Tuesday, December 26, 2006

A Special Award to Services to Apologetics

Until this Sunday, John Cornwell was not someone I had a lot of time for. He is best known for his inaccurate and agenda-driven book, Hitler's Pope that converts scurrilous rumour and gossip into history to claim that Pius XII was in hock with the Nazis. These silly claims have been trashed so often (most recently by Michael Burleigh) that it is a surprise that Cornwell hasn't got the honesty to admit he got it wrong. His latest book, Seminary Boy, is a memoir about how beastly Catholic schools and seminaries used to be. Needless to say, Cornwell is most at home attacking Catholicism and all its works (he is, himself, a liberal Catholic of the sort who wants to remake the Church in his own image).

H. Allen Orr is one of Darwinism staunchest defenders. He has lambasted Intelligent Design with great effectiveness. While not a Darwinian extremist like Dan Dennett, he rejects any non-scientific explanations for anything. Andrew Brown and Terry Eagleton are hardly friends of organised religion either. One a self-declared atheist, the other a Christian Marxist of sorts.

I could go on, but you are getting my point. Not only has Richard Dawkins finally persuaded the Church of England to defend Christianity (a task previously regarded as impossible by many Christians), he has even united many of traditional Christianity's opponents in castigating his book, The God Delusion. Cornwell, with typical modesty, takes on the role of God himself in the Sunday Times. Orr's review in the NYRB is the most effective I have seen so far. I've already linked to several other reviews including Brown's and Eagleton's. In Prospect Magazine's list of most over-rated books of the year, Brown's submission was The God Delusion and his commentary on his choice just one word "Of course".

There is nothing wrong with bad reviews. If I ever get my book published, I'd give my eye-teeth to be trashed by A.C. Grayling. But when your natural allies unite against you, when your enemies finally make common cause, you have failed utterly in what you set out to do.

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

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Trouble with Atheism

Last night Channel 4 broadcast a show hosted by Rod Liddle that was highly critical of the new atheism. I watched it and thought it was really good. No surprise there, as I am a fan of Liddle's journalism and he was preaching to the choir. It was also good to put some faces to several names. I had never seen Michael Burleigh or Denis Alexander before.

Liddle made four points. The first was that the new atheism is an intolerant creed with its fair share of nutters. He met a man in New York carrying a plackard outside St Patrick's Cathedral saying "God Does Not Exist" in an exact counterpoint to the "The End of the World Is Upon Us" plankard carriers we all know and love. He also met an intense woman who runs American Atheists and bears an unnerving resemblence to Ann Coulter. She had her own cable show on which Liddle appeared as a guest. Liddle himself is the man for whom the word shambolic was invented. He has bad hair, bad teeth and appalling dress sense. The least appealing aspect of the Trouble with Atheism were the frequent shots of Liddle walking up and down, clutching his chin and looking thoughtful. Frankly, thoughtful is not a look that he can do.

His second point was that science has nothing to say about whether or not God exists. Of course, this is true and Liddle found plenty of scientists ready to say it. John Polkinghorne and Denis Alexander appeared and demonstrated that there are plenty of religious believers who are distinguished scientists. This led to the quote of the show. Peter Atkins, a neo-atheist, was asked what he made of scientists who believe in God. He called them sad half-scientists. This made him look like a prat.

Liddle's next point was the weakest. He noted that Darwin's Origin of Species is a sacred text to neo-atheists and set out to find if the scientific theory of Darwinism was nearing its sell-by date. This made me nervous. Liddle's anti-creationist credentials are unimpeachable, but I still thought that he was falling into a trap that will allow neo-atheists to caricature him as anti-scientific.

His last point was the best. At the end of The God Delusion, Dawkins sets out a new ten commandments. They are, frankly, a bit wishy-washy. Dawkins admitted as much as said that the point of morals is that they change and are specific to particular cultures. Peter Singer was wheeled in to make the same point. Liddle used this as his cue to examine the periods in history when Christian morality was overthrown for a more 'rational' alternative. Michael Burleigh supplied us with the shocking facts on the French Revolution and we saw how Francis Galton's eugenics had led directly to the Nazi's Final Solution. Dawkins denied that anyone killed because of atheism but Liddle had already shown that this point (actually untrue) was irrelevant. The point, which I have made before, is that when you throw out our moral system, or undermine it by claiming all is relative, you open the door to horrors far worse then you would imagine possible.

Dawkins ended the show by admitting that maybe human beings are so weak that they need religion to guide them. St Augustine would have agreed.

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

Thursday, December 14, 2006

A.C. Grayling attacks Terry Eagleton

A poster on my yahoo group kindly brought A.C. Grayling's reply to Terry Eagleton's deprecatory review of The God Delusion to my attention. The original review and Grayling's letter are in the London Review of Books.

Grayling's letter is probably the most embarressing document to fall from the pen of a so-called philosopher since Ayn Rand hung up her quill. One of his points needs to be annihilated because it shows Grayling misunderstands science, experiment, reason and argument. In his review, Eagleton takes Dawkins to task for ignoring almost all the best theology and religious scholarship in favour of bashing fundamentalists and erecting strawmen. Grayling says that Dawkins is quite justified in neglecting any sort of academic theology because, as he writes,

if one concludes on the basis of rational investigation that one's character and fate are not determined by the arrangement of the planets, stars and galaxies that can be seen from Earth, then one does not waste time comparing classic tropical astrology with sidereal astrology, or either with the Sarjatak system, or any of the three with any other construction placed on the ancient ignorances of our forefathers about the real nature of the heavenly bodies.

Well no. Professor Grayling seems to imagine that Dawkins has carried out a rational investigation of religion by concentrating on easy targets. he hasn't. If I wanted to carry out such an investigation of astrology, I would not pick up the Daily Mail and analyse the mutterings of Jonathan Cainer, their resident sage. Rather, I would research the topic and seek out the best possible exemplars that I could find. I would ask whether sidereal or tropical astrology gave the best chance of a positive result, or whether I should prefer planetary astrology to sun signs. I would give astrology every chance to win me over, subject to not fiddling the results. To test astrology, I must allow it to present its most promising case, rather than only paying attention tobog-standard horoscopes on the grounds that most people just read their sun signs.

Dawkins only investigates the religious equivalent of a tabloid horoscope and Grayling thinks this is fine. This sort of reasoning is a disgrace from people who claim to be at the forefront of rational investigation. They wouldn't know what it was if it bit them on the nose.

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

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Are we very big or very small?

How small is the smallest thing in the universe? How small is a quark? A superstring? Actually, no one knows but the smallest possible length in the universe is the universe is called the Planck length of about 0.000000000000000000000000000000000001 metres. This figure is a fundamental axiom of quantum mechanics and represents the 'lumpiness' of the universe that means that in quantum mechanics you can never be entirely certain of where something is.

How big is the biggest thing in the universe? That must be the universe itself. Latest figures suggest it is about 10,000,000,000 years old. It started from a point at the Big Bang and so the size of the whole universe is the distance that light could have travelled in the 10 billion years available. Light being very fast, this comes to about 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 metres.

Of course, these big numbers are very unwieldy so we tend to use exponentials to tidy things up a bit. The Planck length is expressed as 10^-35 metres, the size of the universe 10^25 metres. How big are we? About 1 metre tall or 10^0 metres. So comparing our absolute size to the smallest and biggest possible things in the universe, we are about three fifths of the way up the scale. In other words, we are of medium to large size using the exponential scale, the only scale that makes any sense in physics.

All this makes nonsense of one of Carl Sagan's arguments, also picked up by Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking and lots of others who should know better. In Pale Blue Dot and elsewhere, Sagan invites us to believe that the universe is very large (true) and that we are very small (not true, as we have seen). This apparently means that we are not very important and God doesn't exist. Not only does this argument assume that value and physical size are directly comparable (which, obviously, they are not), but it also uses the wrong scale to determine what is big and what is small. Given that Sagan spent his career trying to explain why science sometimes doesn't say what common sense says, it is annoying that here he uses the everyday arithmetical scale to make a silly point which is invalidated by a scientific view of the universe anyway.

Another of Sagan's mistakes was to assume that when Copernicus moved the Earth from the centre of the universe, he was demoting it. This is also untrue as this paper shows. My thanks to the correspondent who sent me this link and thus inspired this post (which picks up on a point in the second half of the linked paper).

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

Friday, December 08, 2006

Rod Liddle on the Trouble with Atheism

Rod Liddle is my favourite journalist. He is a very witty writer who has no truck with political correctness, but also sees himself as a left-winger. His idiosyncracies have led to his being better suited to writing for right-wing publications. A few years ago, the conservative press were calling for Liddle to be sacked from his position as editor of a radio programme at the BBC for his clear idiological bias (the BBC is supposed to be neutral, although this is actually a bit of a fantasy). When he duly resigned, the same publications that had called for his head promptly employed him.

Liddle is also a Christian of an irreverent sort. He is undogmatic and made a programme for Channel 4 attacking creationism. Channel 4, by hosting this show and Richard Dawkin's recent screed The Root of All Evil, has become somewhat notorious among conservative Christians. Now the worm has turned and Liddle is hosting a show on 18th December called The Trouble with Atheism. For non-UK readers, you can read Liddle's interview for the show in this week's Spectator (free until next Thursday). It is quite fun although I'd have liked to see Dawkins squirm a bit more on morality and determinism.

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

Monday, December 04, 2006

Antikythera Mechanism

One of the highlights of my visit to Athens last year was to see the Antikythera Mechanism in the Archaeological Museum there. This artifact does not look like much in the flesh and my wife was slightly non-plussed about my excitement on seeing it (picture and article). It was found in an ancient Greek shipwreck over a hundred years ago and consists of a large number of gear wheels mealded together by rust.

The mechanism is a fine technical achievement. It uses an arrangement of gears to model the movements of the planets. It is hard to say how accurate it was, but scientists who have studied it seem to be impressed. It was not a computer in the modern sense of the world, although it was a calculating machine of sorts. It's purpose was almost certainly to fascilitate astrological predictions and horoscopes. These were big business in ancient Greece and no other profession could have afforded the enormous cost of such an artifact. An astrologer needed to know the precise positions of the planets on a given date and it was a laborious process to look them all up. The Antikythera Mechanism probably did the job for him.

The tradition of clockwork machines lasted through the Christian era. We have a description of a Byzantine automaton that featured birds, lions and a flying throne that dates from the 9th century AD. Although we tend to call this kind of technology clockwork, the Greeks never invented the mechanical clock. The reason for this was that they lacked a usable escapement mechanism to keep time. This was not invented until the thirteenth century when medieval craftsmen discovered it (although predictably there are claims the Chinese got there earlier and then let the idea drop).

The Antikythera Mechanism does not tell us that the Greeks were more scientifically advanced than we thought. But we can certainly admire their technical skill in producing this complex machine. It is unlikely that it was unique and perhaps more surprises are in store.

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