Here's a dirty little secret about modern conservativism, as gleaned by yours truly while devouring National Review, American Spectator etc. during my brief hard-core conservative stint in the '80s: Many conservative pundits and intellectuals have an inferiority complex when it comes to arguing with liberals. They know that liberals have an all-encompassing view of the world that provides them with ready-made put downs (accusations of fascism, McCarthyism etc.) -- and for years that argumentative style infuriated conservatives to the point where the former publisher of National Review, William Rusher, wrote a book called 'How to Win Arguments.' For years, the book was heavily advertised in National Review -- along with countless articles dwelling on conservative frustrations with getting around the arguments of liberals and their allied lackeys in the media. That debate-club compulsion to win arguments became part of the modern conservative mindset -- with the ultimate debate-club tactic being to turn the tables on liberals, or 'to fight fire with fire,' as one conservative friend once put it to me.As readers of this blog are aware (all three of them), I've long been a critic of the poor quality of conservative journalism when it comes to science. So Jay's take comes as no surprise. (But he puts it better than I did....)
Monday, December 31, 2007
Sunday, December 30, 2007
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Luke 2:1-14, Anglo-Saxon (via):
Soþlice on þam dagum wæs geworden gebod fram þam casere Augusto, þæt eall ymbehwyrft wære tomearcod. Þeos tomearcodnes wæs æryst geworden fram þam deman Syrige Cirino. And ealle hig eodon, and syndrige ferdon on hyra ceastre. Ða ferde Iosep fram Galilea of þære ceastre Nazareth on Iudeisce ceastre Dauides, seo is genemned Beþleem, for þam þe he wæs of Dauides huse and hirede; þæt he ferde mid Marian þe him beweddod wæs, and wæs geeacnod. Soþlice wæs geworden þa hi þar wæron, hire dagas wæron gefyllede þæt heo cende. And heo cende hyre frumcennedan sunu, and hine mid cildclaþum bewand, and hine on binne alede, for þam þe hig næfdon rum on cumena huse. And hyrdas wæron on þam ylcan rice waciende, and nihtwæccan healdende ofer heora heorda. Þa stod Drihtnes engel wiþ hig, and Godes beorhtnes him ymbe scean; and hi him mycelum ege adredon. And se engel him to cwæð, Nelle ge eow adrædan; soþlice nu ic eow bodie mycelne gefean, se bið eallum folce; for þam to dæg eow ys Hælend acenned, se is Drihten Crist, on Dauides ceastre. And þis tacen eow byð: Ge gemetað an cild hræglum bewunden, and on binne aled. And þa wæs færinga geworden mid þam engle mycelnes heofenlices werydes, God heriendra and þus cweþendra, Gode sy wuldor on heahnesse, and on eorðan sybb mannum godes willan.
Luke 2:1-20, tr. John Wycliffe, 1382 (via)
And it was don in tho daies, a maundement wente out fro the emperour August, that al the world schulde be discryued. :: This firste discryuyng was maad of Cyryn, iustice of Sirie. :: And alle men wenten to make professioun, ech in to his owne citee. :: And Joseph wente vp fro Galilee, fro the citee Nazareth, in to Judee, in to a citee of Dauid, that is clepid Bethleem, for that he was of the hous and of the meyne of Dauid, :: that he schulde knouleche with Marie, his wijf, that was weddid to hym, and was greet with child. :: And it was don, while thei weren there, the daies weren fulfillid, that sche schulde bere child. :: And sche bare hir first borun sone, and wlappide hym in clothis, and leide hym in a cratche, for ther was no place to hym in no chaumbir. :: And scheepherdis weren in the same cuntre, wakynge and kepynge the watchis of the nyyt on her flok. :: And lo! the aungel of the Lord stood bisidis hem, and the cleernesse of God schinede aboute hem; and thei dredden with greet drede. :: And the aungel seide to hem, Nyle ye drede; for lo! Y preche to you a greet ioye, that schal be to al puple. :: For a sauyoure is borun to dai to you, that is Crist the Lord, in the citee of Dauid. :: And this is a tokene to you; ye schulen fynde a yong child wlappid in clothis, and leid in a cratche. :: And sudenli ther was maad with the aungel a multitude of heuenli knyythod, heriynge God, :: and seiynge, Glorie be in the hiyeste thingis to God, and in erthe pees be to men of good wille. :: And it was don, as the aungelis passiden awei fro hem in to heuene, the scheephirdis spaken togider, and seiden, Go we ouer to Bethleem, and se we this word that is maad, which the Lord hath maad, and schewide to vs. :: And thei hiyynge camen, and founden Marie and Joseph, and the yong child leid in a cratche. :: And thei seynge, knewen of the word that was seid to hem of this child. :: And alle men that herden wondriden, and of these thingis that weren seid to hem of the scheephirdis. :: But Marie kepte alle these wordis, berynge togider in hir herte. :: And the scheepherdis turneden ayen, glorifyinge and heriynge God in alle thingis that thei hadden herd and seyn, as it was seid to hem.
Luke 2:1-20, tr. William Tyndale, 1530
And it chaunced in thoose dayes: yt ther went oute a comaundment from Auguste the Emperour that all the woorlde shuld be taxed. :: And this taxynge was ye fyrst and executed when Syrenius was leftenaut in Syria. :: And every man went vnto his awne citie to be taxed. :: And Ioseph also ascended from Galile oute of a cite called Nazareth into Iurie: vnto ye cite of David which is called Bethleem because he was of the housse and linage of David :: to be taxed with Mary his spoused wyfe which was with chylde. :: And it fortuned whyll they were there her tyme was come that she shuld be delyvered. :: And she brought forth her fyrst begotten sonne and wrapped him in swadlynge cloothes and layed him in a manger because ther was no roume for them within in the ynne. :: And ther were in the same region shepherdes abydinge in the felde and watching their flocke by nyght. :: And loo: the angell of ye lorde stode harde by them and the brightnes of ye lorde shone rounde aboute them and they were soare afrayed. :: But the angell sayd vnto them: Be not afrayed. For beholde I bringe you tydinges of greate ioye yt shal come to all ye people: :: for vnto you is borne this daye in the cite of David a saveoure which is Christ ye lorde. :: And take this for a signe: ye hall fynde ye chylde swadled and layed in a mager. :: And streight waye ther was with the angell a multitude of hevenly sowdiers laudynge God and sayinge: :: Glory to God an hye and peace on the erth: and vnto men reioysynge. :: And it fortuned assone as the angels were gone awaye fro them in to heven the shepherdes sayd one to another: let vs goo eve vnto Bethleem and se this thynge that is hapened which the Lorde hath shewed vnto vs. :: And they cam with haste and founde Mary and Ioseph and the babe layde in a mager. :: And when they had sene it they publisshed a brode the sayinge which was tolde them of that chylde. :: And all that hearde it wondred at those thinges which were tolde the of the shepherdes. :: But Mary kept all thoose sayinges and pondered them in hyr hert. :: And the shepherdes retourned praysinge and laudinge God for all that they had herde and sene evyn as it was told vnto them.
Read the rest!
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
Monday, December 24, 2007
Israel cannot afford to lose the Palestinian Christians: They have long represented a moderating force. A century ago, they accounted for 25% or more of the Holy Land population. Today, they represent less than 1.5%. Since 2000, Bethlehem alone has lost 10% of its Christian population.
Palestinian Christians regard their ancestors as the first Christians, and no doubt some of them were. They call themselves the "living stones" of Biblical Christianity, preserving ancient communities and traditions in the midst of repeated armed conflicts. They deserve to keep their land and work for "peace on earth, goodwill toward men."
In this crisis they deserve the support of all Americans, not just Christians. And not just at Christmas.
Friday, December 21, 2007
Hitchens claims that some of his best friends are believers. If so, he doesn't know much about his best friends. He writes about religious people the way northern racists used to talk about "Negroes" -- with feigned knowing and a sneer. God Is Not Great assumes a childish definition of religion and then criticizes religious people for believing such foolery. But it is Hitchens who is the naïf. To read this oddly innocent book as gospel is to believe that ordinary Catholics are proud of the Inquisition, that ordinary Hindus view masturbation as an offense against Krishna, and that ordinary Jews cheer when a renegade Orthodox rebbe sucks the blood off a freshly circumcised penis. It is to believe that faith is always blind and rituals always empty -- that there is no difference between taking communion and drinking the Kool-Aid (a beverage Hitchens feels compelled to mention no fewer than three times).
It took Bush three years to find his general (as it did Lincoln) and turn a losing war into a winnable one. Baghdad and Washington are currently discussing a long-term basing agreement that could give the United States permanent military presence in the region and a close cooperative relationship with the most important country in the Middle East heartland -- a major strategic achievement.
Nonetheless, the pressure on this administration and the next to get out prematurely will remain. There are those for whom our only objective in Iraq is reducing troop levels rather than securing a potentially critical Arab ally in a region of supreme strategic significance.
On North Korea and Iran, with no real options at hand, the Bush administration heads to the finish line doing what Sen. George Aiken once suggested for Vietnam: Declare victory and go home. With no good options available, those decisions are entirely understandable. But if Bush or his successor does an Aiken on Iraq, where success is a real option, history will judge him severely.
Thursday, December 20, 2007
Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (and for that matter the overrated film based on another overrated book Atonement). McEwan’s work is in the image of contemporary British genteel culture; underpowered, negligible in impact and yet genteelly fêted at bookfests and on the BBC.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Here's a brief sample:
So if doing science is ultimately a religious act, why does the story of a split between science and religion exist in out culture today? Because too many religious people have been scared away from science by the very stories of this split. Because most scientists keep their religion private, as is their right. Because the religious people most likely to be heard in the news are those whose strong bent in engineering hides their very limited education in science: the creationists. Because the scientists who do speak publicly about these topics have been precisely those whose very limited education in religion (people like Richard Dawkins or Stephen Jay Gould) have made them "science fundamentalists"," every bit as narrow as the religious fundamentalists and probably not the best representatives of their fields--just the best known. (p. 169--emphasis mine)[You can just hear all the caterwauling that will take place on the skeptic blogs once they get wind of this.]
Couldn't resist another bon mot:
"Atheism is a luxury of the well-to-do; it goes hand in hand with flush toilets." (p. 186)
Wilson’s real obsession here is not Céline but the thorny philosophical problem on which her reputation has been impaled: the nature of taste itself. What motivates aesthetic judgment? Is our love or hatred of “My Heart Will Go On” the result of a universal, disinterested instinct for beauty-assessment, as Kant would argue? Or is it something less exalted? Wilson tends to side with the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who argues that taste is never disinterested: It’s a form of social currency, or “cultural capital,” that we use to stockpile prestige. Hating Céline is therefore not just an aesthetic choice, but an ethical one, a way to elevate yourself above her fans—who, according to market research, tend to be disproportionately poor adult women living in flyover states and shopping at big-box stores. (As Wilson puts it, “It’s hard to imagine an audience that could confer less cool on a musician.”)
Monday, December 17, 2007
Sunday, December 16, 2007
We're pleasantly snowed in today, and during my morning coffee and reading, a footnote led me off to my attic bookcases and Owen Barfield. I was thumbing through The Rediscovery of Meaning, Barfield's 1977 collection of essays, and landed on "The Coming Trauma of Materialism."
Barfield was an eloquent opponent of reductionism and its effects on society. I had not read him in years however, and about halfway through this essay I stopped short at this pothole:
This paragraph could've been written last week by almost any one of the flaks at several conservative think tanks or journals. Rhetorical juice spectacularly innocent of any acquaintance with scientific facts.
But it is a long step from an eccentric professor's study with the doors shut to the popular cheap edition of the Origin of Species. Is the surface quite so solid as it looks through the media? According to the Los Angeles Times in October last, an Indiana professor of anthropology criticized his colleagues sharply for declaring "as a fact" that man descended from apelike creatures and suggested that they did so "for fear of not being declared serious scholars or of being rejected from serious academic circles." George MacBeth's Darwin Retried (1971), which is not the only radical critique in the English language published in the last two or three years, consists almost entirely of the quoted utterances of contemporary biologists ranging from Sir Julian Huxley (on television): "The first point to make about Darwin's theory is that it is no longer a theory but a fact" to Professor Ernst Mayr of Harvard: "The basic theory is in many instances hardly more than a postulate." Divergence of opinion on subsidiary details is not less striking; and the book leaves one with a startling impression of head-on conflicts of opinion and a state of general disarray in the citadel, which do not suggest that the garrison is particularly well-equipped to withstand a daylight assault from pure reason.
I don't mind saying this has depressed me, for it's evident that Barfield as much as anyone else who was a conservative in the 1970s, was taken in by the romantic notion that Darwin's theory was really a house of cards about to collapse.
Note by the way that Darwin Retried was written by a lawyer (Norman MacBeth, not George), and if you look at the table of contents, it bears more than a passing resemblance to another lawyer's more recent vaunted tome, Darwin on Trial. Happily, the former is out of print.
Note what else has not changed in 30 years:
1. The assumption that scientific academia is a garrison of correct thought. (i.e. what's true in English departments must also therefore be true of science departments.) 2. That the suggestion of differing viewpoints in science is punishable by banishment. And that 3. Darwin's theory doesn't have a leg to stand on, based on selective quotes from aged specialists taken out of context.
One expects this kind of depressing swill from murmurantes like Bethell and Gilder. (I couldn't resist that one, I've also just rediscovered one of St. Thomas's gems: "There is no contradiction in affirming that a thing was created and also that it was never non-existent" from De aeternitate mundi contra murmurantes. You gotta love St. Thomas: "Hey you. Yeah, you, murmurante, what the hell are you talking about?") But still, it was disheartening to rediscover it in Barfield of all people. It makes me question now how seriously I should read him on the other subjects.
That now, 30 years later, amongst an increasingly aged and ossified 'thinking class' of conservatives in institutes and at journals, the same unexamined rhetoric is routinely regurgitated is not a matter for inspiration.
And then they wonder why most college students majoring in science are liberal?
Friday, December 14, 2007
The God Delusion cannot be understood as a work of scholarship or of effective engagement of a topic. It's frequently idiotic, and engages in rhetorical misconduct that disqualifies it as a work of intellectual value. Understood as folk scholarship (we might call it folk theology or folk philosophy), it makes perfect sense. The God Delusion isn't intellectually sound, and it's not meant to be. Its purpose is to make people feel better about their world-view. I have the impression that it's effective in that regard.
Thursday, December 13, 2007
In this sense, what I see as the correct conservative approach to social teaching does not have nearly the warm and comforting glow as the "progressive" approach. And yet, I think it more correctly accounts for the reality of our nature as moral and mortal beings, living out our time on earth in expectation of what is to come.
The phrase "you cannot legislate morality" has been very much overused, and yet in this instance there is a very real truth to it. We cannot achieve the twin aims of respecting people's natural right to property and leaving room for people to behave in a virtuous manner by helping their fellow men unless we simultaneously allow people the opportunity to sin against their fellow men by refusing to help anyone.
Perhaps it is not surprising that in a society in which many loudly blame God (or suggest that he does not exist) for having given us the freedom to sin, many also feel reluctant to leave individual citizens the liberty to sin, or be virtuous, in their use of their personal wealth.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
First, take note that this article is another example of a sophisticated, hypothesis-driven experimental analysis of a central evolutionary concept. Research like this is reported almost daily, though you'd never learn this by reading the work of Reasons To Believe or the fellows of the Discovery Institute. The mis-characterization of evolutionary biology by the creationists of those organizations is a scandal, and as you might already know, my blog's main purpose is to give evangelical Christians an opportunity to explore the science that is being so carefully avoided by those critics. You don't need to understand sign epistasis or the structure of transcription factors to get this take-home message: evolutionary biologists are hard at work solving the problems that some prominent Christian apologists can't or won't even acknowledge. How does gene duplication lead to the formation of genes with new functions? The folks at the Discovery Institute can't even admit that it happens. Over at Reasons To Believe, they don't mention gene duplication all, despite their fascination with "junk DNA." That's from a ministry that claims to have developed a "testable model" to explain scores of questions regarding origins.
This makes me mad. No matter what you think of the age of the earth or the need for creation miracles, you should be upset by Christians who mangle science to serve apologetic ends.
Monday, December 10, 2007
Einstein wasn't kidding when he said the man of science is a poor philosopher.
The film is not as silly as it sounds; it's much sillier. Remember the worst line in "Star Wars"? "But I was gonna go to the Tashi station to pick up some power converters!" Imagine a whole movie like that.
Friday, December 07, 2007
Wednesday, December 05, 2007
Monday, December 03, 2007
What was Wells' idea? Well, he thinks that centrioles look like turbines. So he thinks maybe they are turbines. And so maybe they rotate around each other, just at the right moment during cell division, and create an oscillation in all those microtubules, thereby generating a vortex that drives the polar ejection force. And maybe that rotation is regulated by calcium. That's the Rivista paper in a nutshell.
The ideas are testable, and plausible to the extent that they don't invoke functions or phenomena from way far out. But they aren't based on any data. There are no observations that even suggest that centrioles rotate (and Wells postulates rotation rates of up to 10,000/second), nor have microtubules been seen to exhibit the vortex-like oscillations that Wells' hypothesis predicts. And most importantly, the polar ejection force is not known to affect anything other than chromosomes. But Wells' hypothesis predicts a "wind" blowing into the center of the cell, a wind that would exert force on every particle between the two poles. In other words, even when the paper was published, its ideas came out of left field.
I doubt that the paper has ever been cited by another cell biologist. No one has published any observations to suggest that centrioles rotate or that a vortex is induced in a dividing animal cell. A proof-of-principle experiment would have been technically challenging but perfectly feasible, if a little expensive. (Here's one idea: use video microscopy to look for movement of inert particles, perhaps fluorescent beads, inside the postulated vortex of the mitotic spindle.) Whether Wells ever tested his hypothesis (or whether he meant to), I don't know.
But now, in 2007, there's no need. Two different lines of evidence make Wells' hypothesis unworthy of further consideration.
Either one of those results would have killed the idea.
- Largely normal chromosome behavior, and the polar ejection force, can occur in animals that completely lack centrioles.
- The properties of a particular chromokinesin appear to completely account for the polar ejection force.
Sunday, December 02, 2007
Well, it's been a year since the paperback came out and two years since the hardcover. The reception from most magazine reviewers has been very good. And I can't complain about sales given the modest print run.
Still, there has been a particular criticism raised by two journals which I think deserves response.
The First Things 'briefly noted' review is the more recent example (December 2007 issue, online for subscribers only). It basically hints at the same complaint that Touchstone made in the close of their review of November 2006.
Here's Briefly Noted from First Things:
"Lemaitre, in the author's telling, subscribed to a radical division between scientific and religious truth that many thinkers today would view as naive."
Here's Touchstone. The review, it's worth noting by the way, is by Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez, who is currently (whether he likes it or not I imagine) being held up by the Intelligent Design movement as a martyr because he was recently denied tenure.
"Anyone who has been accused of allowing his religion to cloud his scientific judgment will understand the pressure Lemaître was under. Nevertheless, he and Farrell seem overly zealous in denying any relationship between faith and science generally.
"Scripture is obviously not a twenty-first-century science textbook, but that simple point hardly answers every question at the boundary of faith and science. For instance, surely some scientific evidence could have theological implications. And what could be more theologically suggestive than evidence that the universe had a beginning? Even atheists like Fred Hoyle saw this point clearly. What is perplexing is why it eluded both Lemaître and his biographer."
I'm responding to both--not because I think their point isn't valid, but because I don't think it applies to Lemaître, that Lemaître was too guarded, too strict about a "radical" separation be supposedly built between his faith and his science.
And what could be more theologically suggestive than evidence that the universe had a beginning? Even atheists like Fred Hoyle saw this point clearly. What is perplexing is why it eluded both Lemaître and his biographer.
Well, it didn't if you read the book carefully. First off, recall that Fred Hoyle was dead wrong about the steady state theory, so it's hardly a mark in his favor or the reviewers to remind us that he had metaphysical reasons (his dislike of the Big Bang's implications) for his developing a failed theory in the first place. If anything, Hoyle proves my point: don't mix your science with faith (whether it's good faith or bad). By the way, this might be good advice for Michael Behe who has essentially done more to discredit natural theology with his theory of irreducible complexity than any poorly trained theologian who'd never seen a biology book in his life might have.
Secondly, Lemaître never denied that science can have theological implications--and neither do I. But when he took issue with the Pope in the passage Touchstone's review cited, it's worth recalling what the Pope actually said at the Papal Audience in 1951:
"What was the nature and condition of the first matter of the universe? The answers given differ considerably from one another according to the theories on which they are based. Yet there is a certain amount of agreement. It is agreed that the density, pressure and temperature of primitive matter must each have touched prodigious values.
"Clearly and critically, as when it [the enlightened mind] examines facts and passes judgment on them, it perceives the work of creative omnipotence and recognizes that its power, set in motion by the mighty Fiat of the Creating Spirit billions of years ago, called into existence with gesture of generous love and spread over the universe matter bursting with energy. Indeed, it would seem that present-day science, with one sweep back across the centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to the august instant of the Fiat Lux, when, along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, and the elements split and churned and formed into millions of galaxies." [emphasis mine]
I think this comes across pretty obviously as more than simply presenting the theological implications of what was at the time a very tentative theory (this was over ten years before the cosmic background radiation was discovered and Hoyle's theory was getting more support from scientists in the UK). The Pope was straightforwardly identifying the Big bang with the "instant of the Fiat Lux". I don't think Lemaître was out of line to point out this was going too far.
It's one thing to keep a wall of separation between your science and faith. I don't think Lemaître did that. He was simply and always careful to distinguish the boundaries between the two, and he thought the Pope was assuming too much in his enthusiasm for the Big Bang. (I might recommend that more enthusiasts of Intelligent Design rethink the theological implications of their own support for it. See, for example, the excellent Edward T. Oakes deconstructing the usual suspects from the Discovery Institute on this point. And Scott Carson.)
Pius XII by the way, was no wallflower. I think he certainly would have stood up for himself if he thought he was right; but he seems to have agreed with Lemaître, as he did not rebuke him on the score when Lemaître later discussed the situation, or continue insisting the Big Bang was "the instant of the Fiat Lux", since he was well aware, as any theologian could have reminded him, God's word preceded all in ontological, not just temporal terms, and therefore could not be subject to or defined by a temporal instant (or any other scientifically measurable quantity) at all.
Lemaître was a better Thomist, I think, than Pius in this case.
Recall that in the great dispute about the eternity of the world in St. Thomas' time, he was careful to point out that 1. philosophically it could not be demonstrated that the world had a temporal beginning, and further, that even if it could be shown the universe was temporally eternal, it in no way changed its radical existential dependence on God. "Hence that the world began to exist is an object of faith, but not of demonstration or science."˜St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Question 46, Article 2
Lemaître was simply making the same point when he said this:
"As far as I can see, such a theory [Big bang] remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question. It leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being. He may keep, for the bottom of space-time, the same attitude of mind he has been able to adopt for events occurring in non-singular places in space-time. For the believer, it removes any attempt at familiarity with God, as were Laplace's chiquenaude or Jean's finger. It is consonant with the wording of Isaias speaking of the "Hidden God", hidden even in the beginning of creation....Science has not to surrender in face of the Universe and when Pascal tries to infer the existence of God from the supposed infinitude of Nature, we may think that he is looking in the wrong direction."
This last sentence bears thinking on.
According to Paul Dirac, he and Lemaître had a conversation once about God and the universe. Dirac was an atheist: "When I was talking with Lemaître about this subject and feeling stimulated by the grandeur of the picture that he has given us, I told him that I thought cosmology was the branch of science that lies closest to religion. However Lemaître did not agree with me. After thinking it over he suggested psychology as lying closest to religion."
It may seem strange that one of the 20th century's greatest physicists saw God more in the actions of his fellow men...and yet that's probably what most ordinary Christians do in our daily lives when we see examples of holiness, heroic courage, kindness, mercy, and self-sacrifice.
If it seems pedantic to point this out, profuse apologies. But I stand my ground in disagreeing with the reviewers at First Things and Touchstone that Lemaître was being too careful about the distinctions all Christians should keep in their minds between science and faith.