Friday, December 19, 2008

News on God's Philosophers

God’s Philosophers is due out in August 2009. I can confirm that it will be released in Australia and Canada, probably before the end of next year. However, it may be delayed to avoid the Christmas rush of celebrity biographies and reprinted cookbooks.

And as you can see, we have a cover design. I think this looks fantastic and I’m very grateful to Icon for commissioning it from such a talented designer. However, we might change the central figure (which is a sixteenth century woodcut of a doctor examining a bottle of urine!) for a bookish scholar. I’ll keep you posted.

Unfortunately, my posting will be slight for the next couple of months as I beat the manuscript into shape (as well as doing my day job). A big thank you to Jim, J.D. and Humphrey for their excellent blogging and to everyone else who contributes to the discussion board.

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Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

The deep sleep of Adam

‘Other pursuits become insignificant in their objects when placed in contrast with ours ...what are any, or what are all these objects when contrasted with the most precious and valued gift of God - human life’

James Young Simpson

According to many of the self appointed experts of the internet, throughout human history Christianity has been a force of backwardness and oppression, holding back scientific and intellectual advance and resisting the march of progress inch by bloody inch. Take this example from the site ‘’:

‘In 1846 James Simpson, a Scottish physician promoted the use of chloroform to relieve pain during childbirth. This was opposed by the Church, citing Genesis 3:16 "...I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children". The avoidance of pain was seen as thwarting God's will. Fortunately, Simpson found a competing passage (Genesis 2:21) which describes the first surgical operation; it seems to support the use of anesthetic: "...God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam.....he took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh.." In time, the Church's opposition dissipated; pain killers have since lost their religious significance.’

Another site expresses outrage at the churches effrontery:

Astonishingly, far from crediting him for having saved countless women from avoidable pain, he (James Simposon) was severely castigated by the Scottish Church for interfering in the Divine Plan. That many other doctors from the previous centuries had used hypnotism and narcotics to relieve pain without censure was irrelevant to the Church. They wanted Simpson to stop – putting people to sleep artificially, they claimed, was making it easier for the Dark Powers to overwhelm them. In the case of women, it was particularly heinous and insensitive to try to save them from feeling pain. After all, wasn't it said in the Genesis - "In Sorrow thou shalt bring forth children"?

The central problem with this anecdote is that it is almost completely false. A. D. Farr, a medical historian has methodically searched through a vast body of literature from the 1840s and 1850s, where modern anesthesia during childbirth was first introduced, and found that the idea there was religious opposition to the introduction of childbirth anesthesia was a figment of later propaganda.

Straight after his famous experiment was performed at his house in the old town of Edinburgh, Simpson did indeed prepare a theological defense entitled ‘In Answer to the Religious Arguments advanced Against the Employment of Anaesthetic Agents in Midwifery and Surgery (1847). But the attack never materialized; not even the slightest hint of opposition occurred. On page one of the tract Simpson mentions that he had heard of patients and some doctors criticising what he was doing, but he does not name any religious organisation, theologian or religious leader as being responsible for spreading opposition to his work. Further on in the pamphlet he mentions that the leading obstetrician in Dublin had publicly denounced his work for religious reasons. Having read this, the man involved, Dr. Montgomery, in a letter of 27th December 1848 to Simpson, expressed his “astonishment” that Simpson had accepted “hearsay” and had, “taken the trouble of writing a formal reply to arguments which never were made use of by me. I never advocated or locum tenanced either in public or in private the so called ‘religious objection’ to anaesthesia in labour, ...” .In a later article he wrote, “I attach no value to what are called the ‘religious objections’ to the use of this remedy”

In a letter to Dr. Protheroe Smith, Simpson reported that following the publication of his pamphlet, he had received communications from some of the best theologians ‘...of all churches, ... Presbyterian, Independent, Episcopalian, and Protheroe’s own Anglican Church, approving of the view I had taken’. As A.D Farr’s analysis has shown, prominent leaders from across the established religious spectrum – including Rev. Thomas Chalmers (Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland),and Rabbi Abraham De Sola (Canada's first Rabbi) - were in written agreement with anesthesia. Most clergy, theologians, and religious physicians approved the whiff of painkiller. A few clergy feared that Satan was behind pain relief, but Chalmers described these dissenters as ‘small theologians’ and advised that they should be ignored.

Why did Simpson take it upon himself to write the tract in the first place?. The reason was probably that he was deeply religious and, acting on hearsay, decided to ally the fears of his peers. At home Simpson led morning and evening prayers. He frequently preached to Edinburgh congregations as well as preaching in the mining districts. He even wrote religious addresses, tracts and hymns. He also, being a man of conscience, broke from the Church of Scotland when the Free Church was formed in 1842. Given this background it seems logical that, having made a scientific breakthrough, he would expound upon the Christian teaching on the subject.

In a letter to a colleague in 1848, only a year after his theological defence was written, Simpson commented:

‘all religious opposition to chloroform has entirely ceased among us, if we except an occasional remark on the point from some caustic old maid whose prospects of using chloroform are for ever passed, or a sneer from some antiquated lady who grieves and grudges that her daughters should not suffer as their mother was obliged to suffer before them.’

These objections from lay women ceased when Queen Victoria accepted anesthesia for the birth of Prince Leopold in 1853 and described it as a pleasant experience.

So where did this myth of widespread religious opposition come from?. Professor Colin Russell throws some light upon the matter.

I had a research student who looked at this as part of a bigger task and, to cut a long story short, he found that all the stories to this effect, which are in all the modern textbooks on the history of medicine, are actually almost baseless; but not quite, because he traced them down in a sort of family tree to just one source, and that one source was A.D. White. There is a statement in A.D. White’s book that this clerical opposition was in fact the case and he doesn’t even give a footnote reference to it.

Sure enough, in 1896, Andrew Dickinson White claimed in his History of the Warfare of Science with Theology and Christendom that:

'In 1847, James Young Simpson, a Scotch physician, who afterward rose to the highest eminence in his profession, having advocated the use of anæ sthetics in obstetrical cases, was immediately met by a storm of opposition. This hostility flowed from an ancient and time-honoured belief in Scotland. As far back as the year 1591, Eufame Macalyane, a lady of rank, being charged with seeking the aid of Agnes Sampson for the relief of pain at the time of the birth of her two sons, was burned alive on the Castle Hill of Edinburgh; and this old theological view persisted even to the middle of the nineteenth century. From pulpit after pulpit Simpson's use of chloroform was denounced as impious and contrary to Holy Writ; texts were cited abundantly, the ordinary declaration being that to use chloroform was ``to avoid one part of the primeval curse on woman.'' Simpson wrote pamphlet after pamphlet to defend the blessing which he brought into use; but he seemed about to be overcome, when he seized a new weapon, probably the most absurd by which a great cause was ever won: ``My opponents forget,'' he said, ``the twenty-first verse of the second chapter of Genesis; it is the record of the first surgical operation ever performed, and that text proves that the Maker of the universe, before he took the rib from Adam's side for the creation of Eve, caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam.''

This was a stunning blow, but it did not entirely kill the opposition; they had strength left to maintain that the ``deep sleep of Adam took place before the introduction of pain into the world---in a state of innocence.;; But now a new champion intervened---Thomas Chalmers: with a few pungent arguments from his pulpit he scattered the enemy forever, and the greatest battle of science against suffering was won. This victory was won not less for religion.'

He didn’t give a source because, as we now know, he made most of it up.

Postscript: What about Eufame Macalyane?

In the reference from Andrew Dickinson White I quoted, he also mentioned the story of Eufame Macalyane /Euphame McCalzane. The claim was that Calvinists, at the instigation of King James, burnt her to death at the stake in Edinburgh in 1591. This sentence was passed because she had accepted help to ease the pains of childbirth, thereby transgressing the orders of God given in Genesis 3:16.

When the story was traced it was found that this was actually a witchcraft trial which had been spun later as an anti-Calvinist myth. In 1591 a large group were found guilty of attempted murder by attempting to cast a spell. Their objective was to use witchcraft to cause a storm at sea so in order to sink the ship transporting king James VI of Scotland, and his new wife to Edinburgh from Denmark. Having been caught they were sentenced to be strangled and their bodies to be burnt.

Fifty two accusations were issued during the trial to show that one of the leaders, Agnes Simpson / Sampsoune was a witch. One of the charges was that ten days before Euphame McCalzane expected her baby, Agnes placed ‘Mwildis’ powder under her bed and used the summoning of evil spirits to ease the pains of childbirth. The powder was supposed to consist of the finger, toe and knee joints of disinterred male corpses. Euphame herself was not accused of using this spell, but of adding to the strength of the spell aimed at causing the storm. The judges were primarily interested in whether the defendants were witches attempting to assassinate the king and the childbirth element was somewhat irrelevant, as can be seen from the entry in the register.

the execution, on the Castle-hill of Edinburgh, of Euphame M'Calyeane, one of the most famous of the reputed witches of the time. Her trial had lasted from the 9th to the 13trh of June, and had been on various charges, from witchcraft for private purposes, eighteen years ago, to recent sorcery for drowning the King and Queen on their way from Denmark. Before she was strangled and burnt, the poor woman "tooke it on her conscience that she was innocent of all the crymes layed to her charge." (Register of the Privy Council of Scotland iv, 645n)

Have a go and see how many myths you can spot in this address.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Philosophy and Raking

For hundreds of years, London has been the great corrupter. Many of the great actors of history, previously untainted by the risqué values of this great metropolis, have arrived through its gates and left with a collection of moral vices and, no doubt, a corresponding quantity of sexually transmitted diseases. In no century is this truer than the riotous eighteenth when the capital was seen in the eyes of its contemporaries as a ‘laboratory of sin’; and with good reason. Those who lament the worst excesses of reality TV should perhaps reflect on what passed for entertainment in this period of history. A handbill from the time which was displayed at Hockley in the Hole reads:

‘This is to give notice to all gentlemen, gamesters, and others, that on this present Monday is a match to be fought by two dogs, one from Newgate market, against one from Honylane market… Likewise a green bull to be baited which was never baited before; and a bull to be turned loose with fireworks all over him; also a mad ass to be baited, with a variety of bull baiting and bear baiting, and a dog to be drawn up with fireworks. Beginning exactly at three of the clock’

The young James Boswell's addiction to London was undoubtedly inspired by its venereal pleasures. When he first visited London in 1760 at the tender age of 21 he had a ‘gloriously rakish’ time of it; chasing street girls a plenty, which were hard to come by in the stony surroundings of Edinburgh. Upon his return two years later he wrote:

'When we came upon Highgate Hill and had a view of London, I was all life and joy. I repeated Cato's soliloquy of the soul, and my soul bounded forth to a certain prospect of happy futurity. I sung all manner of songs and began to make one about an amorous meeting with a pretty girl, the burthen of which was as follows,

'She gave me this, I gave her that
and tell me, had she not tit for tat?,
I gave three huzzahs! and we went briskly in'

Arriving again five years later, he 'sallied forth like a roaring lion after girls, blending philosophy and raking'. For many years thereafter he would 'still be in a flutter' at the prospect of returning to London despite the gruelling five day coach ride from Edinburgh. 'Swear solemn with drawn sword not to be with women sine condom nisi Swiss lass' he instructed himself in his continental diary and also to 'chase libertine fancies'. In fact, by the looks of it, it appears to have been more the raking and not the philosophy that mattered to him. By the age of 29 he had tried to seduce a dozen high born ladies, had made mistresses out of three wives, four actresses, Rousseau's paramour and three middling class women; he had also contrived to have sexual relations with over 66 street girls. Even though, according to his own testimony, he guarded himself ‘in armour complete', we should be sceptical of these precautions as he was infected with gonorrhoea at least 17 times in his life.

Boswell wasn’t unusual in his enthusiasms. The Duke of Norfolk for example had amours 'without delicacy and without number'. What he himself described as his ‘intemperate indulgence of animal impulse' lasted into his old age, even as he lived publicly with his mistress, Mary Gibbon.

When the young Benjamin Franklin left the shores of America in 1724 to buy a printing press in London he quickly realised that his backers had deserted him and that he would have to pay his own way. Upon taking his first job Franklin became disgusted at the habits of his fellow workers who believed, as was common at the time, that hard work required the consumption of strong beer. Workers of the time typically drank a pint of beer before breakfast, a pint with breakfast, a pint at midmorning, a pint with the midday meal, a pint in the afternoon and a pint at day’s end. When Franklin refused to contribute to the beer tab at his workplace he was ostracized by his colleagues who irritated him immensely by inserting errors into his printing work at every opportunity. When he confronted them about these activities they feigned innocence and claimed it was the fault of the company ghost.

Despite a strong moral upbringing in the Puritan surroundings of New England, Franklin was not able to resist the temptations of the city for very long. In his later biographies, he wrote that he had indulged in many ‘foolish intrigues with low women’. By ‘low women’ he of course meant prostitutes, who were described by a contemporary chronicler as ‘lechery-layers of around a guinea purchase’. At the time they were mainly to be found sitting in hairdressers shops, which were ‘seldom to be found without a whore as a bookseller’s shop in St Paul’s churchyard without a parson’. Presumably the consumers of the time could get a ‘foolish intrigue’ thrown in with their haircut.

On a more contemporary note, a few months ago I was interested to read that investigators researching the depraved sexual habits of the United Kingdom had discovered a website which had been set up for the purposes of reviewing and assigning ‘starred’ ratings to prostitutes. This was reported as heralding a new benchmark in moral turpitude; although apparently, in a typically British manner, the denizens of the website appear to have been more concerned with the availability of parking spaces in the vicinity of the prostitutes than with the ‘quality’ of the ladies in question.

Interestingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a precedent for this in the 18th century. The great moralist Francis Place wrote a full six volumes on the 'manners and morals' of the era including a great wodge of 'extracts from publications mostly sold at respectable booksellers without disguise'. One of the main targets for his wrath was a book called Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies. This he explains was once an annual publication 'sold openly in booksellers shop(s). Despite the name Harris, it was actually written by Samuel Derrick, an impoverished Irish poet, who worked from the list of available women carried by the notorious Jack Harris (aka John Harrison) who had christened himself the 'Pimp General of All England'. Derrick himself was dubbed by Boswell as 'a little blackguard pimping dog'. The 1786 edition, which Place documented, contained the names of 105 women who, he quotes in disbelief, 'seem the most pleased with that refined sensation (who) wantonly and mutually enjoy the ecstatic bliss, (who), return with equal vigor...the meeting shower and sigh for sigh, the gasping torrent pour'. Place then documents the description for 'Miss M of New Compton Street (her price, one guinea)

'Lovely man my anguish
See supine a tender maid
Begs you will not let her languish
One good **** will ease the jade
Did you know how brisk her motion
You will need not long **** alone
Prince of nature’s balmy lotion
Nine inches long without the bone'

He also quoted the description for Miss L of 30 Newman Street whose 'seat of love' is 'supported on two marble pillows framed by the just hand of symmetry' and whose 'raven coloured harbour of bliss, is guarded by her blushing clytoris, now swelled with delight, now reddening with desire: apply then ye sons of pleasure, the full swelled engine and stem the rapid torrent. Three guineas is the price'.

Catering to a variety of vile tastes (eyeball-licking included), the List also recommended Miss Love, of Tottenham Court Road, as 'a damned fine hairy piece'; Nancy Basket, of Westminster, who 'flays, they say, with an amazing grace'; and 'roguish' Madam Dafloz, a Soho resident possessed of 'a certain cleanliness in the Netherlands'. It also warned prospective clients off Lucy Paterson, 'as lewd as goats and monkies… a vile bitch', Pol Forrester - 'breath worse than a Welch bagpipe' - and the 'contaminated carcase' that was Miss Young, at the Turk's Head Bagnio.

Place did note with some approval that, in the more refined moral climate of the early Victorian era, he had to scour a hundred bookshops to be able to find a copy.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Apocalypse Postponed

Reading the online versions of the newspapers this morning over a rather soggy and unappetising bowl of Weetabix, I couldn’t help feeling a bit depressed. The economy continues to nose dive, house prices are spiralling out of control and my long suffering team Ipswich Town appear to be in the football equivalent of purgatory; not really rubbish per se, but not that great either. It was something of a delight then to read of recent discoveries in the field of Dark Energy; the mysterious force which makes up about 70 percent of the universe and is causing it's continuing expansion. It was thought that eventually (in around 50 billion years) this force will cause the universe to be torn apart in the so called ‘big rip’. Now it appears that dark energy is a constant throughout the Universe. That is, Dark Energy is not growing in strength with time, and the Universe won’t rip itself to shreds in the dim future. The article goes on to say:

"This result could be described as 'arrested development of the universe,'" said lead researcher Alexey Vikhlinin of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in the northeastern state of Massachusetts…Whatever is forcing the expansion of the universe to speed up is also forcing its development to slow down."…After years of research, scientists now believe that dark energy is "a form of repulsive gravity that dominates the universe, although they have no clear picture of what it actually is," the research report said…What this means for the future of this universe is that accelerated expansion will proceed forever but will probably not result in a Big Rip," said Vikhlinin…."That is, nearby galaxies will eventually disappear from our sight, but the structures already formed by clusters of galaxies and our own galaxy will not be torn apart, not in the near future anyway."

Hooray!. Of course humanity is never really comfortable without the idea of an impending apocalypse, be it 40 years from now due to nuclear holocaust or billions of years from now with the heat death of the universe and I’m sure that, despite this reprieve, we will soon find some other source of ‘death from above’ to worry about.

Vikhlinin has also used NASA's Earth-orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory to find that dark energy acts as a force that keeps clusters of galaxies — around 1,000 bright galaxies or more — from essentially overeating. Without dark energy, these giant clusters would keep forming, getting denser and bigger because of gravity. Phil Plait at Bad Astonomy puts it like this:

‘When the Universe was young, matter started to coalesce by gravity, forming huge structures millions of light years across. These collapsed to form galaxies and clusters of galaxies, like cities composed of thousands of smaller towns. …If the Universe were not expanding, forming clusters would be easy. As time went on, more matter could fall in to the cluster, forming more galaxies and making the cluster bigger. But since the Universe was expanding, there was a limit to how big the clusters could get; the outermost fringes would be moving away from the central regions, and that limited the amount of raw material available to make galaxies. It’s like going to the grocery store and trying to fill your cart with cans of spaghetti sauce, only to find workers removing the cans from the shelf at the same time. The number of cans you wind up with depends on how quickly the grocery store clerks are unshelving them.'

This leads to an interesting question, what would happen if Dark Energy were different and the galactic clusters got too big?. Well according to ‘Rare Earth by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, our star happens to be located in a region where star density is quite low compared to other regions of the Milky Way. In the more dense regions of our galaxy the development of life would be inhibited by supernovae and other celestial catastrophes. Too much heat and too many gamma rays or other type of ionizing radiation would disrupt the fragile development of life and all these factors would be more prevalent in a denser galactic structure. Obviously we are making assumptions based on a sample of one, but it is probable that Dark energy’s limiting of the galactic density is critical to the development of life.

In other news, a super massive black hole has been confirmed to be at the centre of our galaxy. A recent article in the Guardian claimed that this confirms that this ‘confirms we're nothing special – and that's a central tenet of modern science’.

‘The Copernican principle says that we are not the centre and focus and purpose of creation: we are a neither here nor there accretion of recycled stardust assembled by chance and the still somewhat mysterious forces that manage the universe.’

Well, there are three important points here:

1) This is a pretty sensible application of the Copernican principle. If we look out onto the universe and we see that most other galaxies have a supermassive black hole at their centre, then things should be the same for our galaxy. Sure enough that is exactly what we observe. Our galaxy is the same as any other.

2) It is becoming clear that supermassive black holes have an indispensable role in creating and sustaining galaxies. A life bearing universe needs to have a substantial amount of black holes to organise matter into galaxies. If we did not have a supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy, we would probably not have come into existence as they appear to be critically important. If being 'special' involves being dead, as the article suggests, I'll take being not special please.

3) In order for the life bearing features of the universe we observe to develop, the universe we inhabit needs to be special. Mindbogglingly special.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Merry Anti-Christmas!

We cover thee not with a cross, nor with water and prayer the inheritance of slavery and darkness, but with our red banner of struggle and labour, pierced by bullets and torn by bayonets..we bid the parents of the newborn child, bring up thy child to be a devoted fighter for the liberation of the toilers of the entire world, an advocate of science and labour, an enemy of darkness and ignorance.

A Bolshevik baptism from the 1920s. (the picture on the right is a cartoon of Orthodox priests plotting counter-revolution)

There comes a time when the annual assault of irritating sleigh bells, laughing Santas, tacky decorations and lackluster carols sung in shopping malls by disinterested children become all too much for even the hardiest of souls. In my weaker moments I find myself losing all enthusiasm for the Christmas spirit and wishing the whole ghastly carnival would be swept away in some kind of unexpected, but not entirely unwelcome catastrophe.

Casting an eye over the pages of Michael Burleigh’s ‘Sacred Causes’ it appears that the Bolsheviks thought along similar lines. In 1922, at the suggestion of Skvortsov-Stepanov a Komsomol anti-Christmas was celebrated in Moscow and over 400 other cities in order to cure the Russian people of their ‘superstitious’ customs. On Orthodox Christmas day, January the 6th 1923, processions formed up at noon and paraded until dark. The marchers included students, members of women’s organisations and working class youth, with horsemen following behind holding anti-religious banners. These were followed by trucks bearing clowns mocking God, a figure of God embracing a naked woman, and mock priests and rabbis chanting indecent versions of religious liturgies and standing in ridiculous poses. This parade culminated in images of Buddha, Christ, Mohammed and Osiris being burned on the bonfire. To liven up the proceedings Komsomol carol singers went from house to house singing an adapted version of the Christmas Troparian of the Orthodox Church:

'Thy Komsomol Christmas
Restoring to the world the light of reason
Serving the workers revolution
Blooming under the five pointed star
We greet thee, sun of the Commune
We see thee on the heights of the future Russian
Komsomol, glory to thee!'

In Odessa a similar parade culminated in the burning of Moses and Jehovah on the main square while the adjacent church was packed with Christian worshippers at mass. Other processions accompanied the showing of anti-religious plays with titles such as ‘The Liberation of Truth’.

The anti-religious carnival was not a success, eliciting offence from believers and unbelievers alike. Because of this it came to be recognized that a much broader cultural approach was needed which created new rituals in place of the old. The idea of anti-religious festivals was not abandoned altogether however. In 1923 a Komsomol Easter was organized; a kind of unholy week of anti-religious celebration with speeches, charades and plays such as ‘The Political Trial of the Bible’. In Leningrad, pioneers sang ‘materialist’ songs and displayed slogans such as ‘The Smoke of the Factory is better than the Smoke of Incense’. More parallel anti-festivals followed, including ‘Electric day’ to replace ‘Elijah day’, ‘Forest day’ to replace ‘Trinity Sunday’, ‘Harvest day’ to replace ‘The Feast of the Intercession’ and ‘The day of Industry’ to replace ‘The Feast of the Transfiguration’.

A surge in anti-religious activity occurred when the ‘League of the Militant Godless’ was founded in 1925 under the leadership of the veteran atheist Emelyan Yaroslavsky; the founder editor since 1922 of a weekly called ‘The Godless’.The League of the Godless proclaimed that all religion was harmful to workers, that science was sufficient to explain all phenomena and that religiosity was a sign of disloyalty. The league consisted of party members, hooligans from the Komsomol youth movement, immature workers and army veterans. Its members fanned out in cell like groups, although their propaganda was occasionally more dramatically enforced by aircraft buzzing churches still in use and the arrival of a specially commissioned train called 'The Godless Express' which brought ‘the light of reason’ through puffs of smoke to the Russian countryside.

Peasants were taken up in planes to show them there were no angels or Gods in the heavens. Seminars, study groups and evening courses were started alongside home guides like ‘Teach yourself to be godless’. Irreligious enthusiasts puffed up with scientific certitudes appeared in village streets to challenge God to punish their blasphemies with lightning bolts. One unimaginative atheist sailor attempted to keep the faithful out of church by grabbing them as they went in and reading to them about isosceles triangles from an encyclopedia. Debates were organized between activists and priests whose outcome sometimes included the latter ripping off their costumes and admitting their 'deception'. These ran into trouble, as sometimes the crowd took the side of the priests and often the clergymen won the debates against their poorly educated Bolshevik counterparts. In one reported example a crowd burst into laughter when, in answer to a priest’s question ‘who made nature?’, the Bolshevik answered ‘nature made itself’. As a consequence of this and similar debacles these debates were soon replaced by lectures.

Churches were vandalized, the biggest were blown up and many church bells like the one shown in the picture on the right were taken away and smelted. 44 anti religious museums were opened, the biggest being 'The Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism' in Leningrad’s Kazan cathedral. This contained exhibits such as waxworks of the Spanish Inquisition, an alchemist laboratory, a Foucault pendulum and a diagram depicting the evolutionary process juxtaposed with a picture of the Garden of Eden. Displays also included photos of priests who had been arrested for insanity or crimes against the people. Spectators came away feeling the inevitable superiority of Soviet Leninist communism over the superstitions of Christianity and Judaism and the triumph of science over religion.

In the 1930s extreme publications such as ‘The Godless of the Bench’ edited by M Kostelovkaya, a Moscow party leader, S Polidoroc, a journalist and Dimitry Moor, the famous poster artist, advocated an ‘antireligious proletarian dictatorship of the atheist city over the countryside’. Illustrations from this journal showed such delightful images as peasants feeding off the innards of an eviscerated Christ and a plump peasant woman combing vermin - priests, chalices, angels, crosses and icons - out of her infested hair. In one of the more bizarre incidents, a pamphlet appeared in the 1920s called ‘Prayers on a Tractor’, this depicted an atheist tractor waging a war against the cross and crushing it beneath its wheels.

History was not on the side of the Bolsheviks. By the end of the 1980s the Soviet empire lay in ruins, the ‘Museum of Religion and Atheism’ reverted back to being a Cathedral and the scientific certainties of communism and its ‘laws of history’ were shown to be complete twaddle, despite much paper and ink having been spilt in praise of them on college campuses over the course of the 20th century. Christmas has turned out to be remarkably resilient, and in view of that, it can perhaps be forgiven its excesses.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Eternal return

Bernard Carr, the Professor of Astronomy and Mathematics at Queen Mary, University of London has written a very short piece in the independent in which he says:

‘is the "multiverse" a proper scientific proposal or just philosophy? Despite the growing popularity of the proposal, the idea is speculative and currently untestable – and it may always remain so. Astronomers may never be able to observe the other universes with their telescopes and particle physicists may never be able to detect the extra dimensions with their accelerators. So, although some physicists favour the multiverse because it may do away with the need for a creator, others regard the idea as equally metaphysical. What is really at stake is the nature of science itself’

Support for the idea of the multiverse is growing rapidly in many circles, particularly among String Theorists whose theory of everything predicts a vast array of universes, but also among more conservative cosmologists like Sir Martin Rees who argue that the eerie fine tuning of the physical constants mean the universe cannot be seen as purely self explanatory. This will inevitably mean that an array of scientific observations will be interpreted as evidence for a multiverse even if such a conclusion is highly speculative. Looking at the current wave of multiverse hype, I can’t help but agree with Peter Woit’s conclusion that:

‘It seems that selling pseudo-science with the argument “it’s either this or religion” works.’

Is there a way to test the proposition that we live in a multiverse. Roger Penrose of Oxford University in his book The Road to Reality, pp. 762-5) has argued that if our universe is but one member of an infinite world ensemble of randomly varying universes, then it is overwhelmingly more probable that we should be observing a much different universe than that which we in fact observe.

Penrose calculates that the odds of our universe’s low entropy condition obtaining by chance alone are on the order of 1:1010(123) (this is under the Weyl Curvature hypothesis). The odds of our solar system’s being formed instantly by random collisions of particles is, on the other hand, about 1:1010(60), a vast number, but inconceivably smaller than 1010(123). If our universe were but one member of a collection of randomly ordered worlds, then it is vastly more probable that we should be observing a much smaller universe. Observable universes like that are much more plenteous in the ensemble of universes than worlds like ours and, therefore, ought to be observed by us if the universe were but one random member of an ensemble.

If our universe is but one random member of a multiverse, then we ought to be observing highly extraordinary events, like horses and unicorns popping into and out of existence by random collisions since these are vastly more probable than all of nature’s constants and quantities falling by chance into the virtually infinitesimal life-permitting range. Penrose concludes that multiple universe explanations are so “impotent” that it is actually “misconceived” to appeal to them to explain the special features of the universe. I wouldn’t take as cynical a view as that; I find it conceivable that the cosmos could be much larger than this one universe. But such a view is metaphysics; it is not scientific and it is important to know the difference.

Another set of theories that have been making a bit of a comeback are the cyclic universe or ‘big bounce’ models. One would think these would have disappeared with the recent finding that our universes’ rate of expansion is increasing due to dark energy. They still seem to be hanging in there in the hope that dark energy will mysteriously change into a repulsive force. If this is the case then our universe might keep expanding and contracting ad infintum. I must confess I rather like this idea because, as well as failing to explain why there should be a lawlike bouncing universe for no reason, it vindicates Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence. This was a slightly off the wall Idea Nietzsche picked up from Heinrich Heine, who wrote

‘[T]ime is infinite, but the things in time, the concrete bodies, are finite. They may indeed disperse into the smallest particles; but these particles, the atoms, have their determinate numbers, and the numbers of the configurations which, all of themselves, are formed out of them is also determinate. Now, however long a time may pass, according to the eternal laws governing the combinations of this eternal play of repetition, all configurations which have previously existed on this earth must yet meet, attract, repulse, kiss, and corrupt each other again...’

Nietzsche called this idea "horrifying and paralyzing" remarking that:

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more' ... Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.' [The Gay Science, §34]

I would agree. Horrifying, paralyzing and mind bogglingly silly; such is the state of play in 21st century cosmology.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Arguments and Authority

One of my pet peeves is when people confuse the fallacy of authority with the argument from authority. The former is better called the fallacy of irrelevant authority, since it's when you use the views of someone who is an authority in a particular subject to justify positions outside of that subject. It's the irrelevant part that makes it a fallacy, not the authority part. For example, I often see letters to the editor, editorials, and essays where the writer uses his status as an academic to promote his political views, even though his academic standing is in a field completely unrelated to political science. Such a person's political views carry no more weight than yours or mine or anyone else's.

By contrast the argument from authority is a perfectly valid form of argumentation in informal logic. It takes as its premise that an authority on a subject is more likely correct about that subject than not. In my opinion the most it can do is shift the burden of proof to one who is denying or arguing against the authority's position. Also, in order to have any strength, I think it has to be an argument from the consensus of authorities on a subject, since you can always find some authority in some discipline willing to make outrageous claims.

In formal logic, however, arguments from authority are invalid. This is because the validity of a syllogism is completely distinct from the person presenting it. However, again, some people think this means that any appeal to authority is invalid, regardless of whether it falls into formal or informal logic. For example, I've actually had discussions with people who think Jesus never existed, and when I mention that their view contradicts those of virtually all historians who have written on the subject, they yell, "Appeal to authority! Invalid!" Of course it's not invalid at all. It's perfectly appropriate to look to those who have devoted their lives to the study of the subject under debate to see how they have assessed the evidence. Again, I think it only goes so far -- it's a weak argument -- but it's still a valid argument, as long as you're working outside of formal logic.

(cross posted at Agent Intellect)

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Honor your Fuhrer and master

‘The Ten Commandments are a code of living to which there’s no refutation. These precepts correspond to irrefragable needs of the human soul; they’re inspired by the best religious spirit and the churches her support themselves on a solid foundation’

Adolf Hitler – Quoted in Table Talk (24th of October 1941) Von Rintelen in attendance

Having had an unhealthy obsession with the Third Reich for some time I have decided to do a series of posts on Adolf Hitler’s religious views as well as well as a broader discussion of Christianity and Nazi Germany. Whilst trawling through a number of sites in preparation for this, I came across a fascinating article about the discovery of a Nazi bible. The creation of this bizarre work was ordered by Adolf Hitler in order to replace the old and new testaments with something more conducive to Nazi Ideology. Hansjoerg Buss of the Nordelbischen Church Office discovered the book in an archive search. It had evidently been printed in 1941 by a company in Weimar and was shipped out to thousands of churches across Nazi-occupied Europe. For a long time, almost nothing was known about Hitler’s Bible, since believers burnt almost every copy. However, a few copies were discovered in German churches at the end of the 1980s, although their discovery was not widely reported.

Hitler’s plan was to gradually 'Nazify' the church beginning with a theological centre he set up in 1939 called ‘The Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Religious Life’. Walter Grundmann was appointed as its academic director and wrote in 1941, ‘The Bible must become Jew-free and the German people must see that the Jews are the mortal enemy who threaten their very existence’. The Institute, financed by a consortium of regional Protestant churches and receiving additional funds from church headquarters in Berlin, claimed to be a “research” organisation, but mainly just produced antisemitic propaganda. Its membership consisted of over 40 university professors, students of theology, bishops, ministers, and religion teachers, and its activities included frequent conferences as well as publications. Their brief was to 'cleanse church texts of all non-Ayran influences'. As the article notes:

‘Hymn books were also trawled and 'Ayranised' with no references to make the party elite balk during the few times they were ever likely to find themselves in a Christian church…At its height, a team of 50 worked on re-writing hymn books and the Bible.’

The bible alterations are interesting. The 10 commandments appear to have been extensively rewritten and two more added for good measure. These 12 commandments were listed as follows:

1. Honor your Fuhrer and master.
2. Keep the blood pure and your honor holy.
3.Honor God and believe in him wholeheartedly.
4. Seek out the peace of God.
5. Avoid all hypocrisy.
6. Holy is your health and life.
7. Holy is your well-being and honor.
8. Holy is your truth and fidelity.
9. Honor your father and mother -- your children are your aid and your example.
10. Maintain and multiply the heritage of your forefathers.
11. Be ready to help and forgive.
12. Joyously serve the people with work and sacrifice

The King James Bible is a little under 800 pages in paperback form. The Nazi 'Bible' was 750 pages, after the references to Jews had been banished and Nazi "improvements" added. In the new edition of the psalms, words of Jewish origin, such as messiah, Jehovah and halleluiah, were altered and the city of Jerusalem was referred to as Eternal City of God. The crucifixion of Jesus was presented as resulting from a battle he fought against the Jews. In the 1940 edition, the following words can be found:

“The Evangelical Jesus can only become the savior of our German people, because it does not incarnate the ideas of Judaism, but fights against them mercilessly’.

Finally, Jesus’ ancestors, according to the Nazis, came from the Caucuses, therefore there was no way that the savior could have been Jewish.

Hitler was well aware of arguments that were central to the Institute: that Jesus was an Aryan, and that Paul, as a Jew, had falsified Jesus’s message, themes he repeatedly mentioned in private conversations, together with rants against Christianity as a Jewish subversion of the Aryan spirit. Referring to the rewritten bible in a memorandum to the institute in Eisenach, he wrote ‘The book will have to serve the fight against the immortal Jewish enemy!".

On the theological level, the Institute achieved remarkable success, winning support for its radical agenda from a host of church officials and theology professors who welcomed the removal of Jewish elements from Christian scripture and liturgy and the redefinition of Christianity as a Germanic, Aryan religion. Members of the Institute worked devotedly to win the fight against the Jews. This took them to greater and greater extremes, abandoning traditional Christian doctrine in exchange for coalitions with neo-pagan leaders, and producing vituperative propaganda on behalf of the Reich’s measures. Their goal was to achieve a kind of second reformation by purification, authenticity, and theological revolution, all in the name of historical-critical methods and commitment to Germanness.

This effort to Nazify the Church appears to have only been a temporary charade. According to Ian Kershaw’s biography, by 1944, urged on by the hotheads in his party, Hitler appears to have resolved to destroy the churches after the war.

There would, he made clear, be no room in this utopia for the Christian Churches. After the trouble of the summer he had to take a line which appeased the party hotheads but also restrained their instincts. For the time being he ordered slow progression in the 'church struggle'. 'But it is clear', noted Goebbels, that after the war it has to find a general solution......there is namely an insoluble opposition between the Christian and a Germanic-heroic world view'.(Ian Kershaw, 'Hitler : Nemesis' p 449)

His later pronouncements followed the same theme.

It was necessary, commented Hitler, not to react to the seditious activities of the clergy; 'the showdown' would be saved for a 'more advantageous situation after the war' when he would have to come as 'the avenger'.(Ian Kershaw, 'Hitler : Nemesis' p 509)

He was determined, after their insidious behaviour, he said, doubtless playing here on the many compliments fed to him by Goebbels and the other Gauleiter, to destroy the Christian Churches after the war. (Ian Kershaw, 'Hitler : Nemesis' p 516)

Possibly some version of Christianity might have survived had the Nazis won the war and carried out their purge, but as the wartime activities of Grundmann’s institute show, it would have contained none of the most essential orthodox dogmas. What would have remained would have been the vaguest impression, combined with anti-Jewish prejudice and unquestioning worship of the Fuhrer and the Nazi state. In keeping with the Nazi approach to all areas of life in the Third Reich, the religious life of the nation was to be colonised completely by Nazi ideology. Hitler might have approved of the Ten Commandments, but then again he would do, he had them rewritten.

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Friday, December 05, 2008

Multiverse or bust!

Most articles on the Anthropic principle tend to focus on the value of the cosmological constant (or dark energy) which has to be exact to within one part in 10120 in order for the universe to conceivably give rise to any life at all, let alone complex carbon based organisms that can examine the stars and marvel at their good fortune. Now dark matter appears to be getting a look in. According to the New Scientist:

The total amount of dark matter - the unseen stuff thought to make up most of the mass of the universe - is five to six times that of normal matter. This difference sounds pretty significant, but it could have been much greater, because the two types of matter probably formed via radically different processes shortly after the big bang. The fact that the ratio is so conducive to a life-bearing universe "looks like a tremendous coincidence", says Raphael Bousso at the University of California, Berkeley.

Ben Freivogel, also at UCB, wondered if the ratio can be explained using the anthropic principle which, loosely stated, says that the properties of the universe must be suitable for the emergence of life, otherwise we wouldn't be here asking questions about it. …..Freivogel focused on one of the favoured candidate-particles for dark matter, the axion. Axions have the right characteristics to be dark matter, but for one problem: a certain property called its "misalignment angle", which would have affected the amount of dark matter produced in the early universe. If this property is randomly determined, in most cases it would result in a severe overabundance of dark matter, leading to a universe without the large-scale structure of clusters of galaxies. To result in our universe, it has to be just the right value.

You probably know where this is going…

In a multiverse (!?!!?), each universe will have a random value for the axion's misalignment angle, giving some universes the right amount of dark matter needed to give rise to galaxies, stars, planets and life as we know it. Freivogel combined the cosmological models of large-scale structure formation with the physics of axions to predict the most likely value for the ratio of dark matter to normal matter that would allow observers like us to emerge. He assumed that the number of observers in a universe is proportional to the number of galaxies within it.

In Freivogel's model, changing the ratio of matter type impacts the formation of galaxies, and hence observers; for example, too little dark matter would prevent the formation of galaxies and stars. His calculations show that of all the observers that might exist across the many universes, most would live in a universe with the dark matter abundance found in ours. In other words, we would be less likely to be here if our abundance of dark matter were different

Just when I had stopped worrying about the nefarious activities of my multiverse clones, another anthropic coincidence turns up!. I recommend Max Tegmark’s guide for the perplexed, as well as Jim's series for misanthropes (part one and part two). In this piece Amanda Gefter wonders whether there might not be another option:

Physicist John Wheeler once offered a suggestion: maybe we should approach cosmic fine-tuning not as a problem but as a clue. Perhaps it is evidence that we somehow endow the universe with certain features by the mere act of observation... If we in some sense create the universe, it is not surprising that the universe is well suited to us.

This is not entirely implausible. Referring to Genesis I see that:

'In the beginning God decided to create the heavens and the earth
And lo, God decided to hire Consultants for advice on 'change management'
And they did say to God, 'we advise that you outsource the process of creation'
This can be done by subcontracting to quantum observers thus achieving time and energy savings
So God created quantum observers, and the consultants said that it was good
But lo, the observers were incompetent and ended up creating a universe containing haemorrhoids, muzak, traffic wardens and A.C Grayling'

Perhaps global warming is just a quantum projection of our own self loathing. Its an intriguing thought.

EDIT : Other articles on the subject of multiverses have appeared in Discover magazine here and Guardian Comment here.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Birth of Human Rights – Part two

"As regards humans, it is shown that from the beginning of their rational nature, they were born free, as in the law Manumissiones of the digest, Title De iustitia et iure (Dig 1.1.4 )..the reason for this according to Thomas (on the sentences, is that a rational nature in itself is not ordered to some other as its end.. For liberty is a right (ius) necessarily instilled in man from the beginning of rational nature and so from natural law (iure) as in Distinctio 1 (of the Decretum) in the chapter Ius naturale at the words, Omnium una libertas (Dist. 1.c.7)...."

Bartholomew de Las Casas

‘For men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another's pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature’

John Locke

Two great contingencies were to arise after 1300 which were to bring rights language and the philosophy of rights to the fore and to begin building a place for it in Western political theory. The first was a great dispute between Pope John XXII and the Franciscans, an order of friars which was founded in the early 13th century. The early Franciscans shunned worldly goods and chose to live a life of poverty, but with the growth of the order, some of the friars became in favour of moderating the traditional insistence on absolute poverty. In reaction to this, an extreme group of Franciscans known as the ‘spirituals’ refused to compromise, insisting that their lives of absolute poverty were a faithful replication of those of Christ and the Apostles. They maintained that they had achieved the highest and most perfect form of the Christian life, abandoning all property and retaining for themselves only a ‘bare factual use of things’. The Pope decided to condemn this, probably because if this were true then the church, which had always owned property, had never exemplified an evangelical way of life. In 1323 it was declared heretical to maintain that Christ and the apostles had nothing or that they had no rights in the things they actually used. The pope’s argument was that there could be no just use of anything without a right of using it.

The dispute inspired the Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher William of Ockham who joined a dissident group in 1328 and subsequently produced a flood of works attacking the Pope and defending the order’s position. These drew heavily on the established tradition of jurist discourse and contained frequent citations of earlier canonistic texts. Ockham took up the canonist’s argument that there exists a natural right to the necessities of life. The Franciscans had renounced every type of worldly right, to sue in court or to own property, but they still had use of a natural right to use external things which was common to all men and was derived from nature, not from human statute. ‘The friars do have a right’ he argued ‘ namely a natural right’; it was not renounceable because it was necessary to maintain life.

In his later works, William of Ockham was to attack the whole doctrine of papal absolutism, by turning the scriptural idea of Christina freedom into an argument for natural right. Scripture, Ockham said, depicted Christian law as a ‘a law of perfect liberty’, but the Popes absolute power would reduce the people to servitude. Instead the limits of power should be defined. Ockham reminded the Pope that governments existed for the common good, but that there were individual natural rights of subjects, ‘the rights and liberties conferred by God and nature’. Natural Rights were now being used in a new context, to challenge the claims of absolutist government.

By 1500 the natural rights tradition was becoming moribund and with the coming of Machiavelli and the ‘new monarchies’ the concern was with orderly government rather than individual rights. Humanists referred back to the world of Greece and Rome and found arguments for Monarchy, mixed government and republicanism, but none for natural rights. This changed with the European discovery of America and the colonisation of Spanish America. Spanish scholastic theologians began to raise questions about the inhabitants of these lands and considered whether they possessed natural rights that Europeans were bound to respect. Could rights be universal or were some people just natural slaves as Aristotle had taught?.

The most passionate debater was Bartoleme de las Casas, the great defender of the Indians who wrote that ‘all the races of mankind are one’. He argued that Indians possessed human rights, a right to liberty, to own property, to defend themselves and to form governments, claiming that ‘they are our brothers and Christ died for them’. In doing so he appealed to the judicial tradition of the earlier jurists. For example, he used the old maxim that Quod omnes tangit ‘what touches all is to be approved by all’ to prove that Spanish rule in America could only be legitimate if the Indians consented to it. By this he was referring to each individual’s consent, the claim of the majority must not outweigh the rights of minority individuals withholding consent, the minority must prevail. ‘Liberty’ wrote Casas, ‘is a right instilled in man from the beginning’.

In response to this, his adversary Sepulveda referred to Aristotle’s concept of natural slavery and the humanist tradition. Indians, he declared, were barbarians and therefore born to be enslaved. Casas responded by pointing to the cruel and barbaric behaviour of the Spaniards; he then presented an image of wild savage men who lived alone in the mountains like brute animals without any civilised society. Even these men, wrote Casas, the most degraded class of human beings, have rights; specifically a right to brotherly kindness and Christian love. Others such as Francisco de Vitoria used the jurisprudence of the Ius commune and theological doctrine to construct a lucid, clear argument for the natural rights of native Americans. They did possess just dominium, and their lands could not be taken from them without cause.

The writings of the Spanish Neo-Scholastics breathed new life into the tradition and allowed it to flourish in the centuries ahead. The conduit though which the concept of natural rights passed into the modern era was the Dutch Protestant jurist, Hugo Grotius. In his work, De jure belli, Grotius grappled with the meanings of right ("ius") in all of its meanings, attempting to prove that "just wars were fought to defend or assert rights or to punish violations of them". He explored all the meanings of "ius" and defined it as "a moral quality of a person, enabling him to have or to do something justly. Grotius has often been called the "Father of International Law but according to Brian Tierney he might also be called the Modern Father of Natural Rights, for Grotius influenced "all the major rights theorists of the next century, Selden and Hobbes and Locke in England, Pufendorf and Leibniz and Thomasius in Germany, Domat and Pothier in France". With the religious dissent, rebellions and wars that would follow, new situations would arise in which the likes of Locke, Paine and Hobbes would bring natural rights into political discourse. As Tierney concludes in The Idea of Natural Rights, Natural Law and Church Law:

‘The idea of natural rights grew up- perhaps could only have grown up in the first place –in a religious culture that supplanted rational argumentation about human nature with a faith in which humans were seen as children of a caring God. But the idea was not necessarily dependent on divine revelation, and later it proved capable of surviving into a more secular era’.

More than half a century after the UDHR the status of human rights is again precarious due to objections rising from cultural relativism and historicism. There have also been accusations of 'rights inflation' and a ruining of 'the delicate and hitherto durable equilibrium maintained by the common law'. Samuel Huntington, in his Clash of Civilizations, presents our modern culture of rights as a Western peculiarity with no resonance for the rest of humanity. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has declared that "there are no such rights and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns. Yet as Tierney has argued in a recent essay:

‘A more widespread recognition and effective implementation of human rights in the future is neither inevitable nor impossible.... It is harder to spread ideas and ideals then to export artifacts; but in modern times, even on the level of political thought and practice, the most ancient oriental civilizations have been moulded in part by external influences. China imported Marxism from the West; India and Japan derived their constitutional structures from Britain and America. Moreover, all the great world religions have taught respect for the value and dignity of human life, and this is the only necessary grounding for a doctrine of universal rights.’

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

God's Philosophers to be published

I am very pleased to announce that Icon Books have agreed to publish my book God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science. Icon are a British publishing house specialising in non-fiction for the more intellectual end of the market. In particular, they have published many excellent books on the history of science by historians like John Henry, Stephen Pumfrey and Patricia Fara. I can also recommend their Introducing… series which is made up of fun illustrated guides to difficult ideas. Finally, anyone who shared my obsession with fantasy and Dungeons and Dragons back in the 1980s will be pleased to find that Icon also own the imprint that publishes Warlock of Firetop Mountain and the other Fighting Fantasy books. I got a shock of nostalgia when I found that they were still available.

God’s Philosophers will be available in hardback next August at all good bookshops in the UK as well as from the usual on-line sources. I think it may also be available in South Africa and Australia. However, as yet, there is no publisher for the US. Hopefully the book will be successful enough in the UK to persuade an American house to come on board. Do please continue to sign up as interested in the book at my website so I can let you know when the book is out and how to get hold of it.

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Monday, December 01, 2008

Nine Million Bicycles

It is said in certain circles that we should endeavour to scientifically examine every facet of our lives, although in practice it is hard to find anyone who actually tries to live up to this principle. You don’t for example, find many people who would use Bayesian probability theory in order to decide whether to go down to the shops to pick up groceries; with the possible exception of some of the inhabitants of the internet infidels discussion board. Back in 2005 the popular science writer Simon Singh, author of 'Big Bang: The Origin Of The Universe', decided that singer-songwriter Katie Melua's work required critical examination and wrote a tongue in cheek article in the Guardian addressing her new hit ‘Nine Million Bicycles in Beijing’. The opening lyrics of this rather soporific ditty are:

There are nine million bicycles in Beijing,
That's a fact,
It's a thing we can't deny,

Like the fact that I will love you till I die.

We are 12 billion light-years from
the edge,
That's a guess,

No one can ever say it's true,

But I know that I will always be
with you.

Singh wrote:

‘I have found her ballads to be enchanting, but Katie's latest little ditty is deeply annoying, because she demonstrates a deep ignorance of cosmology and no understanding of the scientific method. When Katie sings "We are 12 billion light-years from the edge", she is suggesting that this is the distance to the edge of the observable universe, which in turn implies that the universe is only 12 billion years old. This is incredibly frustrating, because there are thousands of astronomers working day and (of course) night to measure the age of the universe, and the latest observations imply a universe that is almost 14 billion years old, not 12 billion....To say that the age of the universe is "a guess" is an insult to a century of astronomical progress. The age of the universe is not just "a guess", but rather it is a carefully measured number that is now known to a high degree of accuracy.

Unfortunately, Singh's correction is not accurate and demonstrates 'a deep ignorance of cosmology and no understanding of the scientific method'. While the age of the universe is 13.7 billion years, the distance to the "edge" of the observable universe is much larger (about 46 billion light years) because of the fast expansion of the universe. The number of bicycles in Beijing in 2002 was slightly larger than depicted in the song at around 10 million, but according to reports the number has dropped dramatically with the availability of cheap cars and an increase in public transport. Beijing is no longer ‘the kingdom of the bicycle’ and is fast becoming a gas guzzling Gehenna.

This kind of pedantry by the scientific establishment has a historical precedent. The inventor and mathematician Charles Babbage once contacted the poet Alfred Tennyson in response to his poem “The Vision of Sin". Babbage wrote:

"In your otherwise beautiful poem, one verse reads,

Every moment dies a man,
Every moment one is born

... If this were true, the population of the world would be at a standstill. In truth, the rate of birth is slightly in excess of that of death. I would suggest [that the next version of your poem should read]:

Every moment dies a man,
Every moment 1 1/16 is born.

Strictly speaking, the actual figure is so long I cannot get it into a line, but I believe the figure 1 1/16 will be sufficiently accurate for poetry."

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