Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Rushdie on Desert Island Discs

I have been slowly listening my way through the back episodes of Desert Island Discs, and was delighted to come across one with Salman Rushdie as the castaway. There was a point, however, when Rushdie began to talk about his "next" novel, The Satanic Verses, and I realized with a jolt that this interview was recorded before the Rushdie Affair began. I don't think the very notion of a pre-Affair Rushdie even crossed my mind before.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

How not to write a 1300-page book

After three aborted attempts over the last decade, I have at long last finished the late Stephen Jay Gould's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. I can report that this has been one of the most excruciating reading experiences I have ever gone through, and I say this as someone who has had to grade many an undergraduate philosophy essay which clearly was written at the last minute.

I am not saying that the book is without value. I'm in no position to evaluate the purely scientific arguments, so I'm looking forward to seeing what other specialists say about them, but the book certainly contained a lot of history and philosophy of science worth thinking about. So no, this wasn't a case of "painful because a waste of time."

The problem was Gould's writing style. Let me show you the passage—on page 10, no less—that made me set the book aside the first three times. What Gould wants to say here is, more or less, "I don't have to agree with other Darwinians about everything in order to count as a Darwinian myself." Here's how he decides to put it:
My allegiance to Darwinian theory, and my willingness to call myself a Darwinian biologist, must not depend on my subscription to all 95 articles that Martin Luther nailed to the Wittenburg church door in 1517; or to all 80 items in the Syllabus of Errors that Pio Nono (Pope Pius IX) proclaimed in 1864, including the "fallacy," so definitionally uncongenial to science, that "the Roman Pontiff can and should reconcile himself to and agree with progress, liberalism and modern civilization"; or to all 39 articles of the Church of England, adopted by Queen Elizabeth in 1571 as a replacement for Archbishop Thomas Cranmer's 42 articles of 1553. (Gould 2002: 9-10)

Reading the book means wading through over 1300 pages of this kind of thing. Great if one needs to reconstruct all of history after a nuclear apocalypse, and Gould's book is the only book that has survived; not so great if one is trying to learn about the structure of evolutionary theory.

In one footnote, Gould has the gall to jibe Herbert Spencer for "acute logorrhea" (Gould 2002: 197n). This puts him in the same company as the unfortunate Baron von Disputatio, who in 1614 declared in his Pater Mysterium that "alle confutation is itselfe no lesse than regicide most foule," only to find himself on the chopping block when his own heretical ruminations on Cornwallis's 13 Principles—spoken, he thought, in secret to then-ambassador Abu Ismail (he who Ignatius Lupus's 1625 Roster of Moorlike Personages styled "the one of laughing blue eyes")—came to light ten years later. By which I mean, he's one to talk.


Gould SJ. 2002. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Stephen Fry on people who think they can't do academics

This is not the entire truth, but it is the lion's share of it:
There are young men and women up and down the land who happily (or unhappily) tell anyone who will listen that they don't have an academic turn of mind, or that they aren't lucky enough to have been blessed with a good memory, and yet can recite hundreds of pop lyrics and reel off any amount of information about footballers, cars and celebrities. Why? Because they are interested in those things. They are curious. If you are hungry for food you hunt high and low for it. If you are hungry for information it is the same. Information is all around us, now more than ever before in human history. You barely have to stir or incommode yourself to find things out. The only reason people do not know much is because they do not care to know. They are incurious. Incuriosity is the oddest and most foolish failing there is.
— Stephen Fry, The Fry Chronicles (New York: Overlook Press, 2012), Kindle Edition, location 1260.

Monday, March 2, 2015

G. A. Wells on empty verbiage in theology (and elsewhere)

The fourth chapter of G. A. Wells's Can We Trust the New Testament? (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 2004) is brilliant. The whole book may be brilliant for all I know, but most of it discusses details of NT criticism that I am not competent judge. The fourth chapter, however, comments on various modern and postmodern interpretations of Christianity, and here Wells seems to hit the nail on the head. As he concludes:
We no longer have an ecclesiastical organization able to impose assent to its ideas on the whole population. Instead there is intellectual anarchy in which the conflict of ideas and principles is often replaced by rival forms of make-believe. Freedom of ideas and of expression is degraded into licence to talk at random and make phrases. The resulting fantastic 'explanations' may persist because of their tranquilizing value and the absence of ready means of disproof. In the concrete branches of science, words and phrases are kept in constant touch with real things, so that nonsense is excluded or easily detected. But in theology—as also in literary criticism, and indeed in the humanities generally—what is propounded all too often has no contact with reality except to be verbally repeated in various combinations. (177)
One runs into this kind of thing quite often in certain philosophical circles, but at least philosophy has the analytic camps as well. It seems, however, that every time I pick up a book on theology—well, modern theology, at least—it will without fail consist of a pastiche of nebulous but evocative statements, all very confidently declared with hardly a nod to evidence: the kind of things for which Daniel Dennett's daughter has coined the wonderful term "deepities."

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Jesus and Mo vs. Saudi Arabia

Jesus and Mo comments on the latest backwards law to come out of that medieval country, which redefines "terrorism" to include "calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based."

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The prevalence of religion as an argument against religion

Responding to the argument that the prevalence of religion is evidence for the truth of one of them:

Yes, religion has been near universal throughout history. Humans have created hundreds of thousands of religions and claimed the existence of hundreds of millions of unique gods. But no proof for these gods is to be found in these numbers. If anything, it is a compelling argument for the likelihood that all gods were invented. More to the point, key contradictions between those hundreds of thousands of religions do not help make the case for any single belief system being correct. One billion Hindus believing in millions of gods does not reinforce the claims of 1.5 billion monotheistic Muslims, for example. The disharmony among believers today and throughout the past suggests just one thing: we look very much like a species that loves to make up gods and invent religions.
— Guy Harrison, 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True (Prometheus, 2011), p. 254.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The progress of atheism

Imagine There's No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World
I have a lot of books in my queue, but when Mitchell Stephens's Imagine There's No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World (Palgrave, 2014) came out, it went straight to the top. The book does not disappoint. I have not encountered a decent overview of the history of atheism since Thrower's Western Atheism: A Short History (Prometheus Books, 1999). Now, that particular torch has been passed to Stephens.

There is a personal note toward the end of the book that highlights how far at least Western civilization has come with respect to atheism just in the last fifty years, much less since the days of the auto-da-fé:
I first contemplated writing writing a history of atheism and its accomplishments a couple of decades ago. I was distracted then by other projects. But I must admit I considered at that time what the reaction to such a book might be. Should I fear protests? Would I be invited to promote the book on the air? Now, in the United States in the second decade of the twenty-first century, such fears seem quaint.
There is much yet to be done, but seeing how much already has been won for reason in the face of intolerance and even violent persecution, it is difficult not to be optimistic about the future.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The selective blindness of the biblical literalist

Ken Ham, the head of a creationist organization and builder of a creationism museum, is angry about the new movie Noah, which he labels "disgusting and evil—paganism!" Among his complaints:
Do you really want your family to see a pagan movie that portrays Noah as a psychopath who says that if his daughter-in-law’s baby is a girl then he will kill her as soon as she’s born? And when two girls are born, bloodstained Noah (the man the Bible calls “righteous” in Genesis 7:1) brings a knife down to the head of one of the babies to kill her—and at the last minute doesn’t do it. And then a bit later, Noah says he failed because he didn’t kill the babies. How can we recommend this movie and then speak against abortion? Psychopathic Noah sees humans as a blight on the planet and wants to rid the world of people.
My reaction to this is the same as most freethinkers': that it is an odd complaint from someone who worships the greatest mass-murderer (not to mention mass-child-murderer) who has ever lived. If one believes in a literal flood, then God actually did on a worldwide scale what Noah could not bring himself to do in the movie. Glen Davidson put it perfectly on The Panda's Thumb:
Now go out and build your Ark Park complete with the screams of the babies that God kills, Ken. That should make you feel better.
 Not that I'm planning to run out and see Noah, mind you. Although I definitely would go see the Auralnaut's version:

Randall on science and religion

Knocking on Heaven's Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World
[I]t is still possible to [be religious and] be an accomplished scientist. And indeed, religion might well yield valuable psychological benefits. But any religious scientist has to face daily the scientific challenge to his belief. The religious part of your brain cannot act at the same time as the scientific one. They are simply incompatible.
— Lisa Randall, Knocking on Heaven's Door (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), p. 58.

Friday, March 21, 2014

From NASA Image of the Day:

This new Hubble image is centered on NGC 5793, a spiral galaxy over 150 million light-years away in the constellation of Libra.