as heretical after his death. And yes, the Renaissance humanists called him the Christian Cicero, but this was over a millennium after his death, and it had nothing to do with his views on the shape of the earth (nor did his condemnation for that matter). I don't mean to suggest that he was not held in high esteem by some, but Boorstin is only presenting the positive assessment of him. Leaving out the negative assessment is pretty misleading.

"as to believe that there are men whose feet are higher than their heads, or places where things may be hanging downwards, trees growing backwards, or rain falling upwards? Where is the marvel of the hanging gardens of Babylon if we are to allow of a hanging world at the Antipodes?" 

Yup, Lactantius was one of five Christians who affirmed (or at least apparently affirmed) the unusual view that the earth is flat. Five. Total. Lactantius was by far the most prestigious of them, and whatever accolades he received were unrelated to his bizarre view about the earth's shape. The sphericity of the earth was the almost universal position within the Roman Empire and Christendom at that time.

Saint Augustine, Chrysostom, and others of their stature heartily agreed that the Antipodes ("anti"-"podes," a place where men's feet were opposite) could not exist.

Augustine, Chrysostom, and others did not agree that a place where men's feet were opposite could not exist but that men where men's feet were opposite could not exist. "Podes" means feet and a place doesn't have feet -- men do. The references of Augustine and others were not geographical statements about the shape of the earth but anthropological statements about the geographical extent of the human race. One of our earliest references to antipodes, after all, comes from Plato's Timaeus in the fourth century BC, and it explicitly affirms the sphericity of the earth.

Classic theories of the Antipodes described an impassable fiery zone surrounding the equator which separated us from an inhabited region on the other side of the globe. 

Yes, exactly right. The issue with antipodes was not whether there was an other side of the earth but whether there could be human beings there. It was thought at the time that the equatorial region was too hot to travel through and the ocean too wide to sail across. As such, if there were "people" on the other side of the earth, they couldn't be the descendants of Adam and Eve because there would have been no way for them to get there from here; and if they weren't descendants of Adam and Eve then they wouldn't be human beings because they would not share a common origin with us. This raised further theological questions as to whether antipodes would be stained by original sin, and if so, whether Christ's atonement would apply to them -- questions that could be avoided if we simply denied the existence of antipodes. However, it should be pointed out that this move was far from universal. Other Christians accepted the possibility of antipodes. It was controversial to affirm their existence, certainly, but not heretical. Note also how similar this is to the question today of whether intelligent extraterrestrials exist; if so whether they are fallen; and if so whether Christ's atonement would apply to them, or whether God will have provided some other form of redemption for them. In both cases, for the antipodes and the aliens, we don't have enough information to answer these questions, so absent further revelation, we can only speculate. I wrote a post to start a series on this issue several years ago but never followed through on it. Now I'm thinking I should reboot it.

So, returning to Daniel Boorstin, at this point I start thinking, aha, at first he sounded like he was going to exaggerate the extent of flat-earthism within Christianity, but he knows that the issue about antipodes was anthropological not geographical, so maybe he's going to get it right.

This raised serious doubts in the Christian mind about the sphericity of the earth. 

(Sigh) No, no it didn't Daniel.

The race that lived below that torrid zone of course could not be of the race of Adam,

That's about people, not the shape of the earth.

nor among those redeemed by the dispensation of Christ.

That's about people, not the shape of the earth.

If one believed that Noah's Ark had come to rest on Mt. Ararat north of the equator, then there was no way for living creatures to have an Antipodes.

That's about people, not the shape of the earth.

To avoid heretical possibilities, faithful Christians preferred to believe there could be no Antipodes,

That's about people, not the shape of the earth. Also, as mentioned, affirming the existence of antipodes was controversial but not heretical. I've only ever heard of one guy, Vergilius of Salzburg, receiving any kind of opprobrium for affirming the existence of antipodes. And the issue there was the theological issues mentioned above by myself and Boorstin: if there are inhabitants of the other side of the world, do they share a common origin with us, do they share the stain of original sin with us, and does Christ's atonement apply to them? If the issue raised "heretical possibilities," which it didn't, it would have been in this area, not with regards to the sphericity of the earth

or even, if necessary, that the earth was no sphere.

And there it is. Five. Five Christian writers affirmed a flat earth, Daniel.

Saint Augustine, too, was explicit and dogmatic, and his immense authority, compounded with that of Isidore, the Venerable Bede, Saint Boniface, and others, warned away rash spirits.

None of these people claimed the earth was flat. Isidore is sometimes included among the flat-earthers, but most historians deny that he was one.

The ancient Greek and Roman geographers had not been troubled by such matters. But no Christian could entertain the possibility that any men were not descended from Adam or could be so cut off by tropical fires that they were unreachable by Christ's Gospel. 

Plenty of people did. It was a controversial issue, and controversies don't become controversies if there aren't people on both sides of them. Most people in the early Middle Ages were skeptical about the possibility of antipodes, but some accepted it.

"Yes, verily," declared Romans 10:18, "their sound went forth all over the earth, and their words unto the ends of the whole world." Neither Faith nor Scripture had any place for beings unknown to Adam or to Christ. 

OK, I suspect -- I hope -- "unknown to Adam or to Christ" is a way for Boorstin to refer to the theological issues about creatures with distinct origins from us and the extent of Christ's atonement. Because otherwise it makes no sense. Unknown to Christ? See, here's the thing: according to Christianity God is omniscient. That means he knows everything. So if there are antipodes God knows them. And while Christ gave up the exercise of his omniscience (not his omniscience itself), he only did so during his incarnation. Unknown to Adam? I'm not sure what this even means since everyone alive in the first millennium AD would have been unknown to Adam, having been born after he would have died. Maybe Adam is a stand-in for the human race, so Boorstin is saying "Neither Faith nor Scripture had any place for beings unknown to humanity." But if that's what he means, then it's obviously false. They didn't suffer from delusions of grandeur, they didn't think they might be omniscient, they knew perfectly well that there were many places they hadn't been to yet, and they didn't know precisely what was there. So, again, since I can't make sense of "beings unknown to Adam or to Christ," I strongly suspect Boorstin is just using this as shorthand to refer to the theological issues discussed above. But, regardless, it's just not true that "Neither Faith nor Scripture had any place for beings" outside the human race. Wouldn't angels fit into that category? I'm pretty sure Scripture, faith (whatever Boorstin means by that), and theology affirm the existence of angels.

I further suspect (I could easily be wrong) that Boorstin has in the back of his mind what I'm going to call "The Big Fish in a Small Pond Myth." The suggestion here is that people thought the universe was much smaller in ancient times because they thought the earth was the most important place, and so there couldn't be a lot of space or a lot of locations that were irrelevant to human life. But of course this is completely ridiculous, as I wrote here. Long story short: the earth was considered one of the smallest objects in an unfathomably large universe. The only bodies they thought were smaller than the earth were Mercury, Venus, and the Moon: everything else was bigger, even the smallest stars. And while they thought the universe only extended out to Saturn's orbit plus a sphere of stars, they had approximated the distance to Saturn pretty well, and that distance is simply greater than our imaginations can handle. If you don't believe that, check out If the Moon Were Only One Pixel and scroll right to get an idea of the incredible distances involved. Remember, you only have to go out to Saturn, but also remember that the ancients had gauged that distance pretty accurately. For all practical purposes, they thought the earth was a point of zero volume within an infinitely large universe, and they stated this pretty directly.

The bearing of this on the Big Fish in a Small Pond Myth is that the ancients and medievals thought that the vast, vast majority of the cosmos was completely irrelevant to human existence, at least in a spatial sense. So the idea that there were places outside of humanity's influence was common knowledge. I doubt anyone seriously thought otherwise.

"God forbid," wrote a tenth-century interpreter of Boethius, "that anybody think we accept the stories of antipodes, which are in every way contradictory to Christian faith." 

Yep, it was controversial. But not heretical. And it didn't imply that the earth was anything other than a sphere.

"Belief in Antipodes" became another stock charge against heretics prepared for burning.

Really? Like who? Who was burned for believing in antipodes? Who was even excommunicated? Vergilius was reproved, and he's the only one I can find who even suffered that.

Some few compromising spirits tried to accept a spherical earth for geographic reasons, while still denying the existence of Antipodean inhabitants for theological reasons. But their number did not multiply.

Dude. Five Christians denied the earth is a sphere. Apart from them, EVERYONE who denied the existence of the antipodes accepted a spherical earth. "Their number did not multiply"? Other than those five, their number includes EVERYONE.

It was a fanatical recent convert, Cosmas of Alexandria, who provided a full-fledged Topographia Christiana, which lasted these many centuries to the dismay and embarrassment of modern Christians.

Well, yeah, Cosmas is embarrassing, but if only wise and intelligent people could become Christians, that would probably constitute a reason to reject Christianity. At any rate, Cosmas wasn't even translated into Latin to make the Topographia available to western Europe until the early 18th century. You know what Greek works were translated before then? All of them. In 1509, Copernicus translated some short writings of Theophylactus Simocatta from Greek into Latin. He had to settle for such an obscure text because all of the good stuff had already been translated, many of them more than once. Theophylactus was the dregs. Cosmas wasn't translated for another two centuries. He had zero influence.

We do not know his real name, but he was called Cosmas on account of the fame of his geographic work,

I don't know why he was called Cosmas, but I know it wasn't for the reason Boorstin states, viz. "the fame of his geographic work." You know how I know that? Because his geographic work achieved no fame. He was unknown in his own time, unknown throughout the rest of the Middle Ages, unknown during the Renaissance, and unknown in the early Modern era. It was only when he was translated in the 18th century that people became aware of him as a curiosity. That translation was itself motivated by the translation of a few excerpts from his book a few decades earlier by some manuscript collectors. He exerted virtually no influence on his contemporaries or the Middle Ages.

and nicknamed Indicopleustes (Indian Traveler), because he was a merchant who traveled around the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and had traded in Abyssinia and as far east as Ceylon. After his conversion to Christianity about A.D. 548, Cosmas became a monk and retired to a cloister on Mt. Sinai where he wrote his memoirs and his classic defense of the Christian view of the earth.

Oh for *@#%'s sake. "The Christian view of the earth"? Really? If anything, the Christian view of the earth at the time would have been Ptolemy's view of the earth, since that was the science of the day, and the Ptolemaic view unambiguously affirmed the earth to be a sphere.

This massive illustrated treatise in twelve books gives us the earliest surviving maps of Christian origin.

Well if that just means the earliest surviving maps written by a Christian, then I guess that's true. Of course, given Ptolemy's authority, Ptolemy's map would have been the Christian one at that time for the same reason that Ptolemy's cosmology was the Christian one. It was the science of the day.

Cosmas rewarded the faithful with a full measure of vitriol against pagan error and a wonderfully simple diagram of the Christian universe. 

"The Christian universe." Right. Not "The universe as advocated by a lone conspiracy-theory-minded crank" but "The Christian universe." And Cosmas wasn't able to reward the faithful with his vitriol and diagrams because nobody read him.

In his very first book he destroyed the abominable heresy of the sphericity of the earth. Then he expounded his own system, supported, of course, from Scripture, then from the Church Fathers, and finally from some non-Christian sources. 

Dude, that's what conspiracy theorists do. They pick and choose some information, remove it from its context, ignore all the evidence supporting that context, and then use the little pieces of information to construct a new context. You can find people doing that in support of just about any view. There's people who defend Christianity or atheism in this way, but that doesn't mean you can smear all Christians and atheists as dishonest and/or unintelligent hacks.

What he provided was not so much a theory as a simply, clear, and attractive visual model.

. . . which nobody read.

When the apostle Paul in Hebrews 9:1-3, declared the first Tabernacle of Moses to be the pattern of this whole world, he conveniently provided Cosmas his plan in all necessary detail. Cosmas had no trouble translating Saint Paul's words into physical reality. 

Huh. It's curious that no one else took the author of Hebrews the way Cosmas did. It's almost as if Cosmas was going against the established understanding of the text. Also, Paul probably isn't the author of Hebrews, although it was thought that he was until the Modern era. But I think we can assume that by ascribing Hebrews to Paul, Boorstin is probably just giving what Cosmas would have thought about it.

The first Tabernacle "had ordinances of divine service and worldly sanctuary; for there was a Tabernacle made; the first wherein was the candlestick, and the table and shewbread, which is called the Sanctuary." By a "worldly" sanctuary Saint Paul meant "that it was, so to speak, a pattern of the world, wherein was also the candlestick, by this meaning the luminaries of heaven, and the table, that is, the earth, and the shew-bread, by this meaning the fruits which it produces annually." When Scripture said that the table of the Tabernacle should be two cubits long and one cubit wide, it meant that the whole flat earth was twice as long, east to west, as it was wide.

Huh again. It's also curious that no one followed in Cosmas's footsteps in this interpretation of Hebrews. It's almost as if it has no exegetical basis whatsoever.

In Cosmas' appealing plan, the whole earth was a vast rectangular box, most resembling a trunk with a bulging lid, the arch of heaven, above which the Creator surveyed his works. In the north was a great mountain, around which the sun moved, and who obstructions of the sunlight explained the variant lengths of the days and the seasons. The lands of the world were, of course, symmetrical: in the East the Indians, in the South the Ethiops, in the West the Celts, and in the North the Scythians. And from Paradise flowed the four great rivers: the Indus or Ganges into India; the Nile through Ethiopia to Egypt; and the Tigris and the Euphrates that watered Mesopotamia. 

And we have people who think the planes that hit the twin towers on 9/11 were holograms, or that the Moon landings were fake, or that the Holocaust didn't happen, or that Jesus never existed. So what? There's always silly people making silly claims. Unless you have a reason to think the silly claims were more widespread than a single writer who exerted no influence on his contemporaries or the Middle Ages, spending so much time on Cosmas is an attempt to mislead people into thinking he is representative when he isn't.

There was, of course, only one "face" of the earth -- that which God gave to us the descendants of Adam -- which made any suggestion of Antipodes both absurd and heretical.

Only. Five. Christians. Affirmed. A. Flat. Earth. Point to someone who was excommunicated for affirming antipodes, Daniel. Point to an official decree declaring belief in antipodes to be heretical. No? You can't? What a surprise. I should give Boorstin some grace here though: maybe he's just speaking in Cosmas's voice. That is, maybe he's just stating what he thinks Cosmas said or would have said.

Cosmas' work is still very much worth consulting as a wholesome tonic for any who believe there may be limits to human credulity. 

You know what other work could be similarly consulted Daniel? Yours. Ba dum ksh.

After Cosmas came a legion of Christian geographers each offering his own variant on the Scriptural plan. 

And none of whom affirmed a flat earth. Remember that? The actual subject you're writing about? I mean, the title of this chapter is "The Flat Earth Returns" for Pete's sake. It seems kind of significant that now you're talking about people who denied that the earth is flat without mentioning that fact.

There was Orosius, the Spanish priest of the fifth century who wrote a famous encyclopedia, Historiae adversum paganos, where he retailed the familiar threefold division of the world into Asia, Europe, and Africa, embellished by some generalizations of his own:

Which didn't include a flat earth. The following is a quote from Orosius that Boorstin gives.

Much more land remains uncultivated and unexplored in Africa because of the heat of the Sun than in Europe because of the intensity of the cold, for certainly almost all animals and plants adapt themselves more readily and easily to great cold than to great heat. There is an obvious reason why Africa, so far as contour and population are concerned, appears small in every respect (i.e., when compared with Europe and Asia). Owing to her natural location the continent has less space and owing to the bad climate she has more desert land.

This seems pretty tame and utterly irrelevant to the issue of the earth's sphericity.

Then the even more influential Christian encyclopedist Isidore Archbishop of Seville in the seventh century explained that the earth was known as orbis terrarum because of its roundness (orbis) like a wheel. 

"Round like a wheel" (quia sicut rota est) is a phrase that Isidore himself uses, so I can't give Boorstin grief for repeating it here. This is one of the passages that make some people count him among the flat-earthers. However, Isidore is only referring to the land mass that includes Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa. Like all maps of the time (apart from Cosmas's perhaps), he's referring to the known world. Since he gives indications elsewhere that the earth is spherical, most historians do not take him to be affirming a flat earth here.

At any rate, this kind of map is more commonly called a T and O map. These maps were certainly round and flat, but the reason they were flat is . . . wait for it . . . they were maps. You might think that's unnecessary to point out, but I have encountered people who argue from the fact that ancient and medieval maps are flat to the conclusion that the people who drew them must have thought the earth was flat. I'm serious.

"It is quite evident," he observed, "that the two parts Europe and Africa occupy half the world and that Asia alone occupies the other half. The former were made into two parts because the Great Sea called the Mediterranean enters from the Ocean between them and cuts them apart." Isidore's "wheel maps" followed the convention of the time by putting east at the top:

Again, Isidore's maps, like all other maps of the time, were meant to show the known world. I've never heard them referred to as "wheel maps," and Boorstin doesn't give a reference for that phrase. However a google search on "Isidore" and "wheel maps" comes up with a few hundred results, so I guess he could be quoting someone. What follows is a quote from Isidore.

Paradise is a place lying in the eastern parts, whose name is translated out of the Greek into Latin as hortus [i.e., garden]. It is called in the Hebrew tongue Eden, which is translated in our language as Deliciae [i.e., place of luxury or delight]. Uniting these two gives us Garden of Delight; for it is planted with every kind of wood and fruit-bearing tree having also the tree of life. There is neither cold nor heat there but a continual spring temperature.
From the middle of the Garden, a spring gushes forth to water the whole grove, and, dividing up, it provides the sources of four rivers. Approach to this place was barred to man after his sin, for now it is hedged about on all sides by a sword-like flame, that is to say it is surrounded by a wall of fire that reaches almost to the sky.

Once again, I don't see how any of this is relevant to the issue of whether the earth is round. Isidore is merely commenting on his understanding of Genesis 2. I'll just note here that, centuries earlier, Origen, one of the early Church Fathers, argued that "no one of understanding" could take the account of the garden of Eden as referring to an actual place (De Principiis 4:1:16).

Christian geographers who lacked facts to fill their landscapes found a rich resource in the ancient fantasies. While they were contemptuous of pagan science, which they considered a menace to Christian faith,

Yeah, that's complete crap. Of course there are exceptions, but in general Christians accepted pagan science. Certainly they assigned a low priority to it, they thought other things were much more important, but they didn't tend to treat it with contempt, much less did they consider it "a menace to Christian faith." Again, this is in general: it varied from person to person. David C. Lindberg, probably the greatest science historian of the last half century, writes, "No institution or cultural force of the patristic period offered more encouragement for the investigation of nature than did the Christian church. Contemporary pagan culture was no more favorable to disinterested speculation about the cosmos than was Christian culture. It follows that the presence of the Christian church enhanced, rather than damaged, the development of natural sciences."

their prejudice did not include pagan myths.

I'm not sure what he's referring to here. The early Christian church (earlier than the period that Boorstin is writing about) was very hostile to pagan myths. Over time the church certainly adopted some pagan practices, like those we now associate with Christmas, but not the accompanying myths. If Boorstin is just thinking of these practices, then I guess you could make that claim, but once again, it's pretty misleading. It sounds like he's referring to the stories in those myths, not just the practices. So it's interesting that Boorstin gets these two points exactly backwards: he says the Christians were hostile to pagan science but not pagan myths, when actually they were hostile to pagan myths but not pagan science.

Once again, I suspect -- and I could be wrong -- that Boorstin is thinking about the claim that there are parallels to Jesus' life in world mythology, and that these may have influenced the development of Christian theology. So there are allegedly virgin births, resurrections, last suppers, baptisms, etc. in all sorts of myths around the world before the advent of Christianity. The problem with this is that it is not true. The myths in question do not parallel Christianity in any serious detail, and this has been the consensus view of New Testament historians for over a century. To see my earlier posts on this, see here, here, here, and here.

These were so numerous, so colorful, and so contradictory that they could serve the most dogmatic Christian purposes.

Oh that's cute. Pagan myths were contradictory and so could be used to serve Christian dogma. Gosh, what does that imply? Certainly not that most of the great logicians in human history were Christians. Certainly not that Christian theologians spent their lives reflecting on doctrines in order to make them logically coherent and consistent with the larger body of knowledge. You know, one of the first things I discovered when I was trying to refute Christianity was that it couldn't be dismissed as foolish. It might be false, but too many people much, much smarter than me thought it made sense. I couldn't bring myself to seriously think my knee-jerk reaction was a surer guide to truth than the lifelong reflections of some of the most intelligent people who have ever lived.

While Christian geographers feared the close calculations of Eratosthenes, Hipparchus, and Ptolemy,

Like who? Who feared these close calculations? What did they write that leads you to that conclusion? What about the Christians who built on their calculations?

they cheerfully embellished their pious Jerusalem-centered maps with the wildest ventures of pagan imaginations. Julius Solinus (fl. A.D. 250), surnamed Polyhistor, or "Teller of Varied Tales," provided the standard source of geographic myth during all the years of the Great Interruption, from the fourth till the fourteenth centuries.

Rather than comment on his throwaway line about "the Great Interruption," I'll just point you to James's book God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (American title: The Genesis of Science).

Solinus himself was probably not a Christian. Nine-tenths of his Collectanea rerum memorabilium (Gallery of Wonderful Things), first published about A.D. 230-240, came straight out of Pliny's Natural History, though Solinus does not even mention his name. And the rest was foraged from other classical authors. Solinus' peculiar talent, as a recent historian of geography observes, was "to extract the dross and leave the gold." It is doubtful if anyone else over so long a period has ever influenced geography "so profoundly or so mischievously."

OK, now we're not even talking about Christians anymore, let alone flat-earthers. Boorstin's argument is that "Stupid Christians believed the earth was flat because look at this one guy nobody read. And there's another guy who wasn't a Christian who said some stupid stuff about other subjects too." Come on man, focus.

Yet Solinus' dross had wide appeal. Saint Augustine himself drew on Solinus, as did all the other leading Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages. 

I hate to think I'm growing cynical, but I'm starting to suspect that Augustine may have just quoted Solinus once or twice, and a handful of other Christian authors may have as well, and those who didn't are excluded from the guild of "leading Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages" on grounds that Boorstin considers too obvious to mention. And we'll just ignore all those non-Christian authors who quoted Solinus as well because that wouldn't serve our purpose.

The stories and fabulous images that Solinus retailed enlivened Christian maps right down to the Age of Discovery. They became an all-encompassing network of fantasy, replacing the forgotten rational gridwork of latitude and longitude, which had been Ptolemy's legacy.

Holy crap, did he just refer to the forgotten legacy of Ptolemy? Admittedly, Ptolemy's legacy was felt more in astronomy than geography: Almagest was more well-known than Geographia, but the latter was still extremely influential. Moreover, Ptolemy's legacy regarding astronomy involved as a core element that the earth is a sphere, and this legacy was all but universal throughout late antiquity and the Middle Ages. As Albert Van Helden writes in Measuring the Universe: Cosmic Dimensions from Aristarchus to Halley, "From the second to the sixteenth century, astronomy was a commentary on Ptolemy. No man ever wielded posthumously such a pervasive and long-lived authority in astronomy, and it is to be doubted that anyone ever will again." Since a spherical earth was one of the foundational elements of Ptolemy's astronomy, for Boorstin to use maps to suggest that people thought the earth was flat in the Middle Ages is just intellectually dishonest. You couldn't explore medieval science sufficiently to find out the influence of Ptolemy's geography without finding out the influence of his astronomy and the spherical earth upon which it is predicated.

I'll stop here, but man, Boorstin's scholarship is sloppy to say the least. It's almost like The Discoverers was written by an Internet troll. Just in case you need another example, here's a quote from chapter 20, "Ptolemy Revived and Revised": "No amount of theology would persuade a mariner that the rocks his ship foundered on were not real. The outlines of the seacoast, marked off by hard experience, could not be modified or ignored by what was written in Isidore of Seville or even in Saint Augustine." OK, exactly what theological claims would bear on where rocks were located in the sea? And where did Isidore or Augustine write about the coastlines? (Spoiler: they didn't. Boorstin just made it up.) At some point, you have to disregard an author as a crank, and I'm afraid Boorstin reaches that point all too quickly.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Monday, April 17, 2017

The Bones of St Leonard's

We visited the seaside at Hythe in Kent, one of the five Cinque ports, on Saturday. Hythe is a pleasant little market town, although nothing like as pretty as Rye or Winchelsea.

The highlight of Hythe for medievalists is found beneath St Leonard’s Church. The church itself is an enormous edifice up on the hill, largely built in the fourteenth century, with features going back to the eleventh century. That is all quite typical of an old Kentish church, and luckily St Leonard’s has been left relatively unscathed by the dreaded Victorian Church Restorers.

St Leonard's Ossuary
Under the chancel, there is a long-forgotten chamber that holds a remarkable collection of medieval bones. Over a thousand skulls are neatly arrayed in racks and there is a huge neat stack of bones. Local legend claims that these are victims of the Battle of Hastings, but analysis has revealed the majority are women, and there are few wounds in evidence. The crypt’s attendant had a much more prosaic explanation for where the bones came from: when the chancel was built in the fourteenth century, much of the churchyard was dug up. The bones of parishioners found during the building work were stored in the cellar of the church and forgotten about for centuries. The earliest references to the ossuary date from the seventeenth century and the current layout, with its neat stack of bones, was assembled in 1910. The collection has recently yielded interesting information on the health of medieval people, which wasn’t great.

St Leonard's Ossuary
The crypt is not as spooky as an old room housing thousands of human bones might be. There are large windows providing plenty of natural light and the skulls seem content to mind their own business as we tourists passed through. But I found that if I stopped to examine the bones more closely they ceased to be gothic decor and became the remains of individuals. Once, these grey and decaying relics were people who were in the centre of their own universes, just like I am in mine. The owners of some of these skulls knew and maybe loved the owners of others. Now every one of them is anonymous and unknown. The dead are democrats as they all now count for the same.

While ossuaries are not uncommon on the Continent, there is nothing else quite like the St Leonard’s crypt in England. It is generally open over the summer and well worth a visit.

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Thursday, April 13, 2017

New articles on science and religion/history of science

Although my new book is on What Everyone Needs to Know about Tax, I have been contributing to various books on the history of science, and on science and religion in the last few years.

First up, and out this month in the US, is the Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2017). This is a massive new encyclopaedia to which I was invited to contribute a number of the historical articles, including on Giordano Bruno, Hypatia and biblical chronology. Although it is edited from an evangelical perspective, it contains a wide variety of viewpoints and looks like a useful resource for anyone interested in the intersection between science and Christianity.

I have also written an introduction to a collection of academic articles published last year in Medieval Science Fiction (KCLMS, 2016). This is a rather pricey academic tome, but an expanded version of my introduction is available at my web site. To help get to grips with how ordinary medieval people viewed the cosmos, in this piece I’ve mined some of the most significant works of medieval literature for nuggets of scientific wisdom. I was quite pleased with how it came out. Other contributors to the volume include Michael Flynn, well known in these parts (that’s the science fiction writer rather than Trump’s erstwhile advisor).

A few years back, I wrote a chapter on the history of popular science for a book on Successful Science Communication (Cambridge University Press, 2011). I’ve added that chapter to my website as well. It is a whistle stop tour of how scientists have communicated with the general public, from ancient Greece to the present day.

Finally, if you are in the UK or Europe and would like a signed copy of my book God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, then I have a few available and will happily inscribe one with a message of your choice. You can order from the website. Sorry, but for licensing reasons, I can’t sell copies to the US where there is a separate edition of the same book called The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution. The hardback is now only $15 on

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

My new book: What Everyone Needs to Know about Tax

I have a new book out called What Everyone Needs to Know about Tax. In it I take look at the UK tax system and provide non-specialist readers with an easy-to-understand explanation of tax and tax policy to show them just how much they pay, how the money is collected and how tax affects ordinary people every day. While this is a very different subject from God’s Philosophers, tax consultancy has been my day job for over 20 years and I wanted to clear up some of the confusion surrounding it.

What Everyone Needs to Know about Tax is published by Wiley, best known for their For Dummies series, and is available from bookshops, and direct from the publisher (use the code JHT30 for 30% off if you order from Wiley).

With no accounting or legal knowledge required, it contains practical examples to illustrate how tax functions in the real world, for example: how the VAT on a plumber's bill all adds up; why fraudsters made a movie to throw HMRC off their scent; how a wealthy couple can pay minimal tax on a six-figure income without any fancy planning; and the way tracing the money you paid for your iPad sheds light why the EU is demanding Apple pay billions extra in tax.

Written in a conversational style, What Everyone Needs to Know about Tax gives you a real-world look at how tax in the UK works. In it you will be able to:

  • Learn about the many ways that the tax system separates us from our money
  • Discover how Brexit could change the way we pay taxes
  • Understand how changing tax policy affects people's everyday lives
  • See through the rhetoric from politicians and the media surrounding tax controversies

The system's underlying logic is illustrated through three 'golden rules' that explain many of the UK tax regime's oddities:

  1. Lots of small taxes together add up to make big tax bills – “The point of all these taxes is to spread the pain so we notice it less.”
  2. No matter what name is on the bill, all taxes are ultimately suffered by human beings – taxes levied on manufacturers are passed on to the consumer through a higher price for the product
  3. Taxes are kept as invisible as possible – “Since we all hate paying taxes, the government has perfected the art of ensuring that we rarely have to hand over the money ourselves. Most taxes are paid by businesses on our behalf.”

With tax, there are no easy answers. No one enjoys paying them, but without them, the government would shut down.

Whether you are self-employed, have a general interest in the way the UK tax system works, are a finance or tax professional, or a student wanting to understand more about taxation in a break from traditionally dry text books, What Everyone Needs to Know about Tax gives you the background and foundational knowledge you need to be a well-informed taxpayer.

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Monday, January 30, 2017


Some University of Washington philosophers are teaching a course this coming spring term on critical thinking. A very specific aspect of critical thinking. Their course title is "Calling Bullsh*t" without the asterisk. Right away, though, I'm disappointed. In their syllabus, the second week's required reading will be a chapter from Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. But Sagan was as much a purveyor of bullsh*t as anyone, especially when accusing others of purveying bullsh*t. The title of the book is one example. Here's another. People who laud themselves as skeptics are only skeptical about what they want to be skeptical about.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Brexit: What on earth happened?

Readers of the blog come from all over the world and they may have heard some surprising tidings from the United Kingdom over the last few weeks. As most of international news reporting has painted events as either a revolt by xenophobic peasants or just complete chaos, I thought it was worth setting down what has really happened and the reasons behind it.

First, my biases. Although I am, I suppose, a member of the globalised neo-liberal order, I campaigned hard in my local area for a vote to leave the European Union, commonly called the EU, at the referendum on 23 June. I have been a sceptic of the EU since 16 September 1992, ‘black Wednesday’ when the German central bank provoked the markets to devalue the British pound against the will of the British Government. In the meantime, we have seen the EU bring in the single currency that, in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008 has turned into a rack upon which the economies of many of its members are slowly being broken. In essence, the EU has become an oligarchy, and not even a very effective one.

Second, some history: back in 1975, the British overwhelmingly endorsed their membership of the European Economic Community or EEC, the predecessor organisation of the EU. On balance, the British decided that membership of a huge market on their doorstep was worth sacrificing some of their self-rule for. Besides, back in the 1970s, the UK was in a bad way, with widespread labour disputes, high inflation and shaky Government finances.

However, in 1992, the EEC was turned into the European Union by the Maastricht Treaty, which was intended to be the first step towards a federal United States of Europe. The British Prime Minister at the time, John Major, declined to obtain a democratic mandate for this. The previous Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, had been deposed a couple of years before when she effectively threatened to veto the plans for a federal Europe. The combination of Maastricht and Black Wednesday turned the majority of the Conservative Party against the EU. They also destroyed the credibility of Mr Major and his Government, which lost the 1997 election by a landslide.

From 1997 to 2010, Tony Blair’s Labour Party was in Government and was determined that the UK would play a full part in the EU. In 2005, in an effort to increase the democratic legitimacy of the EU, a series of countries held referendums on its new constitutional treaty, which was a further step towards a federal Europe. However, when the EU lost the votes in France and the Netherlands, the results were ignored and the constitutional treaty was pushed through anyway with a different name. Both Mr Blair and the new Conservative leader, David Cameron, also promised a referendum on the constitutional treaty but both reneged when it became politically inconvenient to give the people a say. The grand plan to provide the EU with democratic legitimacy ended up destroying its credibility because the people declined to give the answer they were required to.

In 2013, now in Government, Mr Cameron again promised a referendum. He said he would renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU before the referendum and then ask the people if they wanted to Leave or Remain, based on the new terms. He hinted that, if the negotiation didn’t go his way, he might campaign to Leave. But when his negotiations duly failed to achieve anything of substance in February 2016, he announced he would, after all, campaign to Remain. His credibility as honest broker was instantly destroyed and British voters stopped listening to a word he said. They also got sick of every international bigwig, from President Obama downwards, telling the UK was doomed if it voted to Leave.

On 23 June, we voted 17 million to 15 million to Leave the EU. Everything about the vote was a surprise. No one thought Leave would win. Even after the polls closed, the betting markets implied a 90% chance of a Remain vote. Turnout was 73%, the highest in a national vote for 25 years. In short, more of the British voted to Leave the EU than had ever voted for anything else in our history.

So what happened and what happens next? The Leave vote was a coalition of three disparate groups. The campaign was led by a relatively small group of internationalist libertarians, including Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Daniel Hannan. They saw the EU (correctly, in my view) as an anti-democratic and corporatist racket that was immune to reform, as the failure of Mr Cameron’s renegotiation had shown. The shock troops for Leave were supporters of Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party: mainly paleo-conservatives who objected to uncontrolled immigration (the UK must accept unlimited numbers of immigrants from the EU).

The third element of the coalition for Leave was whose participation nobody could predict in advance. It was also the one that all my local canvassing was aimed at winning over. This final group consisted of working class people who nominally supported the Labour Party, but in practice rarely voted. Sick and tired of being ignored, and not seeing the benefits of globalisation, they came out to vote on 23 June and delivered the verdict of Brexit.

Now the UK embarks on an exciting journey. We will continue to trade freely with the EU, but also sign free trade deals with the rest of the world as fast as we can. We’ll continue to welcome many new immigrants to the UK, but they won’t have an automatic right to reside here. And the democratic control of farm subsidies, fisheries and taxation (the UK currently can’t even abolish the tax on sanitary towels) will return to Westminster. Of course, plenty of the British have valid concerns about the effects of Brexit. And it is to be expected that many people will have invested in the status quo of EU membership, especially if the status quo has lasted for over 40 years. That does not make it a good thing. Indeed, institutional inertia and the fear of short-term consequences over long-term benefits is one of the most damaging of political motivations. 

As for the rest of the EU, it needs to reform quickly to gain democratic legitimacy while also, somehow, undoing the immense damage done by the single currency. Is that possible? Probably not. But we British wish the EU well. With Brexit, we cease to be a truculent tenant and become a friendly neighbour.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

New book

My first book was just published. It's about the various arguments to the effect that determinism and/or naturalism are self-defeating. You can read a goodly portion of the first chapter on the publisher's website, on Amazon, and on GoogleBooks. It's kind of spendy -- sorry. Feel free to ask your library for a copy.

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Saturday, May 21, 2016

Just read

I just read a great short story that some of you might like. It's a combination detective story, hard science fiction, and the history of science called "The Weighing of Ayre" by Gregory Feeley. The link gives the various books it's appeared in; I have it in The Year's Best Science Fiction, vol. 14. It's about 20 years old, but it's new to me.

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Sunday, May 15, 2016

Some comments on the flood, part 1

The account of Noah and the flood is one of those Bible passages held up as being inconsistent with contemporary science -- probably only the creation account receives more fire. In fact young-earth creationists use the flood accounts to justify their positions. According to them, all the geological strata, along with the fossils embedded in them, were laid down by the flood. Some even suggest that the earth was much smoother at the time of the flood and that the mountain ranges formed during it. This is why young-earth creationism is often called "flood geology". The anti-science impression is compounded by how the young-earth folk tie the flood account to the creation account: on the second day of creation, God separated the waters above from the waters below. The waters above, they contend, refers to a primeval water canopy that surrounded the earth which created a sort of tropical paradise where it never rained (as claimed in Genesis 2:5). The flood took place when this canopy collapsed and fell to the earth.

Now, as far as I can tell, the only part of this scenario that was widely accepted prior to the mid-19th century is the claim that the flood was global. I'll deal with that issue in part 2. For now I'll focus on the other issues.

The concept of a primeval water canopy comes from the visions of Ellen White which started in the 1840s and which formed the basis for Seventh-Day Adventism. Seventh-Day Adventism was originally a cult as they considered White's visions to be as authoritative as the Bible. They have since backed away from that stance and are generally considered to be an authentic Christian denomination today -- although I note that Walter Martin, in his magisterial The Kingdom of the Cults, had a 100-page appendix entitled "The Puzzle of Seventh-Day Adventism". Contemporary young-earth creationism is virtually identical to -- and historically derived from -- White's visions.

However, I'm going to ignore the dubious provenance of young-earth creationism in order to focus on some of the problems with how it uses the flood to create an alternative view of earth's history. With regards to the water canopy theory, they point out that the Bible states that the waters were separated to be above and below an expanse, which the text specifically defines as the sky or heavens (שָׁמָ֑יִם). This term had numerous meanings in ancient Hebrew: the Bible uses it to refer to the air or space around us (I owe this point to Dallas Willard's comments in The Divine Conspiracy, chapter 3), the air or space above us, the earth’s atmosphere, outer space, or the spiritual realm where God dwells. Thus one could correctly say that birds fly in the heavens, clouds float in the heavens, stars shine in the heavens, and angels dwell in the heavens. The spiritual heavens are themselves divided further into the seven heavens, not just in Jewish tradition, but in many ancient cosmologies.

In order to defend the canopy theory, one would have to say that the expanse (that is, the heavens) refers specifically to the earth's atmosphere. But I think it is more plausible that it refers to the air or space that is around and above us, and that the waters above them simply refers to clouds and precipitation. My reasoning for this is that, first, if the phrase "the waters above" does not refer to something common in our experience (like precipitation, water that falls from above), then it is completely obscure. Genesis 1 does not define what "the waters above" is, so if it is not meant to refer to an aspect of our common experience (just as "the waters below" refers to rivers, lakes, oceans, and their underground sources), it could be forced to mean nearly anything.

Second, there is biblical evidence against the canopy theory. The text says that when the flood abated, the waters returned (וַיָּשֻׁ֧בוּ) to where they had been prior to the flood (Genesis 8:3). Therefore, if the water had originated in a canopy, it would have returned to form another canopy after the flood. Since the water did not reform into a water canopy that surrounded the earth, the floodwaters did not originate in such a canopy.

In fact there are other Bible passages which show that the waters above refers to clouds and precipitation. Proverbs 3:19-20 states that "By wisdom the LORD laid the earth's foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the deeps were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew." Referring to God's laying of the earth's foundations and setting the heavens in place clearly hearkens back to the creation account in Genesis 1. "The deeps were divided" sounds exactly like the separation of the waters below from the waters above ("the deeps" and "the deep" are common references to oceans and water in the Bible, even in Genesis 1 -- "darkness was over the surface of the deep"), and "the clouds let drop the dew" obviously refers to precipitation. Similarly, Proverbs 8:27-29 states "I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep." Again, "when he set the heavens in place" clearly refers back to the creation account in Genesis 1, and "clouds above" and "fountains of the deep" immediately brings to mind the concept of the waters above and the waters below, which would entail that the waters above refer to clouds.

The claim that it didn't rain on the early earth (and therefore that "the waters above" couldn't have referred to clouds and precipitation) is based on two passages: the first is Genesis 2:5, which states that "the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth [בָאָ֔רֶץ] and there was no one to work the ground." However, this verse is a part of the story of God's creation of Adam and Eve; it does not refer to the entire planet and all of earth history, but to the garden of Eden on the sixth day of creation. The term אָ֔רֶץ means "land", and often refers to local areas like this. So on the sixth day of creation, after God had set aside Eden but before he had placed the first people there, it had not yet rained in Eden. (This is assuming the Genesis 2 account should be taken fairly literally which may not be necessary.)

The other passage offered is Genesis 9:13-17 which states that God set the rainbow in the sky to represent his promise to never destroy the earth's population by flood again. This supposedly implies that there had been no rainbows prior to this, and hence, it had never rained. However, whenever God makes a covenant with people in the Bible, he takes something they're already familiar with and says, in effect, "From now on this represents my covenant with you" (other examples being baptism, circumcision, animal blood, and bread and wine). So Genesis 9:13-17 shouldn't be understood as saying that there had never been any rainbows, but that they were to represent God's covenant from that point on. Therefore, I conclude there is no biblical reason to suggest that the flood was the first time it rained on the earth, and that the passages from Proverbs mentioned above show that there are biblical reasons to think it had rained before.

The claim that the earth's landmass was smoother before the flood is not based on the flood narrative itself, but on some translations of Psalm 104:6-8 (I'll discuss this psalm in more detail in part 2) which, in describing a separation of land from water, refer to the upheaval of the mountains rather than the recession of the waters. For example, the NASB translates vs. 8 as "The mountains rose; the valleys sank down To the place which You established for them"; and the ESV as "The mountains rose, the valleys sank down to the place that you appointed for them." In contrast, the KJV translates this verse as "They [the waters] go up by the mountains; they go down by the valleys unto the place which thou hast founded for them"; and the NIV as "they flowed over the mountains, they went down into the valleys, to the place you assigned for them." It is not clear whether the verbs refer to the waters or to the mountains and valleys.

There are several responses to this:

1) Psalm 104 is a poetic reiteration of Genesis 1. Thus, verses 6-8 are not describing the events of the flood, but the events of creation week when God first formed dry land. So even if we should take these verses as referring to the mountains rising and valleys sinking, it's doing so in the context of creation week, not the flood.

2) Genesis 8:1-3 specifically states that during the flood it was the waters that receded, not the land that was raised.

3) To claim that over eleven miles of tectonic uplift (the difference between the deepest ocean chasm and the tallest mountain) could have taken place in a year's time (the duration of the flood) poses insurmountable problems. A magnitude six earthquake only creates two inches of uplift. Multiply this by 180 million. In such a situation, the passengers on board the ark could not have survived. Moreover, there would have been aftershocks which would have been powerful enough to completely wipe out the survivors.

At this point, some will no doubt object that to say these things couldn't happen is simply to disbelieve in a God who performs miracles. Surely God could have uplifted the mountains supernaturally rather than through tectonic uplift so that the lives of those on board the ark were not threatened. Or surely he could have supernaturally preserved their lives, and supernaturally prevented the aftershocks from destroying the postdiluvian population.

But the problem with these suggestions is not that they are miraculous; the problem with them is that they are ad hoc. That is, they are made in the absence of any biblical evidence in their favor, in order to retain the young-earth creationist / flood geology model. The more a theory goes beyond the given facts, the more ad hoc, or contrived, it is.

In fact, Henry Morris , the founder of young-earth creationism, makes this point fairly well. In The Genesis Record he writes:

It would be helpful to keep in mind Occam's Razor (the simplest hypothesis which explains all the data is the most likely to be correct), the Principle of Least Action (nature normally operates in such a way as to expend the minimum effort to accomplish a given result), and the theological principle of the Economy of Miracles (God has, in His omnipotence and omniscience, created a universe of high efficiency of operation and will not interfere in this operation supernaturally unless the natural principles are incapable of accomplishing His purpose in a specific situation), in attempting to explain the cause and results of the great Flood.

Unfortunately, Morris violates these principles themselves, not least in The Genesis Flood, the book that launched the young-earth creationist movement in 1960 by introducing the Seventh-Day Adventist interpretation of Genesis (based on Ellen White's visions) to a broader Protestant audience. In it, Morris and his co-author John Whitcomb attempt to respond to the argument that the eight people on board the ark could not have fed, cared for, and cleaned up after more than a few thousand animals at most, by suggesting that many of the animals may have gone into hibernation. However, most of the animals taken on board wouldn’t normally hibernate, those that do would only do so for a season and not for the year that they were on the ark, and hibernating for such a significantly longer time would create severe health problems for the animals. Morris and Whitcomb then state that God could certainly have performed such an act, and that anyone who questions this doesn’t really have faith in a God of miracles. But of course, the objection to this is not that it is miraculous but that there is no biblical evidence that any of it happened. That is what makes it so implausible, that is what makes us groan and put our heads in our hands when we hear such contrived attempts to salvage a bad explanation, not the fact that it espouses a miraculous explanation.

Update (10 July): A commenter argues that the flood geology model is not used by contemporary young-earth theorists. If so, I apologize. This post is actually based on some things I wrote about twenty years ago, so it's more than likely out of date. On one hand I could say that I know plenty of young-earth folk and they all accept the flood geology model, so it's still a relevant issue -- but on the other hand I absolutely loathe it when atheists critique the concept of God they insist is held by the average Christian rather than the official doctrines as worked out by theologians, philosophers, and logicians over the centuries. If you want to rebut a position, you address it in its strongest form.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Sunday, April 17, 2016


OK, I can finally exhale. I was going to start blogging more, then I had to review the proofs and compile the index for a book that's coming out in a couple months, and the stress was ... considerable. Actually, I still have a couple weeks before the end of the term, then I correct final exams, and then I can exhale. In the meantime, for your reading pleasure, I present you with "Pray the Lord My Mind to Keep" by Cornelius Plantinga.

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