Posted tagged ‘religion’

Kung Fu Pope v. Big Carbon

June 13, 2015

Via Slate, I came across this little bit of video:

Per Eric Holtas in Slate, this is the brainchild of some delightfully twisted Brazilian climate change activists.
My favorite shot?  Dawn-backlit papal Tai-Chi exercise.  IOW:  just watch this.
PS — the soundtrack could/should have been Inhofe and Santorum skull detonations.

Mountains, Stars, Conflict

May 31, 2015

You’ll forgive, I hope, the self promotion here, but I want to draw attention to an essay I have in The Boston Globe today.

It’s about the controversy over the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) that is beginning to be constructed at the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii.  Mauna Kea is one of the world’s most significant sites for optical and near infrared astronomy — it’s already home to thirteen telescopes, including the two largest now in operation in the twin Keck instruments.


The TMT is designed to have a primary mirror three times the diameter of the Keck ten meter light buckets, with nine times the light gathering area.  Over the last century — which covers the era of large, mountaintop optical observatorys, each similar leap in telescope size has produced startling, powerful discoveries, and there’s every reason to expect the same of the TMT and its planned southern hemisphere counterparts.

But there’s a catch — or something more fundamental than a mere glitch.  Mauna Kea is a sacred site within the Hawaiian tradition, and an environmentally sensitive one, and opposition to TMT has grown from a point of tension to one of direct confrontation.  Construction of the TMT has been suspended, and the governor of Hawaii has called for the removal of a quarter of the existing observatories before the TMT itself begins operating.

In the midst of this confrontation, plenty of people have framed the two sides as another battle in the old war between science and religious belief.  I say in the Globe today that’s a mistake.  A taste:

….the TMT dispute shows where the science versus religion trope goes wrong. The Hawaiian protesters haven’t said that Mauna Kea’s telescopes are inherently impious, or that the data they collect is somehow wrong, or that Hawaiian mythology is a better account of the cosmos. Rather, the value, the joy, the need the observatories satisfy may indeed satisfy many, but not those continuing a Hawaiian tradition that allows its heirs to find connection with memory, with history, with nature — to achieve the same transcendence sought by those who find beauty in the measure of the universe.

That is: The TMT defenders and their opponents seek analogous rewards from their presence on Mauna Kea. Their conflict isn’t between the competing worldviews of science and religion, but between desires that are kin to each other — and that require the same physical space.

Check it out, if your Sunday afternoon tends that way.  Let me know what you think.

Image:  Johannes Vermeer,  The Astronomerc. 1668.


In Which I Talk Bible To Glenn Beck

March 9, 2010

You know, you’d think a simple (and quite minor) member of the blogosphere could take a few days out, hit the hot spots of digital payment think tank prognostication in London (had a nice chat with the innovation/new tech group at Visa Europe at lunch today, talking seventeenth century digital money and the what-was-old-is-new-again reality of globalization whilst looking down at the Paddington Station train yard (no bears, alas)) and just chill.

It’s not really that much to expect, is it?

But then, courtesy of Steve Benen (h/t Mr. GOS himself), I learn that noted theologian Glenn Beck is advising his viewers that the idea of social justice is antithetical to true religion.  As Mr. Beck avers:

…your right to religion and freedom to exercise religion and read all of the passages of the Bible as you want to read them and as your church wants to preach them … are going to come under the ropes in the next year. If it lasts that long it will be the next year. I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words.

I’ve tended to avoid the religion-science kerfluffle, though I have Views, as one may say.  But whatever you may make of the crumbs I’ve dropped about my various allegiances and intellectual commitments, I have enough memory of a pretty serious Hebrew School education to crush this softball.

For example: consider this passage in Isiah, , a Jewish text beloved of many Christians (and Muslims too, of course, Abrahamic as that community of belief is as well) that Jews read each year at the center of the most significant observation of the liturgical calendar, the morning service of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement:

(Chapter 58)

…3 “Why, when we fasted, did You not see?
When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?”
Because on your fast day
You see to your business
And oppress all your laborers!
4 Because you fast in strife and contention,
And you strike with a wicked fist!
your fasting today is not such
As to make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?
6 No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
7 It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.

8 Then shall your light burst through like the dawn
And your healing spring up quickly;
Your Vindicator shall march before you,
The Presence of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9 Then, when you call, the Lord will answer;
When you cry, He will say: Here I am.
If you banish the yoke from your midst,
The menacing hand and evil speech,
10 And you offer your compassion to the hungry
And satisfy the famished creature —
The shall your light shine in darkness,
And your gloom shall be like noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
He will slake your thirst in parched places
And give strength to your bones.
You shall be like a watered garden,
Like a spring whose waters do not fail.
12 Men from your midst shall rebuild ancient ruins,
you shall restore foundations laid long ago.
And you shall be called
“Repairer of fallen walls,
Restorer of lanes for habitation.”

Let me not confine this commentary to my own heritage.  To look for another example living in the Boston area I call home, how about that construct of belief that animates our local prince of the Catholic Church, Cardinal and Boston Archbishop Sèan O’Malley.  He is a Capuchin* Friar, a member of that order which, from its founding in the early sixteenth century, sought to take its place within a long series of efforts to restore the identification with poverty, the poor, and unquestionably, justice for the lesser, confronted by the greater that derive in Catholic and early Christian history from identification with Francis and ultimately with Jesus.  The Capuchins declare this commitment today:

Let us show respect for all people and [manifest] a spirit ready for dialogue with them.
Although we prefer the evangelization of the poor according to the example of Christ and SaintFrancis, we should not hesitate to proclaim the message of the conversion to justice and the responsibility of preserving peace to those in positions of power and those ruling others.

There is an encylopedia of disagreements I could find with the constellation of beliefs and requirements Cardinal O’Malley upholds; most are irrelevant, given that I, not a Catholic, do not defer to claims of dogma put forward within the Catholic confession.  Those that are relevant are the ones that the American Catholic Church has advanced as precepts to be enshrined as law of the nation we share…but all that’s an argument for a different venue.

The point here is that outside the Beck alternate reality, there is no way to construct the Jewish tradition and its Christian heirs as indifferent to social and economic justice…unless you are willing to sacrifice the essential core of the revelations to which both Jews and Christians lay claim.  There is no way to imitate God (or the God-Man embodied in the person of the Christian conception of Jesus) unless you do justice to the beings created in the image of divinity.  Do injustice to the least of us, and as is expressed again and again in the Elijah tradition of Jewish story telling, you do damage to the whole of any God-made world.  Alternatively, save a life, and save that world.

That is:  if you take the words of the Bible seriously from any starting point, there is only one conclusion possible here.  Beck is no believer.  He is a deceiver — and if you come from a background that capitalizes such words, then within that tradition, you’ll get no argument from me.**

*Maybe it’s just me, but I find it delightful that the name “Capuchin,” derived from the distinctive hood that Capuchin friars wear, has through a kind of visual rhyming, been  adopted to provide the name for that saving drink of many mornings, my daily cappuchino, and, for Capuchin monkeys as well.

**Please note — I’ve confined this to the specifically religious context of Beck’s demand.  A different post would point out how thoroughly unAmerican Beck’s statement is, if you take the ideas of the founders seriously.  For just one example, here’s John Adams, in his argument in the Amistad case:

In the Declaration of Independence the Laws of Nature are announced and appealed to as identical with the laws of nature’s God, and as the foundation of all obligatory human laws…

…I said, when I began this plea, that my final reliance for success in this case was on this Court as a court of JUSTICE; and in the confidence this fact inspired that, in the administration of justice, in a case of no less importance than the liberty and the life of a large number of persons, this Court would not decide but on a due consideration of all the rights, both natural and social, of every one of these individuals. I have endeavored to show that they are entitled to their liberty from this Court….

….In taking, then, my final leave of this Bar, and of this Honorable Court, I can only ejaculate a fervent petition to Heaven, that every member of it may go to his final account with as little of earthly frailty to answer for as those illustrious dead, and that you may, every one, after the close of a long and virtuous career in this world, be received at the portals of the next with the approving sentence—” Well done, good and faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”

Image:  Giotto, “Legend of St. Francis — The Renunciation of Wordly Goods.”  before 1332.

The Stupid, It Burns…Crunchy Con takes on Cosmology Edition

October 16, 2009

I usually lie back and enjoy Roy Edoroso’s  Rod Dreher takedowns.  There are too many massive fails out there to write everytime something stupid this way comes.  Besides, Roy practically owns Mr. Crunchy at this point;  it is as if the Crunchster’s only reason for being is not, as he imagines, to serve as an incarnate vessel for divine sparkles, but to offer an inexhaustible spring of risible material for Edoroso decant  as needed.

But, led by the Hon. Mr. Edoroso himself to the latest of Mr. Dreher’s bizarre complaints — that Bill Maher is not scientific enough to receive atheist of the year honors (sic!) — I came across this howler, left for lesser jaws to masticate.  Dreher quotes one Mark Shea approvingly, passing on this nugget of insight:

Nobody will ever die from thinking God created the universe or having some doubts about the proposition that hydrogen is a substance which, if you leave it alone for 13.5 billion years, will turn into Angelina Jolie.

Shea, I find, is a verbose (sure you want to pick up that stone, sinner? — ed.) and — how to put this? — surpassingly simple thinker, at least when it comes to anything that might actually threaten that part of his faith that depends on traditional readings of Genesis 1 and 2.

If you click through the link you’ll find an almost completely unembellished argument from design, presented (with the necessary leaven of scripture) without any apparent awareness of the fate of all such arguments to date. (Please note that that link takes you to a representative gutting by a committed believer of one of the recent design arguments.)

But never mind that.  Just stop for a moment and look at the above.  How many errors packed into a single sentence, just 20 words?

While I suppose I must give Shea props for confining his proposition to the relatively safe ground of disputes about cosmogenesis, it is certainly true that believers who question the precise form in which  God created the universe have died at the hands of those who differed from such views.  (And just to make my point clear:  I’m not trying to restart the tedious argument over who killed more, religious zealots or anyone else.  Rather, I’m simply pointing out that the claim that belief does not have consequences, include the deaths of those who differ in belief, is nonsense.

“hydrogen…if you leave it alone for 13.5 billion years…” (actually 13.7 billion in the most recent results — but that’s not the kind of error I’ mean).  This is the real howler.

The last forty five years of cosmological research have shown that whatever else is going on, you take the primordial mix of about 80 percent hydrogen, almost all the rest helium, with  a scattering of lithium…and the universe does everything but leave it alone.  It does so in most of the interesting ways under the influence of gravity, or local variations in the shape of spacetime, if you want to go all Albert on me.  See this handy Wikipedia article for the timeline and links to deeper inquiry as your interests dictate.

Once you get to star formation within those handy collections of matter called galaxies,* you can see how the universe, by not leaving hydrogen alone, makes all kinds of outcomes possible, including but not limited to the conditions that permit the formation of earth-like planets.

That process starts once the temperature at the center of a nascent star reaches ten million degrees kelvin, at which point hydrogen in the star begins to fuse — the nuclear burning that produces the heat and light of a star.   Next comes several really big steps I’m leaving out here to produce the heavy elements… but for a fun tour with a bit more detail, may I immodestly suggest you check out chapters five and six in this NOVA film, wherein you will see how stellar fusion leads to bouillabaisse.

“…into Angelina Jolie.”  This, of course, is another hit of the argument from design masquerading as a pitiful simulation of pop-culture hiptitude.  Yes it may be difficult to imagine that the glory of a Hollywood beauty could simply happen by chance, (and perhaps it might be fair to say that in many cases it clearly does not, but one must sadly note that the designers involved are all too human).

But the notion that you can’t get to something as complicated and aesthetically appealing as Ms. Jolie, or a beautiful mountain landscape, a kitten…or whatever, is simply the old teleological mistake:  the assumption that because we see a particular outcome to a process then that the process must have been directed to that one end.

That’s a mistake in formal logic; and it is belied by any number of empirical observations.  My favorite, given the significance of eyes to the history of the those who would reject Darwin for design, lies with discovery of (a) the evolutionary pathways leading to the mammallian eye and (b) the finding that eyes evolved several times in different lineages, processes that exploited different biochemical and structural resources.  See this link for an overview and further links to lots of resources.

Finally, back again to the beginning, but with a twist:  “Nobody will ever die..about the proposition…” that the universe has evolved and that human reason can penetrate the events that drove that process.  Well, actually, people die all the time because of doubt and distrust of science produced by exactly this kind of smug and willed — really intended — ignorance.

Here’s one example:  anti vaccine nonsense is a contributor, still relatively minor but tragic, to the worldwide death total from vaccine-preventable diseases.

Here’s another:  significant excess deaths due to extreme weather events are a well documented phenomenon.  Consider Europe in 2003, or Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Among the more robust predictions of global warming science is that any “average” temperature increase will actually manifest itself in part through an increase in the amount of severe weather we will experience.

It follows, therefore, that unchecked global warming will lead to excess deaths in the future…a prospect made more likely by sustained denialism by those whose iron rice bowl stays whole only so long as they know not that which it is impolitic, or simply ideologically unacceptable, to have known.

And so on.  The larger point is simple:  science is not simply a bucket of facts, out of which it is possible to choose the bits you like  — antibiotics! genetically engineered crops! my iPhone!   Rather, it is a body of knowledge, a (many) theoretical frameworks, a method for knowing.  Its results are always in some degree provisional,** but its approach is not.

To say that you can’t both deny cosomological evolution and accept biochemistry is not a claim of dogma; rather it reflects the hard fact of experience that when you choose to pursue only those scientific ideas that give you comfort, you lose.  Your ability to find out crucial knowledge of the material world suffers in significant ways.

One last aside:  I do not line up with those in the “new atheist” camp who find any engagement with religion essentially simple minded.  But this stuff is — and it’s dangerous.  Seriously:  pace Mr. Shea, people do die from ignorance and it’s Twainian companion, certain knowledge of things that ain’t so.

In that context, I believe that the duty to rip apart this kind of nonsense lies very much in the thinking-religious camp.  As a general rule, if you don’t want to be characterized by the worst arguments made in your name, be the first and best debunkers.

*Galaxies are really the object of interest here.  As the film linked above portrays, they act as kind of cook pots — vessels in which the heavy elements produced by one generation of stars are available to get swept up in the next generation, until they accumulate to the point that interesting chemistry and ultimately, at least once, biochemistry, can take place.

**though mostly much less so than anti-science skeptics would have it.

Images:  Mihály Zichy, “Falling Stars,” 1879

Leonardo Da Vinci, “Mona Lisadetail, 1503-1519.

Isaac Newton, God and the eternal war between faith and science: Killing the Buddha/Newton and the Counterfeiter edition

August 3, 2009

Just a quick heads’ up:

I have a new essay up at Killing the Buddha on Isaac Newton, God, and the unintended damage done to faith by Newton’s personal commitment to a divinity immanent throughout nature.

The piece, adapted that opus readers of this blog may have heard of — Newton and the Counterfeiter (AmazonPowells,Barnes and NobleIndiebound) — argues that the proper way to understand the full (and astonishing) range of Newton’s interests and creative output is to recognize that all of it was directed to the same end:  to know (in Hawking’s anachronistic phrase) the mind of God.

It was a grand ambition, a passion, really, in all the resonance of that term.  It was also, I argue, one that was bound to end in tears.  Newton told the clergyman Richard Bentley in anticipation of the first Boyle Lectures that  “When I wrote my treatise upon our System, I had an eye on such Principles as might work with considering men fore the beleife of a Deity”

But, of course, it was easily grasped at that time and ever after, that the principles of natural philosophy do not, in themselves require the active presence of a god concerned with space and time….and from thence all our quarrels flow.

Go check it out.  Let me know what you think.

Image:  Michaelangelo, Sistine Ceiling “The First Day of Creation,” 1509

Travel Notes: Religious Stereotypes edition.

August 22, 2008

(Warning:  almost but not quite no science below).

There are certain requirements for being a tourist in the new South Africa. You have got to check out the history of Apartheid. Nothing you see makes sense without that knowledge, and some of the venues tied to that history are the places tourists more or less have to go.

So yesterday it was off to Jo’burg’s Old Fort for coffee in one of the most oddly peaceful cafe’s in this expectation-confounding city, and then a tour of the Number Four complex, South Africa’s contribution to the world’s miserable catalogue of iconic symbols of human cruelty.

The museum inside Number Four is extremely impressive. Number Four housed at one time or another pretty much every major figure in the Struggle, including, of course, Nelson Mandela. Mandela is understandably everywhere in South Africa these days, especially in the context of his recent ninetieth birthday (e.g.: Hertz is running a promotion right now bragging that it and Mandela are ninety years old (or something…the poster wasn’t quite clear) and that rental car goodies will flow from this coincidence). And certainly, the Robben Island museum centers on that hell-hole’s most famous inmate.

But what was striking about the Number Four exhibition is that it celebrated perhaps the only prisoner it held who could be said to rank Mandela as a veteran of South Africa’s gulag: Mohatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s experience as an expatriate lawyer in South Africa, leading his first major civil rights campaign there, was a foundational period, establishing the basic outline of the ideas that he would later develop so powerfully in India. The exhibition in Number Four gives a great rapid gloss on this period, and it reveals (a) Gandhi’s enormous strength of mind and character, and among much else, (b) that living the life of a saint is hard, but perhaps more so for the sainted one’s family than for the man (in this instance) himself.

But while the whole display was effective — down to the pair of sandals Gandhi made for his antagonist in this conflict, General Jan Smuts, sitting in a box on the floor of prison — there was one photograph whose caption caught my eye. It showed Gandhi with a group of fellow non-violent activists and it noted that most of those who helped form the Satyagraha movement in South Africa were Indian Muslims.

Now this, I’m sure, is a penetrating glimpse of the obvious to anyone who has actually paid attention to the histories of either Apartheid or the Indian independence movement.

But I didn’t happen to know that fact and as a more or less well informed tourist and survivor of too much wingnut rhetoric over the last few years, it strikes me as notable that I did not.

That is, while the plural of anecdote is not data, the top line meaning I took out of yesterday’s rapid tour of Number Four is that for all the talk that has spewed for some time now about Islam being at its core a religion of violence, there is at least one major modern-historical confounding example. Such stubborn facts, in the context of science are, of course supposed to confound the most seemingly comfortable of theories.

(Pre-flame self defense: this is not to say that Islam is inherently non-violent either. Just that members of a tradition that, among much else was able both to provide a quasi-religious gloss on Apartheid and, for many in the struggle against the Apartheid regime, consolation and strength for that effort, might want to be wary about broad stroke statements about other religious cultures. Just a thought.)

Words Matter: Bishops and Biology Edition

July 26, 2008

It’s about time this blog actually turned to an subject square in the middle of its stated theme, to look at science in public life.

In today’s episode: What John Habgood, retired Anglican Archbishop of York had to say in this review of Ronald Numbers’ history of creationism and the “intelligent design” movement. (h/t Patrick Appel)

I’m sure that there are plenty of folks around the science blogosphere who would take issue of the former second-ranking cleric in the Church of England’s claim that “all assertions about the objectivity and truth of science must themselves depend on belief in some form of reality which is simply “given”.

But that point in Habgood’s lede is something of a throwaway; he’s concerned with creationism, which he contrasts to a more general belief in creation, and which he says “is much more specific and much less plausible.” Again, I’m sure this will also piss some people off — including many of his own flock, for whom his quite abstract vision of God will be just as unsatisfying as his assertion of the necessity of the concept of God will be to the non-believing reader.

Most of the review is in fact quite good — a clear and useful review of the competing strands of creationism at the birth of the movement. He calls out ID for the nonsense it is — as theology as well as science — and if he annoys me (as he does) for urging a fairly typical “both sides need reform” argument –asking “some scientists to be more conscious and critical of their own materialistic assumptions” — it is important to remember who is writing here. Habgood is/was a bishop, after all, and writes from certain assumptions into a particular structure of thought.

Rather — I want to take issue with just two words as Habgood misuses them. The first is “Darwinism” and the second is “orthodoxy” used in combination with the modifier “scientific.”

On Darwinism: Last week, Olivia Judson dissected the mixture of foolishness and bad-faith polemic contained in the use of the word as a synonym for evolutionary biology. Habgood uses the term once more or less appropriately, as the thing opposed in the early days of creationist attacks on Darwin’s idea. It’s still misleading to assert that all that was known and being done in the second half of the nineteenth century could be contained under the umbrella of the devil’s chaplain’s name — but there is a clear historical context to opposition to Darwin and his ideas by name, and in discussing that history, “Darwinism” is not the worst shorthand to use.

But now? It’s a nonsense. Just to reduce this to the absurdity it is: does anyone out there think “Newtonianism” is a good term to describe the branch of knowledge that enables us, inter alia to calculate the trajectory of a comet? How about Daltonism to describe that discipline that studies the different combinations into which different species of matter can form? That’s actually a historically appropriate analogy — for Daltonism could be used to describe nineteenth chemists’ commitment to the reality of atoms and molecules, despite some physicists resistance to the atomic idea for many decades more. But in 2008? Come on.

The problem for Habgood specifically in using the word “Darwinism” in such a fundamentally wrong-headed way is that it betrays a perhaps unconscious affinity for the ideas he overtly criticizes here.

The word as employed in this piece is purely polemical, and, as Judson pointed out, its use represents an attempt to redefine the playing field. If Darwin could be shown wrong, then Darwinism falls — except of course, Darwin was wrong about lots of individual bits and pieces, and yet created a body of ideas and an approach that has fostered a branch of science that is very well indeed, thank you very much. Habgood plays on the wrong side of the pitch when he uses this word.

The same kind of bad faith appears in his odd choice to use the word “orthodoxy.” Habgood twice refers to “scientific orthodoxy” — once in the context of a discussion of clever people “riven to reject current scientific orthodoxy” and again in warning of creationism/ID’s “a serious threat to scientific orthodoxy, particularly in the field of biology.”

I suspect that the reason the use of the word orthodoxy is malicious (in result even if not intent) is pretty obvious to those reading this.

But just to show blogger due-diligence: orthodoxy is a term of art with specific meanings in the religious discussion. Those meanings do not describe the practice of science, which turns on various methods to guage the reliability of its claims.

The use of the word in conjunction with science is at best a sociological claim — that as a human activity, scientists can form shared assumptions that seem analogous to a credo. Even here, it makes a highly imperfect comparison to the use of the same terms — both orthodoxy and affirmations of belief — in the religious context.

At worst, the word is clearly designed to play a very nasty set of mental chimes. Orthodoxy is readily turned into a term of abuse, to mean unthinking commitment to unsupportable ideas: women, derived from Adam’s rib, are intended by God to serve men; human beings are descended from ancestors common to their primate kin.

There — that should make the sleight of hand obvious. Habgood’s rhetoric is designed to create a false equivalence between science and religion, and a false sharing of blame for the spread of nonsensical notions to the fundamentalists who cannot read their bible as Habgood reads his, and to those blinkered orthodox scientists, who cannot appreciate Habgood’s vision of the mysterious.

Habgood surely knows the weight of language; his life has been spent parsing the Word in great detail, and with great distinction within his community. He is responsible for this abuse of meaning.

Update: minor edits to produce something resembling grammar in a few sentences.

Image: Yorkminster spire. This file is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.

Friday Science and Religion Kaffeeklatch: Albert Einstein edition

June 6, 2008

Cross posted at Cosmic Variance — which allows me to repeat my thanks to that erudite and friendly community, and to the generous host who invited me in, Sean Carroll.

I’m a bit late to this particular party, but I hear that there was a bit of a media and blog hullabaloo about a letter by Albert Einstein that was auctioned last month for 170,000 pounds. That doubles the previous record for an Einstein letter, and at least part of the reason for its record price seems to have been its content — what seemed to some a startlingly blunt assessment of religion in general. He wrote:

“The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.”

To get down to cases close to home:

“For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.”

To be sure, he acknowledged, he was happy to identify himself as one of “the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity…” But clearly belonging to a community did not make him blind, deaf or dumb.

The reason I ignored this at first is that after fifteen years in the Einstein game I’m pretty tired of WWED appeals to authority, all that pouring through the great man’s quotations to find something to support whatever view one may have had in the first place.

The reason I’m picking it up now is that the letter raises a question that allows us with only a little leap of the imagination to begin to gather the intense pressure of the experience of being Jewish in Europe in the first few decades of the last century – especially if you were smart, prominent, public.

Just to get it out of the way: there is nothing surprising about this letter. Just five years earlier Einstein wrote that, when he was young he had experienced a bout of real piety, until:

“Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking, coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies.”

That revelation remained with him throughout his life, and he never made a secret of it. He refused to claim a religious affiliation in the papers he filed with the Austro-Hungarian government to take up a professorship in Prague. Told he had to claim something, he declared he was of the “Mosaic” faith – a construction that conveyed his disdain for the whole notion pretty well, IMHO.

And so it went. In 1915, he told one correspondent that, “I see with great dismay that God punishes so many of His children for their ample folly, for which obviously only He himself can be held responsible,” …. “Only His nonexistence can excuse him.”

Those who followed this malign, non-existent deity were fools. When he visited Palestine in 1921, Einstein was much impressed by the sight of Jews constructing cities and a way of life out of raw dirt and effort. But the sight of traditional Jews praying at the Wailing Wall seemed to him the “dull-witted clansmen of our tribe.” They made such spectacles of themselves, “praying aloud, their faces turned to the wall, their bodies swaying to and fro,” that to Einstein, it was “a pathetic sight of men with a past but without a present.”

That’s enough: the point is that Einstein made it clear in public, and even more so in private communications that have been in the public record for decades now, that revealed religion in general and orthodox Judaism in particular had no hold on him at all. When he used the term God, it was mostly just an off-hand short-hand: “God does not play dice” was another way of saying, as he did in the EPR paper, that “no reasonable definition of reality could be expected to permit” the excesses of modern quantum theory.

But all this begs the question why Einstein bothered to claim Jewishness, if Judaism itself as a practice and a body of belief had no hold on him.

Einstein himself gave two answers. The first was he saw in Judaism a framework and a fair amount of thought about how to live ethically with others. His take on the tradition pulled out of Judaism “the democratic ideal of social justice, coupled with the ideal of mutual aid and tolerance among all men” and a passion for “every form of intellectual aspiration and spiritual effort.” This is religion as heuristic – and specifically, Judaism as a sustained body of inquiry into certain problems that interested him.

The second, of course, was that he had no choice. Whatever he may have believed, others defined him: “When I came to Germany,” he wrote some years later as part of an explanation for his conversion to Zionism, “I discovered for the first time that I was a Jew, and I owe this discovery more to Gentiles than to Jews.”

It was more than the casual anti-Semitism that he experienced or perceived, dating back to his failure to get an academic job after finishing his college degree. Rather, Einstein’s strong identification not just as a person of Jewish background, but as a highly public member of both the Berlin Jewish community and the nationalist Zionist movement, is one measure of just how rapidly the nature of German anti-Semitism changed in the immediate aftermath of defeat in World War I.

I go into this at some length in this tome – from which most of the above comes, in one form or another. See chapter ten if you’re interested. In this venue, I want to make just two points abstracted out of that much longer story.

First: as I suggested at the beginning of the post, any Captain Reynault response to this latest “revelation” of Einstein’s disdain for traditional faith is misplaced. Rather, it is just one more demonstration of the foolishness of the argument from authority for pretty much anything.

Second: the fact of Einstein’s Jewishness in the context of his blunt rejection of traditional Judaism offers one more reminder of contingency of the practice of science.

You can see that in this last anecdote:

On August 24, 1920 the Arbeitgemeinshaft deutcher Naturforsher zur Erhaltung reiner Wissenshaft — the Working Group of German Scientists for the Preservation of Pure Science — held a public meeting to denounce Einstein’s new physics. Nobel laureate Philip Lenard soon made the reason for such doubt explicitly, denouncing of “the alien spirit…which is so clearly seen in anything that relates to the ‘relativity theory.’”

Lenard could not make good on the (barely) implied threat then, but he (and others) did in 1933. Of course, nothing then or later could alter the significance of relativity; but German science suffered enormously, even if that abstraction “science” did not.

I don’t think, of course, that any such bald “it makes me feel bad so this science must be wrong” claims could have much pull these days.

Except of course, they do.

I began by chiding the What Would Einstein Do cult that invokes the great man in lieu of argument. But that doesn’t mean you can’t look at what Einstein did.

His resolute self-identification as Jew emerged out of his reaction to the anti-Semitism he witnessed directly. The expression of that viciousness included a direct demand to reject reason: physics could be rendered invalid by the origins of its discoverer. Einstein would therefore discover in Jewish tradition a defense of reason, and in his Jewishness he laid claim to a complementary style of thought to that of the fundamental physics he investigated.

Despite the snark above about contemporary battles, matters are different now. For me, the real value of the letter sold for such a ridiculous sum is that it reminds me of both the malevolent nearness in historical time, and (I hope, as well as think) the genuine distance we have moved from the time and place in which a public meeting could convene to denounce the religion/ethnicity of a few pages of mathematical physics.

That is: It’s not the God stuff in that letter that should catch your eye, that is, but the history to be plumbed in that little phrase, “with whose mentality I have a deep affinity.”

With that – I’m out of here.

Again, my thanks to all who read this here and at Cosmic Variance, even more to those who commented, and most of all to Sean Carroll physicist and public intellectual extraordinaire.

Image: Portrait of Einstein painted by Harm Kamerlingh Onnes, (nephew of Heike Kamerlingh Onnes), Wiki. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Pigs Fly Today…

May 1, 2008

That is to say…I never in my wildest dreams thought I would link approvingly to John Derbyshire and The Corner (online stuff from Bill Buckley’s old shop, for those who don’t have the pleasure of dipping into the right-wing blogosphere).

But, man, is Derbyshire right about this.  He slams Ben Stein for asserting that science caused the holocaust, while reaching this conclusion:

Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place, and science leads you to killing people.

Such oleaginous piety while channeling tropes from the Protocols is grotesque.  Fortunately Derbyshire calls him on his anti-science stupidity with one of the greatest Enlightenment quotes I never knew till now:

I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of resuming it. Nor can I embark in search of the savages of Canada, because the maladies to which I am condemned render a European surgeon necessary to me; because war is going on in those regions; and because the example of our actions has made the savages nearly as bad as ourselves.

(Voltaire to Rousseau on reading the latter’s The Social Contract.)

The most interesting  part of Derbyshire’s comment is the hint of dawning realization that the anti-science nonsense for which he indicts Stein is in fact a deeply woven thread within modern American conservative politics.  The fact that it has evoked the kind of morally bankrupt holocaust denialism of Stein’s current ravings has woken Derbyshire up; will it be enough to lead to a broader break with the dangerous anti-rational strain in the broader movement to which he has long pledged allegiance?

(h/t Andrew Sullivan)

Note:  Stein’s attack on science is ad hominem as well as vicious and a profoundly stupid libel.  Pharyngula’s PZ Myers seems to have gotten under his skin.  Perhaps I might channel Isaac Newton’s precisely calibrated insult when I suggest to Mr. Stein that if Myers and others see reality more clearly than he does, it is because they stand on the shoulders of giants.

Image:  Hans Holbein, “Danse Macabre XLV:  The Idiot Fool,” 1538.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday blogging: On the Nature of Things — Philip Pullman edition

April 6, 2008

So I’m late to the Pullman party. I only picked up The Golden Compass after the publicity surrounding the movie — which makes me a full ten years tardy, in fact.

But read that book I did, and then, following a course plenty of folks have travelled before me, devoured the next two books in the trilogy as fast as I could.

The best thing about the book is that Pullman’s argument about the horror of dogma self-perpetuating by force runs through just about every plot event, but almost always does not displace the glories of the work: its realization of a marvelously realized alternate world and a human story told through the lives and actions of recognizable individuals.

There is a polemic reading of the trilogy, that is, but the characters are human, not types. (Mostly human, of course. Iorek is one of the most astoundingly complete characters I’ve found in fiction for a long time, to name one among many.) Pullman’s argument against revealed religion works, in fact, because it plays on the emotions brought into play only when you care about the individual lives and deaths he has made so imaginatively real.

But a bit of pop criticism of a book that I imagine most readers of this blog found long before I did is not why this post comes into existence. Instead, I want here to bring to the surface the root of perhaps the most powerful and beautiful passage in the entire trilogy — the moment (spoiler alert) in Book Three, The Amber Spyglass when Lyra tells the multitudes of the dead what will happen if they follow her and Will back up to the world of the living.

This entire episode is infused with classical sources; the tale of living men or women descending to the underworld to seek insight or to beg favors of the dead is one that originates deep in our past, and recurs again and again in the great literary investigations of human experience. Think of Hercules seeking Persephone, or Oddyseus in pursuit of knowledge…and then Dante, accompanied by Virgil examining the taxonomy of sin and human vanity in the greatest of all such stories (IMHO, of course).

Pullman’s version speaks to that tradition, locating the center of its terror in the direct confrontation between his heroes and their own deaths.

But then, in a brief set-piece, Pullman makes the single most direct and powerful claim of the whole work for his secular vision of transcendence in death. It is the necessary affirmative statement to balance his negative argument about the anti-human qualities of revealed religions. Lyra and Will have offered to lead the dead out of the grim, hellish experience of sense-less eternity. The dead ask what will happen, and Lyra tells them this:

She took out the golden instrument. The answer came at once. She put it away and stood up.

“This is what’ll happen,” she said, “and it’s true, perfectly true. When you go out of here, all the aprticles that make you up will loosen and float apaqrt, just like your daemons did. If you’ve seen people dying, you know what that look like. But your daemons en’t just nothing now; they’re part of everything. All the atoms taht were them, they’ve gone into the air and the wind and the trees and the earth and all the living things. They’ll never vanish. theyre just part of everything. And that’s exactly what’ll happen to you, I swear to you. I promise on my honor. You’ll drift apart, it’s true. But you’ll be out in the open, part of everything alive again.”

And then there is this, as glossed by me in an earlier book of my own:

“For that which once came from earth to earth returns back again…Nor does death so destroy as to annihilate the bodies of matter, but it disperses their combination abroad, and then conjoins others with others…” But though atoms traipse through an eternal dance, coming together and falling apart, the human soul did not. Lucretius wrote, “Even if time shall gather together our matter after death and bring it back again as it is now placed, and if once more the light of life shall be given to us, yet it would not matter to us that even this had been done, when the recollection of ourselves has once been broken asunder, and to us now, no memory, no anguish remains from those who we were before.” Therefore, Lucretius concluded: “We may be sure that there is nothing to be feared after death”–for both sensation and memory are lost forever. Life is lived once, now, and that is all.

Lucretius wrote that in what I think is the greatest poem of science, Of The Nature of Things, written before 50 BCE (i.e. in the last decades of the Roman Republic).

Thus one of the foundational ideas of humanism:

This world matters; this time in which I write and you read is all in all. Our atoms may be eternal (though modern physics would say protons, whose claim on eternity has a current lower bound of 10 to the thirty fifth years) but our consciousness is not.

This is exactly the argument that runs all the way through Pullman’s trilogy. One chance means one chance to get it right. (Contrast this with the morally repugnant claim that commitment to a revealed religion is an essential precondition for leading a moral life. Scroll down to Sharon Soon’s quotes if you have a strong stomach.)

Back to Pullman. This moment comes and goes quickly in the rush of action at the end of the trilogy. After all, Pullman is writing a inversion of the battle for command of heaven and earth that typically ends with the triumph of God and the banishment of the dissident angels. There’s quite a campaign to manage, and the detour to the underworld is here, as in most epics, a subplot, a moment to pause the action, and perhaps (as here) to stand on the soap box for a while.

But this passage contains more than a skeptics credo. Instead, it is essential, I think, to the idea that Pullman wants to leave at and after his long work’s end.

As the trilogy closes, it seems, rather oddly given all the tumult of the last thousand pages or so, that everything returns to normal.Lyra in her world finds that the Church is still there, powerfully contending for allegiance and belief. It is, we are told, somewhat changed, a little less inclined towards the total intellectual dictatorship that threatened at the beginning of the book. The warring factions within and outside the church remain. Life continues.

Lucretius lived more than two millenia ago. It remains something of a mystery how his great poem survived most of those years, given the hostility of this world’s Church to his uncompromised materialism, his denial of the immortality of the individual soul.

This is an old argument, that is, one which, despite the advance of the most successful materialist program of discovery in history — the scientific revolution which began to take on its modern form just a few centuries ago.

There are communities within the science blogosphere that rage against this fact of life, this eternal return of the same battles. (See, e.g., almost any comment thread at Pharyngula.)

I’m not saying they shouldn’t. But I am saying that Pullman got it.

He explicitly presented the titanic struggle of His Dark Materials as but one campaign in a more or less endless war — not so much one between reason and folly (h/t Erasmus) as between the claims of this world vs. those of a notional next. His use of the language, imagery, even the elegance of Lucretius reinforces the point. The Greeks fought about this (as did the Jews, in an interesting way to be blogged another time.) The Romans did. Christian believers have, on both sides of the trenches. We do too. It’s better — more relaxing, certainly, and probably more conducive to tactical clarity — to take the long view. Or so, at least, I read Philip Pullman.

Image:  Luca Signorelli, “The Damned,” 1499-1505. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.