Friday, June 22, 2007


Off on holiday for the next fortnight. Posts will begin again as usual in the second week of July.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Game Theory

The rules of medieval warfare that I was talking about on Monday are an example of game theory. I used a similar system when playing a board game called Britannica at university. The game was for four players who each took control of some of the tribes who invaded Britain during the Early Middle Ages. It began with the Romans and ended with the Normans. My long term strategy was to make sure that if anyone backstabbed me, I would do everything I could to destroy their chances in that game. I’d even throw away my own chance of winning to get revenge. Now in the short term, this was a silly idea because it meant I was more likely to lose the game. But my betrayer had no chance either so in the long term (we played each week) people stopped backstabbing me even if I left my troops in a vulnerable position.

Much later, I found out that my strategy had been discovered by game theorists and is known as tit-for-tat. Ethologists (who study animal behaviour) have detected a very similar strategy being used by non-humans and have noted that it is so successful that it confers an evolutionary advantage on organisms that use it.

In the idealised surroundings of playing Britannica tit-for-tat works well but in the real world it suffers from a serious problem. When we played our game, each week was a blank slate and I never carried my vendettas over (largely because I couldn’t remember who backstabbed me the week before). In reality, tit-for-tat can often descend into cycles of violence where retaliation leads to another counterattack which can carry on through generations. The obvious contemporary example is the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians where each Hamas suicide attack inevitably leads to a violent response by the IDF, which in turn leads to more attacks by the militants. Because there is no overarching authority, there is no way to end the cycle of violence and vendetta until one side or the other is defeated.

Of course, in nature, there is no overarching authority and so tit-for-tat is the best that evolution can come up with. We humans can make a better job of things because we use two additional tools. The first is empathy, which causes us to be nice to other people because we feel their pain. The second is the government has a monopoly on retribution that prevents us from taking matters into our own hands. Of course, this means that teaching children to respect authority is every bit as important as encouraging them to emphasise. We reap the benefits of living in a society much less violent than our ancestors. It is worth asking, as I will be in the next few weeks, how we got here.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Monday, June 18, 2007

"Kill Them All!"

The most notorious aphorism of the Middle Ages is probably the comment of the papal legate Arnauld-Amaury during the sack of Beziers in July 1209, “God will know his own. Kill them all.” This was the first city to fall to the Albigensian crusaders and it certainly contained many more Catholics than it did Cathars. There has been some debate as to whether Arnauld-Amaury actually said the famous words, but general agreement that he would not have disagreed with the sentiment. After all, the Catholics had been sheltering the heretics, which was quite bad enough.

There is one important point to grasp about the remark, however. Arnauld-Amaury was not issuing an order. Beziers had fallen by storm and its population were going to get slaughtered as surely as night follows day. The papal legate was merely giving his stamp of approval to something that was going to happen anyway. Why would he do that? Partly, it was because he had to keep the army on side. He couldn’t afford to deny the crusaders, who were a volunteer force, the spoils of war. But mainly, I think, it was because he understood and approved of the medieval rules of war.

The rules were really quite simple. If a town or castle surrendered, then the terms of their surrender would be regarded as sacrosanct. If, however, the attacking army took their target by assault, then there would be no mercy. Again and again, even during the Albigensian Crusade, garrisons could march out of a castle that they surrendered while anywhere that refused to capitulate would, when it eventually fell, be reduced to a smoking ruin. Clearly, in the long term, this worked to everyone’s advantage. If you want your opponents to surrender, then you have to ensure that the pay off for doing so is as great as possible. Thus, you cannot trick them into surrendering and then slaughter them, because no one would ever believe you again. You would have to besiege or assault every village you came to and thus never get very far. Likewise, if you let the population be after they have held out against you with all their might, you send out the message that others have nothing to loose by resisting.

This is why the slaughter after the fall of Jerusalem was not the great atrocity that we commonly believe, but simply par for the medieval course. Even then, the Arab garrison who shut themselves in the castle were able to negotiate their safe surrender. In fact, what I find so surprising was how often medieval garrisons were allowed to retire unmolested and how completely safe conduct was respected.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Albigensian Crusade

I’ve just finished reading Jonathan Sumption’s The Albigensian Crusade. It is a good bit of popular history, told at a cracking pace from the original sources, in the tradition of Steven Runciman and John Julius Norwich. Sumption is an interesting character because he manages to combine his role as historian with being one of the highest paid QCs (a senior barrister) on the London legal scene. He is currently working his way through the Hundred Years War (two volumes out at the rate of about one a decade). When the last volume came out he admitted he never saw his children as he was either in court or in his private library. Despite his wealth and reputation, I felt rather sorry for him.

Still, The Albigensian Crusade is excellent. I mentioned the Cathars a couple of weeks ago and had always believed that the crusade had been what wiped them out. Apparently not. The crusade was defeated and when its leader, Simon de Montford, was killed at Toulouse in 1218, it fell apart. His son, to whom leadership had passed, had to return to Northern France. Eventually, it was the French monarchy who gained the County of Toulouse, not by conquest but by an advantageous marriage. The Cathars were destroyed after the crusade when Raymond, Count of Toulouse, allowed papal inquisitors to operate in his territory. They went after the Cathars lay protectors and slowly, over the next century, managed to dismantle the whole edifice. The last remaining remnants of Catharism were the villagers of Montaillou captured in 1326.

What was odd about the Albigensian Crusade was how little it seemed to differ from the internecine conflict that had characterised life in Languedoc before the crusaders even turned up. The region was a patchwork of petty lords and nobles who spent most of their time and energy fighting each other. You can romanticise that kind of manly culture, but it must have been a hellish place to live. The crusaders were simply another army added to the mix. The region did not finally know peace until it was absorbed by the French. The result was a century of unprecedented wealth and growth before the Black Death and the Hundred Years War devastated the entire region in the fourteenth century.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Moving house.....

Been moving house this week so very little time for blogging. Here’s a couple of articles to fill the gap.

Firstly, a P.S. to my rant on Monday against content-free education. It’s an open letter from a physics teacher and well worth reading. I suspect the problems he rages against are common to both the UK and the US. Physics was my first degree and I actually interviewed for several jobs as a physics teacher. Glad I didn’t get offered anything, judging from this.

Secondly, the usually excellent David Aaronvitch proves Pinker’s Law. This law, regular readers will know, states that any analysis of human behaviour or development that takes no account of genetics will be worthless. Aaronvitch’s vacuous article demonstrates this by concluding the reason for differences in attainment by toddlers is about culture. Rubbish David, it’s about genetics. You can easily figure out my own comment among the responses to the article.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Monday, June 11, 2007

I was wrong about the new science syllabus

Actually, I’m wrong quite a lot but I’m usually clueless as to what the problem was. In this case, I can see how I went astray.

In October last year, I blogged with some approval on a new science syllabus. It seemed to me that it addressed many of the issues that concern me about how science is viewed by the public. Students would be taught to think about science in a critical way, covering related ethical issues rather than being spoon fed raw facts. Big mistake. I should have known that it was foolishness to agree with Simon Jenkins.

The new syllabus turns out to be rubbish in practice. With history teaching, the problems are the same. Students cannot be expected to think critically about a subject until they have a sufficient grounding in the facts to make sense of them. Otherwise, they are doing nothing more than training to be pub bores. My mistake was to think that what interests me, now, when I have had the privilege to pass through the very finest establishments that English education has to offer, can be applied to students who are still at the start of their journeys. Without a solid grounding in facts, you cannot have a conversation about values.

Academics have long been guilty of getting this wrong. When theory was all the rage, university undergraduates rapidly got the impression that they could put the theoretical cart before the factual horse. Their tutors never realised that when they dissed the greats of English literature as dead white men, their students would actually believe this meant they didn’t have to read them. It may be fair to take a PhD student’s factual knowledge for granted, but you can’t do this with undergraduates, let alone school children.

When my children reach 16, I no longer want them to be able to emphasise with a plantation slave, I want them to know the kings and queens of England in order and the salient facts about each reign. I don’t want them to explain why global warming is a bad thing (if that is still the trendy issue in fifteen years time). I want them to understand the chemical reactions behind the carbon cycle, the periodic table and the properties of most of the common elements. Only then will then be in the position to debate the finer of points of whether we can trust science and who it was who wrote the history.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, June 08, 2007

The Bible and Historical Writing

In 1099, Jerusalem fell to the First Crusade and the ensuing carnage has never been forgotten. The words of Raymond d'Aguiliers are probably the most famous excerpt from a medieval chronicle:

In the Temple and porch of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and
bridle reins. Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgment of God that this place
should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers, since it had suffered so
long from their blasphemies.

The image of the horses died red with blood sticks in the mind of all who read the passage. It is quoted in every book on the crusades and almost every book on how horrible Christians are. There is a reason, which might not be immediately obvious, why this single anecdote stands as the reference point for the entire massacre. Raymond was making a conscious attempt to tie the fall of Jerusalem in with the apocalyptic prophecies in the Bible. Here is Revelation 6:4 which Raymond clearly has in mind when he describes the blood-drenched horses.

And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that
sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another:
and there was given unto him a great sword.

The question I want to ask is, did the scene described by Raymond actually happen? After all, it is clearly derived from a biblical passage. I ask this, because many scholars and amateurs seem to believe that if an event in the New Testament can be linguistically linked to an event in the Old Testament, then it didn’t happen. Jesus Mythers go further and try to find parallels to everything in the Gospels so that they can declare the whole thing fiction, which is a bit like saying the crusades didn’t happen. They are, after all, wildly implausible ventures.

I would like to make another suggestion. Both the Gospel authors and the crusade chroniclers thought they were writing sacred history. It is natural, therefore, that they were always on the look out for biblical parallels that could hammer the point home. The Bible is a long book and these authors new it very well, so finding these points of reference was not very difficult. I think Raymond did see the blood-drenched horses and it reminded him of the red horse of war from Revelation. Likewise, just because the Gospel writers can link their narrative to the Old Testament is not, in itself, good evidence for ahistoricity.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Conforming to Stereotypes

A bit too busy for a proper post today. But instead, have a look at the comments below this article in the Guardian's Comment is Free section. Talk about village atheists living down to their reputations. Is atheism cowardly and pretentious? Not necessarily. But posting snide remarks behind a pseudonym certainly is both cowardly and pretentious.

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Monday, June 04, 2007

The Noble Savage

All societies have their myths and one of the most prevalent in the West is the myth of the noble savage. It is as old as Tacitus who praised the free Germans over the civilised but decadent Romans. In the sixteenth century, Frenchman Michael de Montaigne wrote a famous essay favourably comparing New World cannibals to his own countrymen. Today, the myth is as powerful as ever with quaint ideas that Australian aborigines are uniquely attuned to the natural world (ideas that the aborigines, who have good lawyers and want their land back, do much to promote). The pop star Sting gave a huge chunk of virgin rain forest to some Amazonian Indians fondly imagining that they would turn it into some latter-day Eden.

It’s all codswallop, of course, and goes to demonstrate that even the most secular of societies has articles of faith ungrounded in evidence. The aborigines deforested vast amounts of Australia, reducing it to desert, while also wiping out almost all that continent’s large animals. Native Americans did the same thing and, incidentally, very nearly killed off the Buffalo too. As for Sting’s donation, the beneficiaries promptly took up logging and mining on an industrial scale.

Anyone who wants to be disabused of the noble savage myth should read the second chapter of Jared Diamond’s latest opus Collapse. There he recounts how the denizens of Easter Island destroyed every last tree until they could not even built the canoes they needed to escape. Environmental destruction is not a crime unique to Western civilisation. We may be very good at it, but unlike so many people through history, at least we recognise what we are doing.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Materialism and Immortality

Even though I don’t think you can have a soul without a body, neither do I subscribe to the idea that we are nothing but the material. However, many people do believe this and it is contributed to more than a few crises of faith. So, I want to ask the question, what if we are nothing but meat machines. Does this end any hopes we have of surviving death?

Although nearly all cognitive scientists are materialists, some still hang on to their Christian faith. Nancey Murphy and Malcolm Jeeves are probably the best know Christian experts in this field. However, most people would think that if we are completely material then any chance for personal immortality is gone. In fact, this is not true and ironically, materialism solves many of the metaphysical quandaries about immortality.

Consider two of the most common problems of body/soul dualism. Firstly, it is extremely hard to explain how dementia or Alzheimer's can appear to eat up a person’s personality while believing their soul is still in there somewhere. The soul could be restricted by the brain’s failure, but people who deal with patients with these conditions do not find that this rings true. As one writer said, “I can’t believe the personality can survive death when, so often, if doesn’t even survive that long.”

Secondly, there is the question of where souls come from and how we acquire one. Does God hand out souls at conception or at birth? What about animals? Was there a first human who had a soul but whose parents did not? And would God deign to give a robot or computer a soul if they ever became conscious? Materialist immortality is able to deal with these questions, in my opinion, much more effectively than old fashioned dualism.

Remember, from last week's post, it doesn’t matter which particular atoms our brains are made of as these change the whole time. What counts is the way they combine, move and interact. They form a dynamic system which, by a process no one understands, produces our conscious experience. Thus, there is nothing illogical about the idea that we could be resurrected with new bodies but have the same conscious experience, memories and personality that we had before. Producing an exact replica of ourselves would be impossible in this world (as I said before, you’d need to recreate the entire dynamic system of our brains, not just wire it up and hope for the best). However, it wouldn’t be impossible for an omniscient God.

Christians all imagine that God reads our minds and can hear our thoughts. Thus, he must have a full map of our brains. The only way to access our thoughts would be to watch our synapses firing because that is what our thoughts are. Thus, to be resurrected, you need to be fully known by God. It is easy to imagine that when he gives us our new bodies he can repair any damage to our minds caused by disease, genetic fallibility or even just bad memories. He could rewire our new brains and jog some of the synapses to eliminate the flaws. We would be us but with all that bad stuff, like our genetic predisposition towards sin, excised. The unbearable pain we felt when we lost a loved one would fade, not just because we would be reunited with them, but because the damage to our minds would be undone.

So it seems to me that even if materialists are entirely correct about our minds being nothing but epiphenomena from our brains, God can still keep his promises. And people who have adopted atheism because they think that science has destroyed the soul can return to their faith without compromising their belief in science.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.