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Books, books, books! From Null!

10 June 2014 - 08:12 PM

Ten books from Null, while I was in Southern Cal. Here are brief reviews of the first five I am reading/have read:

The first of the book stash that I read was Philosophy of Biology, a compendium of essays edited by Michael Ruse. Predictably, given the editor, who likes "balance," it's a bit of a mixed bag, with great excerpts from Aristotle and Darwin among others, but other stuff that was not so great, at least not to me.

The final section of the book, God and Biology, was a train wreck IMO. It had only three pieces, the first being The Book of Genesis. :faint: Er, that's not God and biology, it's God and abiogenesis, and of course it's also mythology. Nothing wrong with that, but if you're going to stick Genesis in there, how about giving it its own section along with four or five other creations myths?

The next piece was by someone named Joe Cain whose credentials are never listed (apparently the books has no "about the authors" section) At first it was quite good, a detailed account of the Scopes trial that included facts I never knew. But from this retelling of the trial the author goes on to draw conclusions about the drawn-out culture wars, suggesting among others that "Nietzsche the militarist" :wtf: is to blame for these wars, and concluding the essay by asserting that many scientists don't want to mend the cultural rift between their evolutionary science and cultural Christianity. This presupposes of course that the rift can be mended, short of abdicating science.

The final essay is by the Christian theologian John Haught, who not only accepts evolutionary theory but positively revels in it; evolution is not just acceptable under Christianity, he asserts, but is actually entailed by it. Why? It's an example of God's never-ending creativity. Unfortunately, Haught, while he alludes to the pain and suffering among living things, the daily bloodbath that takes place as living things eat other living things, and the fact that 99 percent of species that have ever existed have gone extinct, he never returns to these sad facts to explain how they are consistent with a morally perfect God.

Perhaps Haught is to be commended for trying to reconcile Christianity with evolution, but I think all he really demonstrates is that Christianity, by prodigious contortions and rationalizations, can be made to "fit," at least somewhat, with any version of reality; yet it remains true that the depredations of the natural world are fully consistent with the assumption of metaphysical naturalism, yet need to be rationalized and explained away, accounted for, under the assumption of Christian mythology. That's one of many reasons that one should go with naturalism.

The second book is a collection of stories by the Soviet-era renegade writer Mikhail Zoshchenko, and they are all very funny (the Soviet authorities were not amused, however; although at least unlike the unfortunate Daniil Kharms, Zoshchenko did not starve to death in an insane asylum in Leningrad during the siege of Leningrad by the Nazis.) One of the best stories lampoons Soviet-era housing shortages. A man newly arrives in Moscow and finds the only place to rent is somebody's bathroom.  So he does. "Now I'm living," he says, and gets married and raises a family in the bathroom. Finally, though, his wive's relatives insist on visiting, and presumably perhaps even moving in with them, and that's when the protagonist flees his bathroom apartment and Moscow altogether, though later he wires his family money. :-D

The next book from the cache that I read was the 1957 David Wright translation of Beowulf. The author deliberately removes all the poetry from the book, making the poem entirely prose, even at times flat journalistic prose, and in a translator's note tries to justify this strategy, but I don't think his justifications have merit. You need the poetry in there. You can't simply translate the lovely "the whale's road" as "the sea." It isn't' right, damn it. But Null has mentioned a better translation that can be found online, which retains both the sense of the story and a good poetical translation, so I plan to look that up.

The next book up in the cache is Star of India, about the history of an iron-rigged sailing ship built and set to sea in 1863. I haven't quite finished it, but the point of interest is that this ship, wholly intact, is moored in San Diego's maritime museum, and Null, I and the others toured it.

Now I'm reading, from the Null cache, Memory of Fire: Genesis, by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, and it's a revelation. The first book in a trilogy, it is an attempt to "rescue the kidnapped memory of all America." It begins with the creation myths of the indigenous Americans, before the arrival of Columbus et al, and they are splendid. The myths involve not just the creation of the world as a whole, but of everything in it: people, animals, the sun, the moon, the wind, laughter, fear, power, love, even potatoes. Here is how the potato came to be:


A chief of Chiloe Island, a place populated by sea gulls, wanted to make love like the gods.

When pairs of gods embraced, the earth shook and tidal waves were set moving. That much was known, but no one had seen them.

Anxious to surprise them, the chief swam out to the forbidden isle. All he got to see was a giant lizard, with its mouth wide open and full of foam and an outsized tongue that gave off fire at the tip.

The gods buried the indiscreet chief in the ground and condemned him to be eaten by the others. As punishment for his curiosity, they covered his body with blind eyes.


All the other myths are just as crazily inventive as this one -- they make the Hebrew and Greek myths look pretty lame by comparison. As to be expected, there are some myths that overlap with Judeo/Christian/Greek mythology -- there is a flood story, and a world-creation story stretching 11 days rather than the seven of the bible -- but there are others that have no analogue that I know of in ancient European/Mideast mythology.

One is an unresurrection story. On this account, long ago, every person who died was resurrected on the fifth day after death, and greeted with a huge party. This was a problem, though, because the resurrected dead were competing with the living for food.

Then one guy who was kind of a slacker died, and five days later the community prepared a huge feast, awaiting his return. But he didn't return until the sixth day, and all the food had grown cold. His wife yelled at him: "You good-for-nothing! Always the same good-for-nothing! All the dead are punctual, except you!"

Then his wife threw a corncob at his head and he died again, and his soul fled his body, a buzzing insect. And ever since that time, the dead have never again been resurrected. :)

The opening chapter on the indigenous myths closes with a grim premonition of the arrival of the White Man, those who wear clothes: Men wearing clothes shall come, dominate, and kill. (Italics in the myth)

Waterdrinker, priest of the Sioux, predicts that "the men who wear clothes" will weave a huge spiderweb around the world: When this happens, you shall live in square gray houses, in a barren land, and beside those square gray houses you shall starve.

Indeed that all came to pass, and now the White Man is finishing his job of weaving a spiderweb of heat-trapping greenhouse gases all around the world, and the whole world shall become a barren and starved thing, dead under the sun. Nice work, White Man!

The next section, which I've just begun, opens with Columbus arriving in America. The first thing he wants to know is where the indigenous people wearing gold in their noses got the gold. The author writes of the indigenous people's first encounter with Columbus and his men:


From today, everything belongs to those remote monarchs: the coral sea, the beaches, the rocks  all green with moss, the woods, the parrots and these laurel-skinned people who don't yet know about clothes, sin, or money and gaze dazedly at the scene.

Dave's Judo website

29 May 2014 - 05:39 PM

Dave, post a link to the current site and I'll tell you how to fix the design.


28 May 2014 - 03:46 PM

Reading the idiomatic English prose translation of Beowulf,  one of some ten books that Null gifted me with when I was in California. (He is owed books big time!) Here is Wright's opening:

HEAR! We know of the bygone glory of the Danish kings, and the heroic exploits of those princes. Scyld Scefing, in the face of hostile armies, used often to bring nations into subjection, and strike terror in the hearts of their leaders. In the beginning he had been picked up as a castaway; but he afterwards found consolation for this misfortune. For his power and fame increased until each of his overseas neighbours was forced to submit and pay him tribute. He was an excellent king.
And here is the translation of the opening by Leslie Hall, at Gutenberg:

Lo! the Spear-Danes’ glory through splendid achievements
The folk-kings’ former fame we have heard of,
How princes displayed then their prowess-in-battle.
Oft Scyld the Scefing from scathers in numbers
From many a people their mead-benches tore.
Since first he found him friendless and wretched,
The earl had had terror: comfort he got for it,
Waxed ’neath the welkin, world-honor gained,
Till all his neighbors o’er sea were compelled to
Bow to his bidding and bring him their tribute:
An excellent atheling!

Granted the second, poetical translation is more obscure, but the translator also includes side notes to aid comprehension.  The second translation is musical to my ear; and I can let comprehension suffer a little. Wright begins his work with a note on his translation. He argues against lines like this: "The twisted-prow sailed over the whale's road," preferring instead the straightforward: "A ship sailed over the sea."  He also objects to "blade-hate" for "blood feud." In short, Wright rejects attempting to translate the original's kennings (compounds) and also rejects trying to draw out the alliteration of the original. Another poeticism for the sea, "swan's way," is also rejected. It's just the sea, the sea, the sea.

I think Wright is mistaken in this and while I am enjoying the content of his translation of the narrative, I think he has ransacked it of all poetry and music. Any thoughts?

Wet Bulb 35°C

08 February 2014 - 06:57 PM

This Means Extinction

Long, recent and well-supported with links to science and studies. Conclusion:


There is quite a bit more that could be said, but in brief, it does little good to tell it like it is. The world would much rather be told something else altogether, such as “it’s not happening”, “the evidence is fabricated”, “the planet is cooling”, “we don’t have to worry” or some other such nonsense.

The truth is we are in extremely serious trouble as an entire species, and so is everything else on the planet. Almost nobody seems to understand how incredibly difficult survival will be under these temperatures or whether or not if it will be even possible.

For most species, the answer is “Not possible”. Extinction is already a certainty. For the remaining species, including humans, we will suffer terribly as we attempt to find enough food and water, events which are happening NOW in 2013 and will only worsen in the years ahead.

The reality is, we may very well not survive this at all. Most projections have proven to be hopelessly optimistic, with some truly catastrophic oversights, and even the ‘worst case scenarios’ being found to be far too optimistic.

Incidentally, with the caveat that one must consider the source (“Darwin Was Wrong!”) the New Scientist published a map back in 2009 of what the world might look like a mere 4 degrees centigrade warmer, a figure we are well on track to bust way past, as the linked article explains. Note that only the green areas are habitable. As for the magazine’s projection of vast solar arrays in the majority of the world that is uninhabitable, along with nuclear power, hydrothermal power and   densely packed high-rise cities in the few livable regions left on the globe, I think we can safely say that such an idea is insane. Were the map’s outcome to occur, it is pretty much a dead certainty that what few humans who remained would be hunter gatherers again, or perhaps subsistence farmers. Also note that other studies contradict the “green” scenario for Siberia, suggesting instead that the whole melted region will be transformed into an uninhabitable peat bog giving off vast amounts of methane that is far more heat-trapping than carbon. Anyway, here is the map:

Posted Image

"Rationalism [sic] vs. Superstition"

08 February 2014 - 12:08 AM

In their debate, Bill Nye cleaned Ken Ham’s clock, but this is like saying that Muhammad Ali beat an 8-year-old in a boxing match: true, but nothing to write home about. After the debate, even Pat Robertson (!) begged Ham to shut up and quit making Christians look like idiots.

More interesting than the debate is the aftermath of discussions among themselves by scientists and atheists. A tempest has arisen over a blog post by Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, who denied that evolution and religion per se are irreconcilable. He has been derided as an “accommodationist” by Jerry Coyne (biologist), Jason Rosenhouse (mathematician) and Larry Moran (biochemist) at their blogs.

Coyne is particularly insistent on the point that evolution and religious belief per se are in absolute conflict, and Moran maintains that the real conflict is not between evolution and religion, but between rationalism and superstition. Of course, if Moran knew a little philosophy, which I’m afraid he apparently doesn’t (boasting of never having read Aristotle or Aquinas), he’d know that rationalism is in opposition to empiricism, but I take the point that what he really means is something like rationality and not rationalism. This may seem a small quibble, but a lot of scientists really do sometimes make foolish statements because they don’t know much philosophy or are outright dismissive of it (“Philosophy is dead,” Steven Hawking states on the first page of a book that turns out to be a work of his own peculiar philosophy.)

The debate and the subsequent brouhaha over Plait’s blog post raise a number of interesting and interlocking issues. Coyne et al feel that evolution disproves God because evolution has no teleos: man is an accident and if, as Gould famously stated, you were to rewind the tape of history and play it over again, you’d get entirely different evolutionary outcomes and the chance of humans evolving would be close to zero.

Interestingly, however, Coyne is a hard determinist. He believes, for instance, that humans lack moral responsibility. From reading what he has written, I conclude that he rejects both libertarian free will and compatibilist free will.

It seems to me that Coyne contradicts himself to some extent. He wants to say that man is an evolutionary accident, thereby ruling out a God-inspired teleos,  but at the same time he is a hard determinist. But if hard determinism is true, man is not an accident: he is a domino naturally falling after a long chain of dominoes falling in precise order as determined by initial conditions. I would have to assume that Coyne disagrees with Gould: if you rewound the tape of life back to the same initial conditions, the dominoes would fall in the same way and you’d rerun all of history exactly, getting humans in the process. Granted this is not a teleos in the sense that God or some other agent intended man to occur, but since under hard determinism you’ve got to assume that there can be only one history as determined by initial conditions, then Coyne can’t logically flay theists with the contingency of human evolution when his own hard determinism means that man’s evolution was not contingent, but determined invariably by initial conditions in the universe.

Stranger still, Coyne has no reason to plump for hard determinism given quantum indeterminism, which is observed and is directly at variance with hard determinism. These issues of hard determinism v. quantum indeterminism, and the inconsistency of plumping for hard determinism while insisting on the contingent evolution of humans, are interesting in their own right, and deserving perhaps of separate discussion. The important point for now, as I see it, is that scientists like Coyne also display a certain degree of intellectual confusion when they step outside their own areas of expertise, and therefore I think their philosophical (and theological) speculations and pronouncements ought to be taken at least with a grain of salt, if not with a metric ton of it.

Coyne and the others contend that given the fact of evolution (and it is a fact), the theist is left with three options:  reject evolution outright (Ken Ham) or subscribe either to intelligent design (the “IDiot” approach, as Moran calls it) or theistic evolution (“Creatinism,” as Moran styles it). ID and theistic evolution are subtly different, though there may be some overlap between them. The problem for both is that there is no evidence for either, and the problem with rejecting evolution entirely is that evolution is a fact.  So if Coyne and the others are right, and the theist has only these three options to pick from, then they are checkmated. But is it true that these are the only options for the theist?

It is not true. In fact, an entailment of the properties historically assigned to the Christian God can reconcile evolution with Christianity, without recourse to YEC, ID or theistic evolution.

The Christian God is held to be omnipotent and omniscient. If he’s omnipotent, he can create any world he wants. If he’s also omniscient, he knows exactly how the world will go, even before he makes it. But he knows more than that: he knows all counterfactual histories, the way each world would go, should he choose to make one of those worlds.

Given some set of, say, 100 possible worlds, each with a different history, it may be a fact that humans would contingently evolve in only one of those worlds, and fail to contingently evolve in the other 99 possible worlds. On the assumption that God is interested in humans evolving, he can choose to create the one world out of 100 in which they do, in fact, contingently evolve. In this way, using the powers traditionally ascribed to the Christian God, God can bring about humans thorough a process of undirected evolution by the mere act of creation. On this reading there is no need for YEC, ID or theistic evolution, in which God intervenes in the process as it goes. In fact, if the attributes traditionally ascribed by Christians to God are true, then things must be this way.  God must be able to know all counterfactual worlds perfectly, and pick, with perfect unerring precision, that world which – contingently – brings about humans via evolution.

Now one may object that human evolution on this reading isn’t really contingent. But surely it is, from within the system itself (the history that we observe). Besides, metaphysically, this is no different from Jerry Coyne’s hard determinism. Under Coynism, evolution isn’t really contingent either, but a set of unerringly falling dominoes ineluctably leading to one and only one possible conclusion from a set of initial conditions. After all, if Jerry Coyne believes that the crimes of Charlie Manson were determined by the initial conditions of the universe, he can’t very well maintain that humans could have failed to evolve! The only difference between theism and Coynism on this reading is that the metaphysical starting point for the theist is God and the metaphysical starting point for the Coyne naturalist is the initial conditions.

But if Christians are serious about God being both omniscient and omnipotent, they can now fully accept evolution without IDism or theistic intervention. Both the theist and the naturalist can agree about the observed facts on the ground. They can agree that evolution occurs. And they can agree that the theory of evolution is the best theory we have to describe the fact of evolution. The only place they would differ is on the nature of the metaphysical starting point: God vs. initial conditions. But who cares? This would be an entirely metaphysical and not a scientific dispute. In this way committed Christian theists can join scientists in doing good work on the fact and theory of evolution without being forced to abandon or modify their God belief and without introducing absurdities like IDism or theistic evolutionism.

A huge caveat for the theist is that this reading of God’s omniscient and omnipotent creative act renders the Problem of Evil intractable. But that’s true regardless of what story you tell. The Christian needs a different story to explicate why God is responsible for all evil, which he is. The Christian can’t on pain of logical inconsistency deny that God is the source of evil while maintaining that he is  the source of everything else. But after all, God says in the Bible that he is the source of evil!