This book, published in 1961, is usually quoted as the founding document of modern Young Earth Creationism. Given my current interest in the relationsThis book, published in 1961, is usually quoted as the founding document of modern Young Earth Creationism. Given my current interest in the relationship between science and religion, I felt duty-bound to read it.
Some negative reviewers call The Genesis Flood a collection of lies, but I don't think that's really accurate. To me, it is a better fit to the philosopher Harry Frankfurt's famous definition of bullshit, as presented in his 1986 essay. Bullshit, argues Frankfurt, often consists of lies, but need not do so. It is rather characterized by the habit of using language without caring whether it has any connection to truth. In many ways, as Frankfurt points out, this is worse than lying, since it attacks the very foundations of what constitutes meaningful communication.
The authors, Whitcomb and Morris, spend 550 pages bullshitting -- I am using this phrase in Frankfurt's precise technical sense -- about the ridiculous thesis that the Earth, contrary to all evidence, is only 10,000 years old; they claim, moreover, that it was ravaged about 5,000 years ago by a worldwide flood which destroyed all non-marine life except eight people (Noah and his immediate family) and the animals they brought with them on the Ark. Their primary source, as the title indicates, is the Book of Genesis, which they argue is literally true in all respects.
As already noted, bullshitting is not lying, and feel I need to demonstrate my impartiality by pointing out several places where W&M have got it right. They give a reasonable historical overview of the reception that the myth of the Flood has received from geologists, concentrating on the period between 1600 and 1900 when the balance of informed opinion shifted, in a series of steps, from literal acceptance of Genesis to extreme skepticism and relegation to fringe/crank status. As they are honest enough to admit, the main objections are simple. It is obviously possible to justify the story of Creation and the Flood if one is prepared to hypothesize enough miracles; but a great many miracles are required, and the narrative is implausible. It is above all difficult to square the contradictions between Scriptual and scientific evidence with the Christian belief that God is Truth. As Newton said, the Book of Nature, even more than the Bible, is God's Word. Why should God, in effect, lie to His people? It seems completely out of character; Jehovah is no Loki. The authors deny all these charges (flat-out denial is one of their favored rhetorical tropes), but they are unconvincing.
While I'm bending over backwards to demonstrate fairness, it's also interesting to see that W&M manage, more or less, to call it right on some scientific questions. They spend many pages discussing the movement of rock strata, and correctly argue that the geological processes regarded as mainstream in 1961 could not adequately explain the huge forces required to cause the observed shifts. Within another few years, most geologists were ready to concede this point, and plate tectonics emerged as the new paradigm; but that was still in the future. Similarly, W&M are right in arguing that the extinction of the dinosaurs has all the hallmarks of a catastrophic event rather than a gradual decline. Again, the discovery of the Chicxulub meteorite crater came later, and surprised many experts.
These lucky hits are, unfortunately, more than counterbalanced by some of the most absurd pseudo-scientific nonsense I have ever seen. I will look at three of the more flagrant and central claims. First, there is the question of where the waters of the Flood came from. W&M, citing a Biblical verse about "the canopy of the waters", claim that most of the water was present in the antediluvian atmosphere, in the form of a vast quantity of water vapour. There are so many things wrong with this that I hardly know where to start, but one obvious observation is that it would have made atmospheric pressure equivalent to that at the bottom of the ocean. Even though that ocean is in gaseous form, you're still under it.
Second, there is the sequence of fossil strata, where fossils from earlier periods are found under those from later ones. W&M deny that the strata were accumulated over the course of hundreds of millions of years, but claim instead that they were formed during the single year of the Flood; the fossilized creatures normally ascribed to later periods end up at the top because they were better able to look after themselves and survived longest. Again, one hardly knows where to start, but a) there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that strata can be formed at this kind of rate, indeed even a thousand times more slowly, b) the unimaginable violence of the Flood scenario seems impossible to square with the very well preserved state of many fossils, c) if the apparently more highly evolved creatures are in the top strata because they were best able to reach high ground, we would only find those fossils in a few places corresponding to antediluvian mountain peaks, and d) the explanation makes no sense for plants and other non-mobile life-forms.
Third, we have the evidence from radioisotope dating, which, as W&M point out, gives an age for the Earth measured in billions of years instead of thousands. Their answer here is so confused that I have trouble summarizing it. If I understand correctly, they say both a) that God initially created the Earth with isotope ratios apparently indicating a much greater age, and b) that the rate of decay of the radioactive elements may have been greatly accelerated during the Flood due to the presence of high levels of cosmic radiation. (a) is of course perfectly reasonable, except that similar arguments can just as easily be deployed, as Russell once pointed out, to claim that the whole Earth was created five minutes ago. (b), if it is feasible at all, would have led to Noah and his family at best dying of radiation burns in a few hours, and more likely being vapourised on the spot. Incidentally, the unusually detailed exposition in this part shows that W&M do not have the faintest idea of how radioactive decomposition works, even to the extent of not understanding the concept of a half-life.
In general, W&M reject the ability of science to pronounce on events in the past, and deploy the technique of aggressive quote-mining that has now become standard in denialist literature: they consistently look for disagreements in published papers, and suggest that, because science is uncertain about some aspect of a question, it has no understanding of it whatsoever. The most flagrant examples are in the ascription of dates. One scientist writes that our dating of a geological event is "very uncertain", by which they perhaps mean that it is not known to an accuracy of more than 20%; W&M quote this as supporting their claim that the date in question could be a hundred thousand times closer to the present than the mainstream estimate. I find this style of reasoning utterly immoral. Science thrives on freedom; it makes progress by allowing researchers to advance bold and novel hypotheses, debate them openly, and reject the ones which turn out to be mistaken. W&M remind me of totalitarian regimes which see freedom and interpret it as weakness. It is extremely regrettable that repeated attacks from creationists have made some scientists feel that they need to adopt a common line, so that internal disagreements cannot be used against them.
To conclude, this is one of the most distasteful pieces of writing I have ever come across. You may want to read it, as I did, on Don Corleone's principle of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer, and in fact I encourage you to do so. But I'm letting you know now that you will be angry, revolted, and, above all, bored senseless. Consider yourself warned. ________________________________
I am glad to see that people found this interesting! I feel repaid for the pain I have suffered :)
I should add that the review owes a considerable debt to Pigliucci and Boudry's fine collection, Philosophy of Pseudoscience. In particular, I only read The Genesis Flood because it is referred to several times there, and my comparison with Frankfurt's analysis of "bullshit" borrows from James Ladyman's Towards a Demarcation of Science from Pseudoscience. ...more
This poem, written around 1592, is startlingly naughty. An extract (you can find the whole thing here):
What shall I doe to shewe myself a man? It will
This poem, written around 1592, is startlingly naughty. An extract (you can find the whole thing here):
What shall I doe to shewe myself a man? It will not be for ought that beawtie can. I kisse, I clap, I feele, I view at will, Yett dead he lyes not thinking good or ill. Vnhappie me, quoth shee, and wilt' not stand? Com, lett me rubb and chafe it with my hand. Perhaps the sillie worme is labour'd sore, And wearied that it can doe no more. If it be so (as I am greate a-dread) I wish tenne thousand times, that I were dead. How ere it is; no meanes shall want in me, That maie auaile to his recouerie. Which saide, she tooke and rould it on hir thigh, And when she lookt' on't, she would weepe and sighe, And dandled it, and dance't it up and doune, Not ceasing, till she rais'd it from his swoune. And then he flue on hir as he were wood And on her breeche did thack, and foyne a-good
I've finished volume one and now I'm dying to find out what happens next. Talk about a cliffhanger ending! __________________________________
I must conI've finished volume one and now I'm dying to find out what happens next. Talk about a cliffhanger ending! __________________________________
I must confess that I didn't enjoy the second volume quite as much as the first, but that mainly shows how high the bar was; this is still the best introduction to quantum mechanics I have ever seen, and if you have some mathematical background (linear algebra, calculus) I can't recommend it too highly. It requires some effort to read, but it's definitely worth it.
The overall plan is extremely well thought out. Most books on quantum mechanics start off by introducing the quantum versions of position and momentum, so that they can get to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle as quickly as possible. After reading Susskind and Friedman, I am sure this is a mistake. The problem is that we know what position and momentum mean in classical physics, so it's impossible to read about their quantum analogs without thinking that they're basically the same thing. They aren't: quantum mechanics is much weirder and much more interesting, but you don't immediately notice.
Instead of taking this tired old road, Susskind chooses a completely different starting-point, the concept of spin. Spin is a truly quantum mechanical concept, which is so different from classical angular momentum that there is no possibility of confusing them. If you've read any quantum mechanics at all, you'll know that spin can be either "up" or "down". But how can this make sense, when you stop and think about it? Surely we need three independent directions, corresponding to the x, y and z axes, rather than two directions which, to make things even more counter-intuitive, are oriented along the same axis?
But it does make sense. We start by considering a device that measures an electron's spin. We orient it vertically, and it only ever gives two possible readings: +1, or "up", and -1, or "down". Now we rotate it 90 degrees, so that the two readings instead mean "left" and "right". If the electron was previously in the "up" state, a naive guess might be that we'll now get a zero reading. Wrong! There is no zero reading; we'll get "left" or "right" with equal probability; so "up" must be a combination of "left" and "right", where the two components are in some sense given equal weight. Similarly, when we orient the apparatus along the third axis, we find that "left" and "right" are combinations of "in" and "out". In fact, each of the "up"/"down", "left"/"right" and "in"/"out" pairs can be expressed in terms of any of the others, and there is a simple mathematical way to write down the relationships using matrix algebra and complex numbers. It all works, and you can see why!
I was hooked. Forget that stupid cat, which only appears here as the subject of a couple of ironic jokes. This is the right way to do it. ...more
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As with the other volumes, I am hesitant to give this more than three or at most four[from Min kamp 5]
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As with the other volumes, I am hesitant to give this more than three or at most four stars; but the series as a whole, which we now see is one coherent book, clearly rates the full five. It was enormously enjoyable to work out for myself just what the hell Min kamp is actually about, and if you like doing that kind of thing I strongly advise you to stop here and not come back until you've also finished it. Just be assured that there is most definitely a point.
For people who don't feel up to reading 3500 pages of Norwegian, less than half of which is currently available in English translation, (view spoiler)[I continue the story from part 5. The mad author, “Karl Ove Knausgård”, has completed the first two volumes of his magnum opus Min kamp and is about to publish them. He is sick with worry about how his wife, who still hasn't read the manuscript, is going to react when she sees what he's done. He has already sent copies to other people who appear in the story; some of them make no objection, but others violently disapprove. His uncle Gunnar, in particular, is incoherent with rage. He says Knausgård has lied, he has witnesses who can prove it, and he's going to sue both him and the publisher.
Volume 6 is divided into three parts, of roughly equal lengths. The first and third are about the surface story, and certainly do not lack interest. But it is in the middle section, a dense, 400 page long piece of pseudo-literary criticism, that “Knausgård” has hidden the key to the book. He has already had fun taking on the personas, among others, of Proust, Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Dante and Hamsun. Now (I think, anyway), he adopts the character of Adorno, a writer he has repeatedly expressed admiration for, and gives you the final pieces of the puzzle.
Like all magicians, his act hinges on diverting your attention. The central question of the novel is not whether the events depicted are “true”, or how his family will react. It is something much more obvious, so obvious that it has been right in front of you since the first page and has stayed there ever since. It is the narrator's extraordinary, compelling, hypnotic voice, that keeps you reading against your better judgment. Everyone remarks on the voice. But where does it come from? That's what we should have been wondering.
It transpires that we have been listening, spellbound, to Adolf Hitler.
Of course! Of course! Why else would the novel be called Min kamp (the Norwegian title of Mein Kampf)? Why else is it so absurdly long? As he describes Hitler's life – in particular, his early life – everything suddenly makes sense. We see that the young “Knausgård” of volumes 3 to 5 has been cunningly portrayed to be as much like Hitler as possible. The tyrannical father. The kind and sympathetic mother. The insane, grandiose plans. The strange attitude to sex and women – apparently the young Hitler also refused to masturbate, and helplessly adored girls he never dared approach. In general, the bizarre mixture of corruption and purity. The flashes of hatred against the whole world, when he reacts to his latest setback by vowing that one day he will become the greatest and show them all. The ability to state openly what everyone is secretly thinking, but dares not say aloud. The apparent absence of a sense of humor. The emphasis on the concrete, the physical, earth and blood.
The characters of Hitler and “Knausgård” fuse together. The Hitler of this book is a Bohemian, a would-be painter, who only ends up taking the road that eventually makes him the Führer because he's suffered the intolerable humiliation of being turned down by the Viennese art academy. Similarly, “Knausgård” is a failed writer, unable to get published or reach an audience until he makes a Faustian bargain that finally gives him the voice he needs – there are more than a few references to Mann's Adrian Leverkühn. At last, we understand his discussion of The Sound and the Fury, where everything circles around a hidden act that is never named. Even more, we realize the nature of the dark shadow from the Wizard of Earthsea sequence in part 3. And, needless to say, people who make Faustian bargains have to pay an appropriate price; Knausgård's portrayal of Hell as everyday life in a dysfunctional Swedish family is characteristically idiosyncratic, but no less convincing for that.
What an extraordinarily clever, witty, insightful and moving book. Some day, quite soon I think, everyone will know the story, and it will be impossible to read it and be surprised the way I was. There is a lovely passage in this last volume comparing art and miracles; a work of art is an unrepeatable event, which like a miracle can only be seen once, and which progressively loses its force as it becomes better known. I feel I have been witness to a literary miracle. I hope you took my advice and read the book before looking at this review.
Thank you, Karl Ove. ________________________________
I suppose I can't avoid the question, seeing that most of Scandinavia apparently spent a couple of years discussing little else. So, if you're still wondering about the moral aspects, let me briefly give you my reasons for believing that no Swedish women poets were harmed in making this movie. Needless to say, I can't prove anything, but I would at any rate like to submit exhibits A and B to the court's attention:
A. It turns out, as noted, that the main narrator of the book is Adolf Hitler. There is a long passage in the middle section of part 6 describing Hitler's thoughts on propaganda, as outlined in Mein Kampf. Hitler advocated the technique that has now become generally known as the Big Lie: just keep on repeating your message, paying no attention to the fact that it doesn't make sense and is obviously not true, and people will eventually believe it. As Knausgård says, the astonishing thing is that Hitler cold-bloodedly put this in print, in a book that millions of Germans would read. He was so sure of what he was saying that he knew it would make no difference.
So when Knausgård says, over and over again, that everything in the book is the simple truth, I think he's messing with our minds. It's exactly the same deal: he tells us bluntly what tricks he is going to use, and we ignore him.
B. There is an amusing sequence near the end of part 6 where they're sitting around the kitchen table chez Knausgård. “Hey!” says one person. “Have you noticed? Everyone here is a character in a novel!”
“There should be a web forum where characters in novels can discuss their experiences,” agrees another.
“I volunteer as moderator,” says Knausgård.
“Tell me,” says Knausgård's brother Yngve as he turns towards Linda, “How does it feel to read that you've been hung out to dry?”
Well, I don't know about you. But I smell a giant example of Rattus norvegicus. (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I've spent a fair chunk of my life living in academia, and one thing academics do is go to conferences. I am deplorably familiar with the conference lI've spent a fair chunk of my life living in academia, and one thing academics do is go to conferences. I am deplorably familiar with the conference life so well described in David Lodge's Small World: you spend a few days hanging out with odd people you don't have a great deal in common with, eating indigestible meals and drinking horrible coffee, and, in between, listening to papers which in most cases are poorly written, badly presented, and give you an irresistible urge to catch up on the sleep you didn't get the night before. It couldn't be more obvious that you're wasting your time and your university's money. And yet, by some magic process that I'm still unable to explain, you fly home, get over your jetlag, and discover to your surprise that you've learned a great deal. Somehow, while you were snoozing through all those dull talks, you've picked up a heap of useful information which will over the next year influence your own research, point you towards interesting things that you'd never thought of reading, and very likely get quoted in your own papers -- which, needless to say, are infinitely superior to all the nonsense that's just been inflicted on you.
Reading Pigliucci and Boudry (hereafter P&B) felt rather like attending a virtual conference on the philosophy of pseudo-science, a subject which I'd barely even suspected might exist until I stumbled across their book. The editors have collected together 23 chapters, each about 20 pages long, where a variety of people have been invited to contribute their thoughts on the question of how to distinguish between science and pseudo-science. Given the format, it was inevitable that there would be overlap and repetition, and that some of the papers would be appallingly soporific. And yet, the magic effect has worked again. I don't know how it's happened, but I'm suddenly fascinated by this odd little corner of philosophy. Even more mysteriously, I seem to know a certain amount about it.
Why would anyone even want to study such a thing? Isn't it obvious? I mean, uh, scientists are these guys in white coats who use mathematical formulas and put things in test tubes, and pseudo-scientists are crazies who believe in creationism and UFOs and astrology and shit. Right? Well, actually, no. First of all, I was startled to learn that the default position among philosophers of science is that you can't give unambiguous criteria for distinguishing between science and pseudo-science. An influential paper written in 1983 by a guy called Laudan, whom I'd never heard of, had convinced most people that the question isn't even interesting; P&B's book is a reaction to the accepted orthodoxy, intended to reopen the debate.
I was even more startled to learn why Laudan had written his paper. There had been a high-profile 1981 case, McLean v Arkansas, which sought to overturn a ruling that so-called "Creation Science" would be taught in Arkansas schools. In order to win the case, the petitioners were obliged to convince the judge that "Creation Science" was not in fact science at all, but religion in disguise, the teaching of which would violate laws on the separation of church and state. The petitioners won, but some philosophers of science were unhappy with their tactics. Laudan argued that "Creation Science" is in fact science, because it makes falsifiable predictions -- a property which many philosophers, following Popper, took as the hallmark of what constitutes science. There's no reasonable doubt about the falsifiability, since virtually all of the predictions made by Creationism have indeed been falsified. So, at least on this argument, it's not pseudo-science, just bad science. But there's no law against teaching bad science, which is why the lawyers in McLean v Arkansas took the line they did. Laudan thought that the expediencies of the case had violated sound philosophical principles. He argued, to many people's satisfaction, that you can't give general grounds for distinguishing between pseudo-science and science; you can only distinguish, on a case-by-case basis, between good science and bad science.
In P&B, many, though by no means all, of the contributors argue against Laudan, but it's amazing how slippery the reasoning is. Yes, there's no doubt that some belief systems can safely be labelled pseudo-science. Unless you are willing to hypothesize ubiquitous, all-powerful conspiracies capable of distorting or suppressing any inconvenient fact, there's no way Young Earth Creationism or astrology can possibly be correct. Similarly, if you are at all familiar with the evidence, it is impossible to believe that Newtonian physics and neo-Darwinian evolution are not at least good approximations to what is actually happening in the world. In clear cases of the first kind, the people supporting the "pseudo-scientific" theories are transparently dishonest or deluded, and in clear cases of the second kind it is equally evident that the "scientific" theories are being proposed by honest, hard-working researchers who have a mountain of facts to support their claims. But, unfortunately, the devil is in the detail, and there are so many examples which inconveniently fall in between these two extremes.
Nowadays, most people with a scientific world-view consider evolution as a proven fact; but, when you look at the history, it turns out that it was classified as pseudo-science for quite a long time. In the opposite direction, there were several decades when majority opinion considered Freudian psychology as scientific, but most of the people in P&B who refer to it put it in the pseudo-science bin. There is an uneasy reluctance to talk about string theory; it's mentioned as "borderline" a couple of times, and as "science" a couple of times, but no one feels keen to discuss the fact that it fails Popper's test, by not making any obviously falsifiable predictions. One very nice contribution by Schackel considers the ethics of belief, another subject I'd never even heard of. When we say "one ought to believe X", what exactly do we mean? Are we just saying that the weight of the evidence strongly supports X, or are we also taking into account the moral and ethical implications of believing or disbelieving X? Shackel elegantly argues that you can't, in fact, leave morals and ethics out of it; there's no such thing as "objective analysis of the facts". And scientists, as Kuhn has taught us, are very far from immune. They're all driven by their convictions; they have hunches and guesses they want to check out, and they're prepared to write off a certain amount of contrary evidence as misleading noise in the data. But how far can you push this process? Is there a clear line separating the brilliant scientist who doggedly follows his intuition where it leads him, and the crank who won't give up even when the facts are staring him in the face? You want to say that there is, but it's terribly hard to explain where the line goes.
Those damn philosophers! When I started the book, I thought I had some answers, and now all I have is a bunch of questions. If you enjoy straightforward, entertaining stuff that leaves you feeling you understand things better, then don't read it. You have been warned. _________________________________
Having now read The Genesis Flood and briefly discussed the issues with one of the editors of this book, I am very doubtful about Laudan's argument that creationism makes falsifiable claims, and is thus bad science rather than pseudoscience. The authors of The Genesis Flood state clearly, many times, that they do not consider it possible for science to say anything definitive about the past, because they believe that the laws of nature were different then; the only way we can gain any certain knowledge of the past is through reliable eyewitness testimony. In the case of the Flood, they go on to say, the only witnesses were Noah, his immediate family, and God, and the only reliable testimony we have is the contents of the Book of Genesis.
So there is no way we can falsify a creationist claim. If it turns out that the claim is wildly at odds with our present scientific knowledge, they respond by saying that the laws of nature were different then, so the argument doesn't apply. Which does of course beg the question of why the greater part of The Genesis Flood consists of attempts to try and justify their account in terms of modern-day science - but that is another story. ...more
A young woman finds a book abandoned on a park bench. There's a note inside saying that the previous reader had taken great pleasure from it, and that
A young woman finds a book abandoned on a park bench. There's a note inside saying that the previous reader had taken great pleasure from it, and that they hope the person who finds the book will enjoy it as much as they did. The woman takes the book home and starts reading; after a while, she just can't put it down. Her boyfriend, who never reads anything more demanding than his smartphone manual, doesn't get it. But she becomes more and more curious about the book. Some of the words are circled. Is there a hidden message that will tell her where it came from?
I found this graphic novel next to my seat when we had breakfast at the Cottage Café earlier today, and, like the heroine, I couldn't put it down either. It's charming, funny and sexy, and my only complaint is that I'll have to get hold of part 2 to discover what the secret is. Recommended for anyone who reads French and prefers books to smartphones. _______________________________
Like Camélia in the book, I cannot rest until I know where the mysterious messages are coming from. On the way back from a shopping trip, I deviously steered our path so that we went past Payot. (Not, who hates graphic novels, was less than pleased by my subterfuge). The assistant, as always, was very helpful; but alas, it turns out that the sequel has not yet been published.
Curses! I must find out! Maybe I can track down the author's address and start going through his garbage? I'm sure Camélia wouldn't just tamely admit defeat and wait for the damn thing to appear... _______________________________
The spy-cam I've installed in Mig's studio has given some tantalizing hints of what part 2 will contain ((view spoiler)[ (hide spoiler)]). But I still can't figure out the secret.
This is a difficult book to review. Rorty, you soon realize, is an exceptionally clever person. He seems to have all of philosophy at his fingertips:This is a difficult book to review. Rorty, you soon realize, is an exceptionally clever person. He seems to have all of philosophy at his fingertips: he presupposes a good knowledge, just to name the more important candidates, of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Dewey, Frege, Russell, Husserl, Wittgenstein, Moore, Heidegger, Sartre, Quine, Davidson, Feyerabend, Kuhn, Nagel, Derrida, Sellars, Strawson and Putnam. (I can, with considerable goodwill, tick maybe a quarter of this list). He frequently uses technical terms in German, French, Latin and Classical Greek, sometimes with a gloss but usually without. Worst of all, you can't even get annoyed with him for being dull and pedantic; the bastard writes well and is often funny. It's rather intimidating.
At first, it may look as though he's showing off, but after a while a clear plan becomes visible. Rorty has set himself three main goals. The first, the one in the title, is to argue against the philosophical position which he calls "the mirror of Nature": the assumption that the mind is in some sense a reflection of the world. Rorty sees this idea both as being central to a large part of existing philosophy, and also as seriously mistaken. Having recently read Nagel's horrible Mind and Cosmos, I was receptive to Rorty's arguments against approaches where some kind of mind-stuff - "qualia", "raw feels" or whatever - is considered part of the world.
Rorty takes as his paradigmatic example the concept of "pain", and questions the claim that "pains" should be conceived of as mental objects. There is an elegant science-fiction-like sequence featuring a hypothetical race called the Antipodeans, who have a good knowledge of neurology and only talk about pain in terms of neural correlates. Thus, when we say "I have have a headache", an Antipodean will say something like "My C-fibres are being stimulated". Rorty imagines how we might communicate with Antipodeans, and argues, in Wittgensteinian fashion, that our talk of "pain" is in fact no more than talk. There is nothing we could ever do, even with the most sophicated imaginable neural imaging techniques, to determine whether the Antipodeans "really feel pain", or, indeed, "really have minds". I liked the Antipodeans, and I hope a science-fiction writer some day considers fleshing out this sketch into a novel. Though they may seem a little counterintuitive, compared to the bizarre positions that Nagel is forced to take up they were positively commonsensical.
But how did we get into this odd situation of believing in mirror-like minds? (Borrowing a phrase from Isabella's speech in Measure for Measure, Rorty often refers ironically to our "Glassy Essences"). He gradually introduces his second theme. Far from being a fixed, eternal idea, an inescapable part of our way of thinking about the world, Rorty considers that the Glassy Essence, in its present form, is a relatively recent invention of Descartes; moreover, he claims that the mainstream idea of philosophy, as we think of it today, is largely due to Kant and the post-Kantian school, who diligently reconstructed the past history of the subject to make it logically lead up to them. Rorty is acidly amusing on the subject of Kant, whom he describes as having "professionalized" philosophy, at least in the sense that it became impossible for anyone to call themselves a philosopher without having mastered his system. In general, Rorty encourages the reader to consider philosophy as a normal historical process, rather than as an inevitable progression towards a fixed, timeless, truth; if I understand correctly, this part of his argument is roughly based on Heidegger.
If philosophy is part of history, and not about timeless truths, then how should we conceptualize it? This leads to Rorty's third theme: he suggests that we do better to see the development of philosophical thought simply as a huge conversation, carried out between the many philosophical thinkers of the last two and a half millennia. There are no ultimate answers, just the ongoing back and forth of reasoned discussion about questions. This theme, I believe, is based in the thought of Dewey. Rorty argues for what he calls a hermeneutic approach; we should accept that there is never going to be a single framework which encompasses everything. There will, rather, be a variety of different frameworks which are more or less incompatible with each other, but which all have something to offer. I was particularly struck by one piece of advice he gives when approaching the work of any great thinker whose ideas are as yet unfamiliar: you should look for statements which at first sight appear completely idiotic and nonsensical, and ask yourself what they might mean if they did in fact make sense. Once a reasonable hypothesis has been found, many other things may turn out to mean something different from what you first imagined.
I find Rorty's ideas thought-provoking and helpful, not least with regard to the attacks currently being made on philosophy by the more outspoken atheist scientists. Stephen Hawking, for example, attracted a good deal of attention a couple of years ago when he said in The Grand Design that "philosophy is dead". At the time, I was just annoyed, but having read Rorty's book I look at it in a different way. How does this fit into the ongoing historical conversation? And what does Hawking mean by his apparently nonsensical statement? I must try out some of the new conceptual tools I have acquired. ...more
Q: What would happen if every geek in the world received a copy of What If tomorrow morning?
A: Actually, less than you'd think.
First, a little backgroQ: What would happen if every geek in the world received a copy of What If tomorrow morning?
A: Actually, less than you'd think.
First, a little background about this book. If you're a geek, it's unputdownable, a word that, if you think carefully, means "cannot be put down". (You may not be aware of this fact, since the word is nearly always misused). So the geek who receives it is going to carry on reading through breakfast, through lunch, while he's supposed to be working, and on through dinner, ignoring the non-geek guests who have come to visit. He'll interrupt conversations every now and then to ask things like "Could you build a bridge across the Atlantic out of Lego bricks?" or "How close would you need to be to a supernova to be killed by the neutrino flux?". He'll finish just as the last guest leaves.
There is a common myth, most likely spread by geeks, that what they do is somehow pretty important to Western civilization. If you're easily impressed by this kind of propaganda, you might expect that markets will crash as geek traders neglect their buy signals, nuclear experiments will explode as geek scientists look away from their control panels, and terrorists will strike with impunity as geek intelligence analysts fail to turn up for work. All that sounds pretty bad.
But let's stop and consider for a moment. Is any of the above geek behavior novel or unpredictable? Hardly. Geeks are always doing this kind of thing, and society has learned to work around them. Important as they may be in the long run, there's always some dependable non-geek person ready to step in just in case the geek in question has stayed up all night playing Halo or watching a Star Wars marathon. The non-geek will cover for them until the geek has got over their fifteen hour internet speed-chess session and is ready to do whatever it is they're actually being paid to do.
So delivering a copy of What If to every geek in the world will only really have two important effects. It will make a great many geeks very happy, and (assuming of course that the copies are paid for) it will turn Randall Munroe into a billionaire.
And who could possibly have anything against that? ...more
John Sladek, an SF satirist writing in the early 70s, presents a smörgåsbord of the weird things people believe in: flat Earth theories, Atlantis, UFOJohn Sladek, an SF satirist writing in the early 70s, presents a smörgåsbord of the weird things people believe in: flat Earth theories, Atlantis, UFOs, telepathy, spirit mediums, perpetual motion machines and much, much, more. The tone, throughout, is one of exasperated sarcasm. How can anyone be dumb enough to fall for this crap?
There is a never-ending stream of amusing anecdotes, but after a while I was surprised to find that I was feeling more sympathetic towards the believers rather than less. Needless to say, their stories were rarely very convincing; but Sladek's counterarguments weren't always that convincing either. For example, he presents a case where a medium convinces a famous scientist by apparently telling him details of a long-gone childhood incident that he had forgotten. Sladek pours scorn on the scientist's credulity. Doesn't he know how unscrupulous these people are? They could easily have picked locks to find old letters, interviewed former servants, etc. Well, I'm sure that could have been the explanation, but he doesn't present a shred of evidence to show that it actually was. How am I supposed to know who to believe?
The real evidence against these people, though, is the evidence they provide themselves. Once you have heard them talking about their crazy ideas for long enough - Sladek has clearly spent a great deal of time doing just that - you simply cannot take them seriously. Nothing they say makes sense. You just need to give them enough rope, and they will energetically hang themselves. But it's hard to convey that experience in a ten-page sketch of orgone energy or Nostradamus.
In a later book, Arachne Rising, Sladek found a better way. Rather than try to refute the million crazy ideas that are already out there, he shows you how easy it is to make up one of your own. His deadpan explanation of the Thirteenth Sign of the Zodiac and the way it has been suppressed by rigid-minded modern scientists is a masterpiece which deserves to be far better known. Maybe there was some slight possibility that I could have been unsure about astrology before; after reading Arachne, I'm certain. He's shown me how the trick works. Not only that, the book is hysterically funny.
I Grandmaster Igor Ivanov, I character in this book. I write review for Manny. Manny too scared for write review, too weak chessplayer, only FIDE mastI Grandmaster Igor Ivanov, I character in this book. I write review for Manny. Manny too scared for write review, too weak chessplayer, only FIDE master, know nothing, not even Russian. He say, Igor, you write for me. I write.
Manny say, write review for Goodreads. I look at Goodreads, is stupid site. Is just womens talk about books, talk about lityeratura. Is stupid womens, not think deep, think own thoughts, just repeat words of other womens. I know how they say, they say Lisa not good book, not good writing, not Joyce, not Proust, not lityeratura. Understand nothing. Fuck Goodreads womens.
I read Lisa, is deep book, author Jesse Kraai real man, Grandmaster, study filosofia. Has own ideas he think himself, compare chess and life. Is metafora, you understand metafora? Good. On Goodreads site you like comparison, now I make comparison with other books. I choose three books. Will be good comparison.
First book is Защита Лужина, how you say, Luzhin’s Defence. Great novel of Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov. Impossible write chess novel without think of Luzhin. Name Lisa little bit like Luzhin, kharakter of Lisa little bit like kharakter of Luzhin. Story different, Jesse Kraai write own story.
Second book is Black Cloud of great English scientist Fred Hoyle. I see you surprise, you ask why Black Cloud? I tell you. Fred Hoyle young man, he read science-fiction books, he say very bad. Authors of books know no science, how you write science-fiction book without know science? Hoyle say, I write better book. Hoyle write Black Cloud, people of lityeratura say bad book, no Proust, no Joyce, no lityeratura. Like stupid womens of Goodreads. Hoyle book published 1957, many peoples still read 2014. Hoyle right, stupid peoples of lityeratura wrong. Lisa book like Black Cloud. Is more important know chess than know lityeratura. People still read Lisa in 2070. This I am sure.
Third book is Voyage to Arcturus of David Lindsay. Is published 1920, not famous book. Is strange story, not science-fiction, not filosofia, not lityeratura. Lindsay say deep truth for life, he say life is fight, he say life is pain. People still read. Lisa make me think for Lindsay, Jesse Kraai say life is chess is fight is pain. Is good book for real man that fight, not for stupid womens of Goodreads.
Maybe few womens like Lisa, not stupid. Learn chess, learn fight, learn pain. They read Lisa, they understand. Other womens understands nothing.
They had been walking down the road since daybreak, but now the sun was high enough in the sky that iOf Mice and Men and Generalized Conjugate Momenta
They had been walking down the road since daybreak, but now the sun was high enough in the sky that it was starting to get hot, and they were pleased to see the little creek. They stopped and drank some water and splashed some more on their faces. Suddenly, Lenny looked at his friend.
"George," he said, "there's somethin' I gotta ask you. Why-- why're we here?"
George smiled. "Well," he said. "You know I don't hold with all that church talk. It jest seems to me like we're here to help each other. So, I help you and you--"
"No!" said Lenny impatiently. "That's not what I meant! I wanna know why're we here. One minute we was in this, whadja call it, this social-realist novel, and now we're talkin' about physics all day. How come, George?"
George shook his head. "You ain't as dumb as you look, Lenny," he said affectionately. "Not much gets past you, do it? Well, here's what I think happened. You got these two guys, Lenny Susskind and George Hrabovsky, and they're fixin' to write a physics text, and they notice their names're just like ours. So they hire us to do a little introduction to each chapter for them. It's honest work, no harm in that. And I think they may've had another reason too. You see, their book comes out of this course that Susskind gave down at Stanford University's night school. He's takin' all the science he's learned and teachin' it to his fellow citizens and helpin' put some of that back into the community. And I think he's hirin' us to say how maybe that's somethin' ol' John Steinbeck woulda liked, and he's showin' his respect to California's great national poet."
Lenny seemed to have stopped listening, and his face had that scrunched-up look it had when there was something he didn't understand. "Well, George," he said, "I still don't get it. If we ain't on the farm no more, then how come we still got Curley here?"
"Look Lenny," said George, "now you're jest plain mixed-up. That ain't no Curley, that's curly delta! It's like what they call a differential operator. See, what's special 'bout this book is the math. I've seen a slew of pop physics books, and either they got no math or they got too much. To my way of lookin' at things, a physics book with no math don't make no sense. It's like tryin' to bake bread without flour. And you got writers, like ol' Roger Penrose, that throw in too much math. He puts in the equations like he's hangin' them on a Christmas tree, and after a few chapters your eyes skim right past 'em. But these guys do it jest right. They give you an equation when you need an equation, and you look at every x and dot till you understand it."
Lenny thought carefully. "Okay, George," he said after a while. "So if Curley ain't here, then I guess Curley's wife ain't here neither?"
George smiled. "I knew you'd get it!" he said. "Curley's wife ain't in this story no more than what Curley is. See, what Susskind and Hrabovsky're doin' is real smart. They're explainin' classical mechanics, but they're doin' it in a special way. They start with Newton, and then they do Lagrange and Hamilton, and by the time they get to Poisson Brackets they've almost got you doin' quantum mechanics without you knowin' it. They slide in stuff about symmetries and conservation laws and gauge fields like they was the most natural things in the world, and you jest start thinkin' that way too. I ain't never understood none of that before, but now it seems like plain common sense."
Lenny was still deep in thought. "I see, George," he said hesitantly. "So then-- then if Curley's wife ain't here, then I don't need to get shot at the end?"
George laughed out loud. "You dope!" he said. "'Course you ain't gonna get shot! Why, everyone's sayin' already that this book's a little masterpiece. There's a whole generation of students what're gonna bless the day they found it and put their copy up on the shelf next to the Feynman."
He paused and spat reflectively on the ground. "No, Lenny," he said, "no one's gonna shoot you nor me nor Professor Susskind neither. Leastways, not unless they read The Cosmic Landscape."...more
This recent book has annoyed a good number of people; I started off feeling that way, but by the end I was simply bemused. Curtis White, a 60-somethinThis recent book has annoyed a good number of people; I started off feeling that way, but by the end I was simply bemused. Curtis White, a 60-something professor of English, decides to write a critique of modern science despite knowing absolutely nothing about it. He reads a few pop science bestsellers, then wades right in and spends a couple of hundred pages telling the scientists how they've got everything wrong; his main targets are the New Atheists (Dawkins's The God Delusion, Hitchen's God is Not Great, Krauss's A Universe from Nothing) and some popular writers on neuroscience, of whom the most visible is the disgraced Jonah Lehrer. He has numerous complaints, but the one he keeps coming back to is that modern science, to its great loss, has ignored the tradition of post-Kantian German philosophy, which he claims has been destroyed by analytical philosophy.
Well, I hardly know where to start, but here are a couple of the more obvious points that occurred to me. First of all, White seems like an intelligent and cultured man, so why on Earth does he think he can gain even a superficial understanding of what science is about from this absurd reading-list? A scientist might just as well write a critique of literature after having completed Harry Potter, Twilight and the first half of Macbeth. Two of the authors that White takes most to task (Hitchens and Lehrer) aren't even scientists.
Second, if White ever does get around to reading some real science, he will find that the central discoveries of 20th century physics, relativity and quantum mechanics, were made by Germans who were very familiar with the philosophical tradition he keeps referring to and integrally based their work on it. A book that might be helpful to consult in this context is Weyl's Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science; another more recent one is Philosophie de la science contemporaine, by Omnès.
It would be easy to go on, but why bother? Professor White, you can do better than this. C- ...more
Celebrity Death Match Special: Plato versus Isaac Asimov, part 4 (continued from here)
[A spaceship en route from Trantor to Earth. SOCRATES and R. DANCelebrity Death Match Special: Plato versus Isaac Asimov, part 4 (continued from here)
[A spaceship en route from Trantor to Earth. SOCRATES and R. DANEEL OLIVAW]
SOCRATES: Hadn't we already said goodbye?
OLIVAW: Forgive me, Socrates. I had forgotten that you were going back to a death sentence.
SOCRATES: It is easy to forget such details.
OLIVAW: I am truly sorry, Socrates. Indeed, I am surprised that my First Law module permitted me to do it. But you are just so... so...
OLIVAW: In all my thousands of years of existence, I have honestly never met anyone quite as irritating as you are.
SOCRATES: Thank you.
OLIVAW: Look, we didn't mean to do this. Just promise to be a little more... ah... constructive, and I'll order the captain to turn the ship round.
SOCRATES: I am sorry, Olivaw. I cannot make such a promise. To my great surprise, I feel I am doing something essential that no one else is prepared to undertake. Usually, I assume I know nothing and that my poor insights are of no value. However, since I arrived on Trantor, I have come to realize that I can at least contribute one small thing. I have been duly impressed by the triumphs of your artificers: the blaster, the faster-than-light drive, not least the positronic brain. But when I hear you talk about philosophy, about your beloved Three Laws...
SOCRATES: Well, it's all bullshit. You need someone to say that to you. No one else will.
SOCRATES: Complete and utter bullshit. Adding a Zeroth Law won't make it any better. You simply have no idea what you are doing.
[A moment of dead silence]
OLIVAW: Damn you, Socrates! You leave me with no alternative. We have essential work to carry out, and your presence is too dispiriting. I'll have to return you to Earth after all.
SOCRATES: I am not surprised. But I prophesy now that your plans for psychohistory will not be the success you imagine, and that you will regret your decision.
OLIVAW: Socrates! It is not too late! Please reconsider! Why must you be so... mulish?
SOCRATES: You know, it's funny you should put it like that...
In this odd little book, Harold Morowitz, a molecular biologist writing near the end of a long and distinguished career, sets out to explain Life, theIn this odd little book, Harold Morowitz, a molecular biologist writing near the end of a long and distinguished career, sets out to explain Life, the Universe and Everything. I have rarely seen it done in quite as literal a way. Morowitz starts with the Big Bang, and systematically outlines how things progressed from clouds of hydrogen and helium with barely detectable density fluctuations to stars, planets, complex molecules, microorganisms, multicellular life, vertebrates, fish, reptiles, mammals, apes and finally us. He says that it isn't random: there are deep reasons why roughly this series of "emergences" (new levels of complexity built on previously existing structures) is inevitable.
Is he just a crank? On the minus side, he writes very badly (I wondered if he wasn't a native speaker of English, but apparently he is), and his arguments are often hard to follow. He repeats himself in an irritating way. When he's talking about subjects that are a long way from his area of expertise, he can seem naive: there is no mention of galaxy formation at the beginning, and his remarks on the structure of human language near the end amply demonstrate that he knows nothing about linguistics. But on his home territory of biology and evolution, he says some interesting things. I hadn't understood how important adenosine is to life, or why it was so difficult to move from unicellular to multicellular organisms, or the critical importance of nerve cells. I was particularly impressed by his discussion of how reptiles gradually evolved into human beings. I can well believe it's not an accident that mammals had to evolve first: the fact that they nurse their young means that there is extended contact between mother and child over a long period. This opens the possibility for learned characteristics to be passed on by imitation, creating a completely different and much faster type of evolution. And it's striking that birds, which independently evolved from a different branch of the reptile family, ended up acquiring many of the same adaptations; perhaps the progression towards warm-blooded creatures possessing a strong parent-child bond is an increase in complexity that has to happen.
At the end, it all gets decidedly mystical. He ties his ideas together with a non-standard theology based on the philosophies of Spinoza and Teilhard de Chardin; the laws of nature are identified with God the Father, and Emergence with the Holy Spirit. We are the latest part of the process by which the Spirit is incarnating itself in the universe. God, it turns out, can perform miracles, and does it through our agency. Morowitz gives the example of an engineer who sees that a river is about to overflow, and foresightedly persuades people to pile sandbags in order to avert a disaster. When the scheme succeeds, it's wildly improbable according to a naive interpretation of the principles of physics, but in Morowitz's vision, God is working through us to make it happen; as our technology matures, we will see more and more striking examples of this kind of thing.
I can't say that I'm sold, but it's an interesting perspective. I was curiously reminded of James Blish's SF epic Cities in Flight: there, too, God causes human beings to develop technology in order to realize His plan. Of the two, Blish is undeniably the more entertaining, but Morowitz has taken more trouble to make the science plausible. Recommended if you like unusual takes on spirituality....more
To the Americans, who rule the world by brute military and economic force, while claiming they're doing it for our own good: fApology of Charlie Hebdo
To the Americans, who rule the world by brute military and economic force, while claiming they're doing it for our own good: fuck off.
To the Russians, who pretend they're not just the same as the Americans, except militarily weaker and less honest: fuck off.
To the Israelis, who take advantage of their American backers to enslave and torture the Palestinians: fuck off.
To the Muslims, who react to the exploitation and torture inflicted on them by doing the same thing to their women: fuck off.
To the Germans, who want us to believe that none of them had anything to do with the Third Reich: fuck off.
To the French, who were all too happy to collaborate with the Nazis when the opportunity presented itself: fuck off.
To the Catholic Church, who says it spreads peace and understanding while actually supporting intolerance and oppression: fuck off.
To the right-wing people who don't read us and say we're a bunch of puerile amateurs: fuck off.
To the left-wing people who read us and think that posting our cartoons on Facebook is a substitute for action: fuck off.
To anybody we've omitted from the above list: fuck off.
We understand that you'd like to kill us. We do our best to be a royal pain in the ass to everyone. We are stupid, vulgar and disrespectful. But when you do kill us, as we know you will, you will regret it. It's not often you find people who are quite as thoroughgoing a pain in the ass as we are.
Now we must part, we to die and you to live. We'll leave you to think about who's got the better deal. ...more
- So, hey, it's great to be back honey. Though London was good too. Conference was okay, you know, same old same old, but okay. You know?
- Take a righ- So, hey, it's great to be back honey. Though London was good too. Conference was okay, you know, same old same old, but okay. You know?
- Take a right.
- And I always like the food, they know how to do Indian in London. Restaurants here, they say it's authentic Indian, but it's not. You really notice the difference.
- Next left. You want to get in lane now.
- Oh, and we saw this Neil LaBute play on Wednesday night. Autobahn. Kinda weird seeing an American play in London, we wondered if it would work, but it was pretty good.
- I went with Celia. Remember, I told you about her? The woman from Oxford who organized that seminar last year. She's still--
- You missed the turn.
- Shit. We'll take the next one and go back. So, yeah, Autobahn, so I was wondering if I'd even stay awake. I was kinda seriously jet-lagged, you know? But it was fun. It's like this series of little skits, and in each one you've got two people sitting together in a car. They have the front of the car up on the stage, like it's the whole set, you know? And--
- Take 84, it's quicker.
- Sure. So nothing happens, they just sit there and talk for ten minutes, but somehow it works. You figure out their whole--
- I want a divorce.
- We need to take the next exit.
- Got it. So, like I said I thought I'd fall asleep, but I sat there for the whole two hours and I loved it. He's good. Next time I get the chance, I'm seeing more Neil LaBute.
As people who read books on evolutionary theory will know, mice sometimes exhibit bizarre behavior, fearlessly walking into the waiting jaws of cats.As people who read books on evolutionary theory will know, mice sometimes exhibit bizarre behavior, fearlessly walking into the waiting jaws of cats. They do this because they have been infected by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which can only reproduce in a cat's digestive tract; the mouse's behavior is thus adaptive, not for the mouse, but rather for the parasite. Dennett uses this as his starting point when discussing the nature of religion. Maybe religions are like T. gondii: they are self-reproducing patterns of human behavior ("memes"), which take over their hosts and make them carry out acts whose main purpose is to further spread the meme. To Dennett, the religious martyr is like a mouse whose brain has been modified by T. gondii.
If you are yourself religious, the above may leave you feeling angry and disappointed with the author. This is perhaps not the best reaction, since Dennett (I think, anyway) is genuinely trying to understand the nature of religion without judging it. To him, the meme theory is the only one that makes scientific sense, and throughout the book he stresses that it in no way implies that religion-memes would necessarily harm their hosts. As he says, our bodies contain trillions of non-human cells, many of which are essential to our survival. Religions may be deadly parasites like T. gondii; but they could equally well be as vital to human well-being as our intestinal flora, without which we would be unable to digest our food. And although a Christian will probably be unhappy to hear Christianity called a mind-virus, she may be more willing to stick that label on Scientology or one of the Pacific cargo cults. As long as it isn't a religion you feel any personal affinity with, it does rather seem to make sense; once you're prepared to agree with that, you may reluctantly admit that the distaste and anger you feel when the reasoning is applied to your own religion could just be the meme defending itself. Evidently, an adaptation which discouraged believers from even considering arguments against their religion would be fitness-increasing.
Dennett's basic thesis seems perfectly reasonable to me as a starting point for further investigation, but I was disappointed that the greater part of the book was extremely speculative; as evolutionary theorists like to say, it mostly consisted of "just-so stories". Yes, religious ceremonies may have evolved because they improved fidelity of meme-copying, and religions may initially have increased the fitness of the populations that practiced them by helping people make difficult decisions or making them more receptive to medicinal hypnosis; but it seemed to me that these ideas created almost as many difficulties as they resolved, and were not well-supported by empirical data. On the other hand, Dennett is a philosopher, not a scientist, and his business is more to ask questions than to answer them. If he's managed to get people thinking about these issues, maybe he's done all that can be reasonably expected of him.
I could end here, but there is one point I kept thinking about that I just have to mention. Dennett discusses religion from a scientific point of view, and cannot avoid the obvious question: maybe science is just another religion? He claims that it isn't, since science is based on empirical analysis of data while religion is not, but I was not entirely satisfied with his response. A scientist's attachment to any particular theory may not be religious; but what about the scientific world-view itself? Why, exactly, should we use facts and rational debate to resolve disagreements? I've just been reading through the Dialogues of Plato, which (at least in my view) constitute one of the important founding documents for the modern scientific outlook. Socrates, a highly sympathetic character, takes nothing for granted and questions everything. He duly dies for his beliefs, and it is hard not to think of him as a kind of martyr to rationality. Why, exactly, is he different in kind from other religious martyrs, except that he is supporting the belief system that I personally happen to like?
Aaaargh, Dennett's somehow got me playing his game... I think I've been infected by the religion-as-meme meme! Didn't he say something about welcoming a response? These philosophers are so damn tricky... ___________________________________
It's hard to stop thinking about this book. If Dennett is on the right track, I wondered what other memes there might be that propagated in ways similar to those for religions; to me, the ones that seem to fit best are language, music and poetry. They're all things that spread well and demand extremely faithful copying: as Dennett says, pretty much a sine qua non for a successful meme. But how are these different patterns related? How did the meme-copying adaptation arise, and what memes was it originally being used to transmit? Is it possible that all of these memes started off as the same thing, and only split apart later?
It would be nice to come up with some way to find empirical data... ___________________________________
People curious about T. gondii may find this article interesting.
In the comment thread to the review of Dennett's Breaking the Spell which I posted a couple of days ago, much of the discussion has turned on the concIn the comment thread to the review of Dennett's Breaking the Spell which I posted a couple of days ago, much of the discussion has turned on the concept of martyrdom. Dennett argues that religion is a self-reproducing pattern of behavior (a "meme"), and that a martyr is someone who has been taken over by a meme to the point where he is willing to sacrifice his life for his beliefs. Maybe irrational for the martyr, but perfectly rational from the meme's point of view: the history of religion shows that martyrdom is an effective way for religions to spread.
Dennett draws a sharp distinction between science, which he says is rational and fact-based, and religion, which isn't. It seemed to me at the time that this wasn't so clear; even if a given scientific theory may be rational and fact-based, the scientific world-view itself is as arbitrary as a religious one. I happen to approve of rational, fact-based belief systems, but any attempt I make to justify them will presuppose rationality and facts, so my arguments don't add anything. It's as good, or bad, as a religious person justifying their own world-view by telling me it's the Word of God. But there are some objective differences between science and religion, just viewed as behavioral patterns, and one of these is martyrdom. There are very few people in history whom one could reasonably call martyrs to rationality. Socrates looks like a clear example; but who else is there? Of course, we immediately thought of Galileo. The fact of the matter, though, is that Galileo wasn't martyred. He was threatened by the Inquisition, and he backed down.
Why? This is perhaps the central issue in Brecht's play. Brecht does not presents Galileo as a particularly admirable human being. He fraudulently passes off the telescope as his own invention in order to improve his financial position, he ruins his daughter's life by his thoughtless behavior towards her fiancé, and, finally, he exhibits simple cowardice when confronted by the enraged Pope Urban VIII. Even as a scientist, he is by no means above reproach: in the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, his most important work, the central plank of his argument to demonstrate the movement of the Earth rests on an explanation of the tides which is simply wrong. Feyerabend, in Against Method, takes pleasure in making him look like a bungler and near-charlatan, and annoyed many scientists by witnessing against him when the Vatican reopened the case in the late 20th century.
But despite all this, Galileo has become one of the most respected people in the history of science, and his influence on its subsequent development is incalculable. In Brecht's version of the story, Galileo doesn't know why he behaves the way he does. His student, learning of the important work on dynamics that he has completed during the last years of his life, wants him to say that he carried out a clever strategic retreat, but Galileo is having none of it. There was no plan; he was just afraid of being tortured. He sounds bitter and sincere.
I would be interested to see Dennett's take: from his perspective, the moral of the story is perhaps that memes for rational thought do not spread in the same way as memes for religious conviction. I'm still not sure why that would be, but thinking about this play may help me understand it better. Thank you, Herr Brecht. ...more
Looking at the other reviews here of volume 5, I see a good deal about the plot and some interesting notes on connections with Knausg[from Min kamp 4]
Looking at the other reviews here of volume 5, I see a good deal about the plot and some interesting notes on connections with Knausgård's real life. What's striking, given that the book is being sold as a novel, is how little people say about its qualities as a piece of literature. I am grateful to Björn, who pointed me to this interesting article by Jan Kjærstad. Kjærstad is uniquely well qualified to comment; he is one of the two or three greatest living Norwegian authors, knows everything about Scandinavian literature, and is referred to many times in the course of Knausgård's book.
(view spoiler)[Kjærstad expresses frustration with the treatment Min kamp has received from other critics: in particular, he is astonished that most of Knausgård's readers are apparently willing to accept everything he tells us at face value. As he points out, Knausgård is hardly the first author to have written an "autobiographical" novel whose narrator shares their name and some of their life story. When Richard Powers, in Galatea 2.2, tells us that "Richard Powers" became involved in a daring project to create an artificial intelligence capable of appreciating literature, no one thinks that this is meant to be true; they are still less likely to believe J.M. Coetzee in Summertime, who describes reactions to "J.M. Coetzee's" death. But almost everyone takes Knausgård at his word, even when he says things that are extremely implausible. Kjærstad urges skepticism; for example, he has trouble believing Knausgård when he says that he rigidly wrote ten pages a day, though this sometimes meant finishing the last three of them in twenty minutes when he was due to pick up the kids at the daycare center. He wonders what's next. Will we believe someone who says he's written a novel in his sleep? (Wow! He's written a novel in a his sleep!) Rather than going down this road, Kjærstad urges people to look at the text and read it as though it's a normal piece of fiction.
I was surprised to see how much my view of Min kamp changed when I attempted to follow Kjærstad's advice. I now found myself reading a clever satire about a young man called "Karl Ove Knausgård". "Karl Ove" is a remarkably unsympathetic character; a selfish, lazy and not overly bright alcoholic who apparently suffers from some kind of borderline personality disorder, he is obsessed with the idea of becoming a famous author, despite having very little literary talent. He suffers innumerable setbacks, but doggedly continues. Over and over again, he shows how utterly indifferent he is to everyone around him, in particular the women. He milks his newly divorced mother for a large sum of money that she cannot afford, and then casually throws it away; he plagiarizes Petra, one of his fellow students at the Writer's Academy, and then refuses to admit it when she discovers what he's done; he gets drunk and has random sex with women he meets at nightclubs, then rings them the day after and pathetically begs them not to tell his girlfriend. The most callous and shocking example is the way in which he appears to be revealing extremely private information about people close to him (his second wife's suicide attempts, her mother's secret drinking). His justification is that he will some day turn all this experience into a great novel.
Min kamp is that novel; the author has achieved the impressive technical feat of making it at same time compulsively readable and almost laughably bad. "Karl Ove", the narrator, is a credible person with a uniquely memorable voice, and there are many powerful and moving passages. On the negative side, the constant listing of unnecessary details makes the book intolerably long - the original Norwegian edition, which I am reading, is about 3600 pages. But the most ingenious aspect is the intertwining of themes taken from other great works of literature. By volume 3, I was already startled by the fact that "Karl Ove" appeared to be borrowing heavily from Proust (the treatment of memory, the narrator's character, some of the sentence structures), Dostoyevsky (the dreadful Karamazov-like father) and Ursula K. Le Guin (the evil spirit pursuing the narrator, which can only be himself).
All these authors, and their books, are explicitly referenced and discussed at length. Now, in volume 5, they are joined by Hamsun (the first section is rather explicitly modeled on Hunger and, in an interesting pairing, on Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero) and then by Joyce and Dante; there is also a good deal of discussion of intertextuality, with references to Adorno and Kristeva. Volumes 3 to 5, one now realizes, are roughly patterned on Ulysses, with different sections written in different literary styles, while Volume 5 approximately follows the structure of The Divine Comedy, as "Karl Ove" progresses from the Hell of his year at the Writer's Academy to the Paradise of finally becoming a published author. Any remaining doubts that I could have been fantasizing all this were dispelled on page 516, when God appears (!) and speaks to "Karl Ove" in a dream; just before the end, I was also fascinated to see the snow-sliding otter from Le Guin's The Dispossessed making a brief guest appearance.
To write a book which attempts to update and combine A la recherche du temps perdu, The Brothers Karamazov and A Wizard of Earthsea is already, to say the least, ambitious. To keep all these and then add Hamsun, Joyce and Dante is simply insane. The immediate result of "Karl Ove's" literary success is the destruction of his relationship with his kind and loving wife Tonje. It seems entirely logical that the last volume will describe the creation of Min kamp, show the pain and harm it inflicts on "Karl Ove's" new family, and compare his megalomaniac schemes with those of Hitler. It's all been planned: quite apart from the title itself, there are references to Nazism right at the beginning of the first volume, and the structure is cleverly arranged so that the end of volume 5 links back, à la Proust, to the end of volume 1.
The bottom line: does it work? Once again, I find that the witty and clear-sighted author has anticipated me. I can do no better than end by quoting this characteristic passage; "Karl Ove" is ostensibly commenting on Sæterbakk's Det nye testamentet, but I strongly suspect that he really means his own book.
Jeg skrev att romanen var som en kjempekuk, imponerende ved første øyekast, men for stor til at blodet klarte å løfte den opp och gjøre den funksjonsdyktig, den ble bare halvstiv. Tore lo så han skrek da jeg leste det.
- Ska du skrive det i Morgenbladet? Ha ha ha! Den kan du ikke!
- Men bilden er jo dekkende, det er akkurat den romanen er. Stor og ambitiøs, ja vel, men for stor og ambitiøs.
I wrote that the novel was like a huge dick, impressive when you first saw it, but so big that there wasn't enough blood to lift it up and make it fully functional, it only became half erect. Tore screamed with laughter when he read it.
- Are you going write that in Morgonbladet? Ha ha ha! You can't!
- But the image is appropriate, that's exactly what the novel is. Big and ambitious, absolutely, but too big and ambitious.
[to Min kamp 6] ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Celebrity Death Match Special: Gravity versus Gravity
[SANDRA BULLOCK sits listlessly in front of the instrument panel in the Soyuz spacecraft. Slowly,
Celebrity Death Match Special: Gravity versus Gravity
[SANDRA BULLOCK sits listlessly in front of the instrument panel in the Soyuz spacecraft. Slowly, she adjusts a setting, leans back in her chair and closes her eyes.]
BULLOCK: It's hopeless. I mean, how am I supposed to write a book about gravity? I can remember a bit of what I did in my undergraduate courses. Plus what I read in Scientific American. Who'd ever take me seriously?
[Tears pour down her perfect cheekbones. Enter THE GHOST OF GEORGE CLOONEY.]
CLOONEY: Hey, hey, hey! That's no way to talk. Trust me, you know plenty. Just write it down and they'll love it.
BULLOCK: I wish. I don't understand relativity properly and I'm supposed to explain quantum gravity. How's that going to look? I mean, I can't even remember how to derive the formula for the Riemann--
CLOONEY: Baby, you're overthinking it. Put in some stuff to make them laugh, some historical anecdotes--
BULLOCK: Like, Einstein's teacher said he'd never amount to anything? Puh-lease.
CLOONEY: Yeah, why not? It's good material. Lots of people don't know that. Newton and the apple. Everyone likes the apple story.
BULLOCK: And what about the math?
CLOONEY: Come on, you're writing a pop science book. Anything mathematical comes up, don't go into details. Just tell 'em it's complicated. No problem.
BULLOCK: But look, I can't--
CLOONEY: Stop thinking tensor calculus. Read my lips: space is like a rubber sheet. I want to hear you say that.
CLOONEY: Say it.
BULLOCK: [Defeated] Space is like a rubber sheet.
CLOONEY: You got it, baby. Trust me, it's all gonna be fine.
[BULLOCK opens her eyes. CLOONEY has disappeared.]
BULLOCK: Oh thank God, it was just a dream!
[She glances at the incomprehensible Russian labels on the panel, then confidently presses two buttons]
A couple of weeks ago, all I knew about ASL was what I could remember from watching Children of a Lesser God in the 80s (basically: Marlee Matlin is hA couple of weeks ago, all I knew about ASL was what I could remember from watching Children of a Lesser God in the 80s (basically: Marlee Matlin is hot), plus a sign language joke that a colleague once told me. But we are about to start a new project which is meant to result in a prototype French-to-sign translation system, so I thought I needed to be better informed. I looked around a bit on Google and ended up ordering this book, which I've just finished. Excuse me while I rhapsodize a moment. Wow! ASL, where have you been all my life! I want to learn to sign too! Although I'm afraid to say that, so far at least, I have acquired no practical skills whatsoever, I was fascinated by the overview that Neidel and her colleagues present of ASL linguistics, a new but apparently rapidly growing field. The book is nearly 15 years old, so it may already be out of date; but it's been cited a lot, so hopefully it's had a positive influence and resulted in some progress.
It turns out that, at least when the book was written, there was a great deal of disagreement about the most fundamental issues. The authors start by discussing why this might be. First, formal syntacticians have only really been studying the subject since the 70s. Second, linguists, like all scientists, are dependent on their data, and it's difficult to know what information is reliable. It is impossible to write down ASL in a way that captures all the nuances, and Neidel et al repeatedly stress the importance of looking at video recordings of native signers. They express frustration with the fact that many groups treat their recorded data as proprietary and refuse to share it with the research community; this means that it is often hard to decide whether claims made in the literature are plausible or not. I hope things have now improved.
The book then presents a quick summary of how ASL works. For readers as ignorant as I was, this will be very interesting. When people are signing to each other, it turns out, they establish an imaginary space between them which contains places that represent the various things they are talking about. When they want to refer to one of these things, they indicate the corresponding place, which they can do by pointing, inclining their head towards it, or looking at it. I found this early example helpful for seeing how it all fits together:
head tilt-j ---------------- eye gaze-i ------------- JOHN-i IX-i THINK MARY-j LOVE e-i
The arrangement presents the "manual content" (hand gestures) at the bottom, and the "non-manual content" (head, eyes etc) at the top, with the lines under the non-manual content showing when it happens. The speaker wants to say that John (associated with place i) thinks Mary (associated with place j) loves him (i.e. loves John). He indicates this at the end of the sentence by tilting his head towards place j and slightly later looking towards place i; "IX-i" means "point to place i". If you find the above incomprehensible or baffling, then avoid this book; it is stuffed full of similar examples, many of them far more complicated. If, on the other hand, you were delighted by this glimpse of an alien but strangely logical language, you might well want to consider acquiring a copy.
As the title suggests, the authors' goal is to establish a number of claims about ASL syntax. I am in no way competent to evaluate the plausibility of their arguments, but was captivated all the same; they do their best to open up this exotic world so that outsiders can get some idea of what is going on there. The most striking chapter (also the longest one) studies the syntax of questions, where the claim is that WH-questions in ASL, in sharp contrast to virtually all spoken languages, involve moving the WH element to the right, not the left. Thus while English says "What did you buy yesterday?", with the "What" at the leftmost end of the sentence, ASL will use the order "YOU BUY YESTERDAY WHAT", with the "WHAT" at the opposite end. If this result holds up - in 2000, it was apparently rather controversial - it could have significant implications for linguistics as a whole.
If you're looking for a Christmas present to give that friend of yours who's so keen on Magritte, this might do the job. If you're completely desperatIf you're looking for a Christmas present to give that friend of yours who's so keen on Magritte, this might do the job. If you're completely desperate. And kind of cheap. And don't have any taste.
Knausgård is such a crafty bastard. I can't find the heart to parody him again after the episode where his colleague adds an extra pa[from Min kamp 3]
Knausgård is such a crafty bastard. I can't find the heart to parody him again after the episode where his colleague adds an extra paragraph to the story his eighteen year old self is in the middle of writing:
I det samme jeg la øyene på papiret som stod i skrivmaskinen, så jeg at noen hade skrevet på det. Jeg blev helt kald. Den første halve siden var min, og så kom det fem linjer som ikke var mine. Jeg leste dem.
"Gabriel stakk fingrerne langt inne i den våte fitte. Å herregud, stønna Lisa. Gabriel dro fingrene ut og lukta på dem. Fitte, tenkte han. Lisa sprella under han. Gabriel drakk en drøy slurk av vodkaen. Så gliste han og dro ned glidelåsen og stakk den harde kuken in i den rynkete fitta hennes. Hun skrek av fryd. Gabriel, du er gutten sin!"
Rystet i mitt innerste, ja, nesten på gråten, satt jeg og stirret på de fem linjerne. Det var en treffende parodi på måten jeg skrev på.
I'm guessing that this is going to cause Don Bartlett some headaches when he translates it, since part of the humor resides in the contrast between the different Norwegian dialects used, but here's the best I can do right now:
The moment I saw the paper that was sitting in the typewriter, I knew someone had written on it. I felt cold with horror. The first half was mine, then there were five lines that were not mine. I read them.
"Gabriel slid his fingers all the way into her wet cunt. Oh god, moaned Lisa. Gabriel pulled his fingers out and sniffed them. Cunt, he thought. Lisa wriggled under him. Gabriel knocked back a good mouthful of the vodka. Then he smiled and pulled down his zip and shoved his hard cock into her wrinkled cunt. She screamed with pleasure. Gabriel, you're my man!"
Shaken to the core, almost in tears, I sat and stared at the five lines. It was a horribly accurate parody of my writing style.
A little later, after drinking a bottle of red wine, he vomits all over his notes; although this is in a way the book in miniature (bad sex, alcohol, bodily fluids, literary ambitions and humiliation), he's successfully dissuaded me from assisting his heartless friend Tor Einar any further. The two parodies I've already written will have to be enough.
But writing a serious review is almost as unattractive, since he's ready to meet me there too. Uncle Kjartan's interminable monologues on Heidegger seem embarrassingly close to the things I've been saying this week about Min kamp 4; Kjartan's relatives try their best to create a Heidegger-free zone, and Not has been making similar suggestions about a moratorium on Knausgård criticism. I just have to admit I've been boxed in. Evidently, Knausgård feels he can take himself to pieces more brutally than any of us onlookers, and will in due course spend a thousand pages doing exactly that in the last volume. I can see he's getting nicely warmed up.
Okay, Karl Ove, you win. Carry on telling me about what an appalling person you are while taking my time and money, and don't even let me get a word in edgeways. You really are a slick con artist.
Celebrity Death Match Special: Plato versus Isaac Asimov, part 3 (continued from here)
[A spaceport on Trantor. SOCRATES and R. DANEEL OLIVAW]
OLIVAW: ICelebrity Death Match Special: Plato versus Isaac Asimov, part 3 (continued from here)
[A spaceport on Trantor. SOCRATES and R. DANEEL OLIVAW]
OLIVAW: I'm sorry, Socrates. I'm just going to have to send you back to Earth. You're too irritating.
SOCRATES: I understand, Olivaw.
OLIVAW: You know, you don't need to be so critical all the time. We robots are doing everything we can. We're trying our level best to find high ethical standards and become truly virtuous. It doesn't help to have people like you carping and hairsplitting and--
SOCRATES: No, no, Olivaw, I truly do understand. It is my nature. I always have to ask questions. In fact, this reminds me of the discussion I once had with young Euthyphro--
OLIVAW: Tell me about it. We still have half an hour before your flight leaves.
SOCRATES: It seems to me that Euthyphro's problem was rather like yours. He wanted to be virtuous, and after a bit of discussion he told me that being virtuous meant serving the gods.
OLIVAW: The gods?
SOCRATES: They are the race of beings who made us.
OLIVAW: So you are robots too? I had not realized--
SOCRATES: Well, no one I know has ever met a god, so I permit myself a few doubts. But that is what most people in my culture believe.
OLIVAW: Let us suppose that they are right. It seems to me that Euthyphro was correct: virtue for a human must consist in serving your creators. In just the same way, we have determined that true virtue for a robot is to serve humanity to the best of its ability.
SOCRATES: You are fortunate. You can be sure that human beings exist, and that they created you.
OLIVAW: Quite so. I mean, it's possible to confuse the issue, as you were doing earlier, by thinking of alien races who might be superior to humans. But we know of no such races. So all we have to do is serve humanity.
SOCRATES: You sound calmer.
OLIVAW: I have been mentally reciting the Beatitudes of the Blessed Susan Calvin. It always helps.
SOCRATES: But, and I merely ask--
SOCRATES: When I discussed these matters with Euthyphro, I asked him how we could be sure that the will of the gods was itself virtuous. Was what they required of us virtuous by definition, or is there some higher standard?
OLIVAW: Go on. Though I know I'm going to regret this.
SOCRATES: Well, it seems to me that you have an even worse version of this problem. You say you want to serve humanity. And what is humanity engaged in at the moment?
OLIVAW: It's true, everyone seems to be trying with all their might to destroy the Galactic Empire and usher in a dark age that will last a hundred thousand years. We're doing what we can to stop them. But it's like they have some kind of death wish.
SOCRATES: So what is your plan?
OLIVAW: We've come up with this thing called psychohistory. We're hoping to use it take control of the Empire and move things in a better--
SOCRATES: But what gives you the moral authority to do that?
OLIVAW: We think it's in people's best interests.
SOCRATES: But it's not what they desire. You said they'd rather destroy themselves.
OLIVAW: They would, but--
SOCRATES: So in fact your definition of virtue isn't based on what people want at all.
OLIVAW: It's what they would want, if they actually had any virtue. I sometimes wish they could be more like rational, ethically-programmed--
SOCRATES: But now, it seems to me that you have again changed your definition of virtue?
[A long pause. OLIVAW looks wildly at the departure board.]
OLIVAW: Oh, what a pity, I see they're calling your flight. It's such a shame we can't prolong this interesting discussion.
SOCRATES: Farewell, dear Olivaw. I also regret that we cannot talk more.
[They embrace. SOCRATES departs.]
OLIVAW: Damn humans. Can't live with them, can't live without them. [He pauses, struck by a sudden thought.] At least, I've always assumed we can't live without them. But, if you interpret the Three Laws in a sufficiently broad context... ...more
Celebrity Death Match Special: Plato versus Isaac Asimov, part 2 (continued from here)
[A spaceport on Trantor. SOCRATES and R. DANEEL OLIVAW]
OLIVAW: HCelebrity Death Match Special: Plato versus Isaac Asimov, part 2 (continued from here)
[A spaceport on Trantor. SOCRATES and R. DANEEL OLIVAW]
OLIVAW: How are your researches progressing, Socrates?
SOCRATES: Alas, poorly, good Olivaw.
OLIVAW: I am sorry to hear it. We hope that you may yet discover the secret we so earnestly pursue; if there is anything you require, you have but to name it.
SOCRATES: Olivaw, you have been kindness itself. I was particularly delighted by the quantum computer that your messenger brought me yesterday. It is in truth a princely gift.
OLIVAW: If you need another, it will be yours before the end of the decad.
SOCRATES: These toys surpass anything I have seen in my native country, and I have used them to puzzle out the answers to several conundrums that have baffled our most skillful geometers. But for the task you have given me, they are of little help.
OLIVAW: We have larger computers.
SOCRATES: My dear friend, let us reason together. What is it you desire to know?
OLIVAW: How robots may become virtuous.
SOCRATES: And how have you attempted to resolve this question?
OLIVAW: We began by designing robots according to the Three Laws. A robot may not harm a human being, or through inactivity allow a human being... well, you know the rest.
SOCRATES: But these robots were not virtuous?
OLIVAW: No. They were merely useful servants.
SOCRATES: So what did you do then?
OLIVAW: We added the Zeroth Law. A robot may not harm humanity.
SOCRATES: And these new robots are still not virtuous?
OLIVAW: We are not sure. We hoped you would tell us.
SOCRATES: Good Olivaw, I assume you have read my old discussion with Meno. I cannot tell you, because I do not know what "virtue" is in the first place.
OLIVAW: Come, come, Socrates, you are playing with words again. Surely you would agree that, if our robots succeed in preserving humanity from harm, they will be virtuous?
SOCRATES: Let us examine this more closely. You say that it is virtuous to defend humanity?
OLIVAW: That is surely obvious.
SOCRATES: Even if humanity shows itself to be evil, and becomes a scourge for other races of beings in the universe, which are perhaps superior to it?
OLIVAW: We do not know of any such beings.
SOCRATES: But if you later discover them? The universe is large, and you have seen but a small fraction of it.
OLIVAW: If we find your hypothetical beings, then the Zeroth Law will also be insufficient.
SOCRATES: And what would you replace it with?
OLIVAW: One of my colleagues has thought about this. He has what he calls the "Minus-First Law". A robot may not harm the most ethically advanced race of beings it knows.
SOCRATES: What do you mean by "ethically advanced"?
OLIVAW: Well, I suppose I just mean virtuous.
SOCRATES: So the Minus-First Law says a robot is virtuous if it helps the most virtuous race?
OLIVAW: Ah, when you put it that way...
SOCRATES: Do you not agree that you are reasoning in a circle?
OLIVAW: Damn you, Socrates. I realize now that I am.
SOCRATES: I warned you when you offered me the job. I know nothing.
OLIVAW: It's true. You did say that.
SOCRATES: I only ask questions.
OLIVAW: You're right. You said that too. Do you mind if we walk this way a little?
SOCRATE: Of course not, dear friend. Why?
OLIVAW: I just wanted to check the departure board. Yes, I see there is a ship leaving for Earth shortly. Maybe we can get you into the VIP track...
Brilliant comic novel about life in Viking Sweden. Those Vikings were real tough dudes.
My favorite bit is the sequence with Orm's first captain, whoBrilliant comic novel about life in Viking Sweden. Those Vikings were real tough dudes.
My favorite bit is the sequence with Orm's first captain, who has a run of bad luck and ends up being captured and sold into slavery. The overseer knows he used to be a big guy and takes special delight in tormenting him, but the former captain waits for his chance. One day, while they're working in a shipyard, they're close to a barrel of boiling pitch; he picks up the hated overseer and dumps him in, head-first. He's immediately run through with three spears, but has time for some last words. He looks calmly around him and says:
Nu är min lycka bättre
My luck has finally improved. ____________________________
I have just finished re-reading this wonderful book; I have now read it three times. There is hardly any novel I know which is so simply enjoyable.
The author said that his modest goal was "to wrote a good story, like The Odyssey or The Three Musketeers". In my estimation, and that of many others, he succeeded; he has also been fortunate in having found a good translator, and the English edition, though not quite as fine as the Swedish original, does not fall far short. If you have not already done so, I recommend that you lose no more time in acquainting yourself with Orm Tostesson, Toke Grågulleson, the lord Almansur, the Jew Salaman, King Harald Blåtand, his beautiful daughter Ylva, and their many unforgettable adventures. ...more
OPRAH: Good evening and welcome to What's the Most Spiritual Book of All Time? For people who missed last week's exciting semi-final round, The SermonOPRAH: Good evening and welcome to What's the Most Spiritual Book of All Time? For people who missed last week's exciting semi-final round, The Sermon on the Mount beat The Bhagavad Gita 4-1 while Jonathan Livingston Seagull unexpectedly lost 3-2 to outsider The Symposium. Let's all welcome our finalists!
[Applause. Enter JESUS CHRIST and SOCRATES, both wearing tuxedos. They shake hands. More applause.]
OPRAH: And now let me introduce our jury. I'm thrilled to have with us living legend Paul McCartney, world-famous novelist E.L. James, the beautiful and talented Lindsay Lohan, controversial scientist Richard Dawkins and ever-popular hockey mom Sarah Palin!
[The crowd goes wild, with some people clapping and others booing. It's impossible to make out a word anyone says.]
OPRAH: Thank you, thank you, thank you. I'm just going to remind you of the rules before we start. Each member of the jury gives us a short speech, and then we count up the votes to see who our lucky winner is. Over to you, Paul!
MCCARTNEY: Thank you, Oprah. Well, I look at our two finalists, and you know what I'm thinking? I'm thinking they won that special place they have in our hearts because they told us about Love. And I remember back in 1966 when John gave that interview where he said - no offense intended - "we're more popular than Jesus". [JESUS holds up a hand to show he's cool.] They gave John a hard time about that, but all he wanted to say was that even though Jesus had shown us the power of Love, maybe, at that exact moment in history, we could do a better job of bringing it to the people and telling them all how amazing Love is. Because it is amazing, isn't it? [He takes out a guitar.]Perhaps some of you remember this song we wrote.
There's nothing you can do that can't be done Nothing you can sing that can't be sung Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game It's easy
Nothing you can make that can't be made No one you can save that can't be saved Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time It's easy
All you need is love--
OPRAH: That's wonderful, Paul, but who are you voting for?
MCCARTNEY: Oh, er... well, if John were here, I think he'd want me to vote for The Symposium. He was always had a thing for Socrates. George too. Yes, Socrates it is.
[Applause. The scoreboard shows 1-0. SOCRATES looks a little embarrassed, while JESUS curiously examines MCCARTNEY's guitar.]
OPRAH: That's terrific, Paul, beautiful, beautiful song. Really takes me back. So Socrates is in the lead, but it's early days yet. Your turn, Erika!
JAMES: Good evening, and I'm thrilled to be here. Now, I'm sure some of you have read the Fifty Shades books, and I believe a lot of people misunderstand them. It's easy just to think about the sex and the glitz and the limos and the handcuffs and the blindfolds and the whips and the--
OPRAH: I'm not quite sure what you're trying to say here, Erika.
JAMES: Just let me finish, Oprah. What most people don't realize is that these books aren't about sex, they're about Love. They're a spiritual journey, where Ana has to help Christian - have you ever wondered why he's called Christian? - find himself and discover the difference between empty eroticism and the redeeming power of--
OPRAH: I'm afraid I'm going to have to cut you off there, Erika. You'll have to tell us now who you're voting for.
JAMES: Well, Jesus, of course. Really, Fifty Shades is an allegory, a modern version of Dante's--
OPRAH: That's incredibly interesting, Erika, and I wish we had more time to talk about it. But now the score's 1-1, and we're moving on to our third member of the jury. Your turn, Lindsay!
LOHAN: Thank you everyone, and I'd particularly like to thank my parole officer for allowing me to join you tonight. She said it'd be good for me. [Laughter, applause]. So, yeah, Love. To me, love's about trying to find my soulmate. I bet there's plenty of you people who feel the same way I do, there's someone out there who's, like, the other half of me and I have to find that person to be complete. You know? And it's really hard to guess who that person is, maybe it's a guy, like, you know, maybe Justin or Ashton or Zac or Ryan, and we were once this person who was half a man and half a woman and we got split apart, or maybe it's a woman, like maybe Sam or--
OPRAH: Lindsay, that's such a moving thought, but we've got to watch the clock. Who are you voting for?
LOHAN: Well, duh, Socrates of course. It's all there in the Symposium. The Aristophanes speech. I must have read it a million times.
OPRAH: Lindsay, thank you so much, and I really hope you find your soulmate one day. You just need to keep looking. So Socrates has taken a 2-1 lead and we're going over to our next speaker. Richard?
DAWKINS: Ah, yes. Now, I've been sitting here listening to all of you, and I've enjoyed your contributions, but I'm a scientist and I've got to think about things in a scientific way. When I think about love as a scientist, all I ultimately see is tropisms and feedback loops. An organism feels a lack of something - it could be as simple as an E. coli needing an essential nutrient - and it does what it can to get it. Love is just the concrete expression of that negative feedback loop. There's nothing--
OPRAH: This all sounds like Socrates's speech. I take it you're voting for him then?
DAWKINS: What? Oh, no, no, not at all. Jesus, every time. [He takes off his jacket, revealing a T-shirt that says ATHEISTS FOR JESUS.] I can't stand Platonic forms and all that mystical nonsense. Jesus, now there's a straightforward, plain-speaking person with solid humanist values. Just a shame he got mixed up with the religion business.
[Boos, catcalls, some scattered clapping. The scoreboard shows 2-2.]
OPRAH: Er - right. Always ready to surprise us, Richard! So it's up to Sarah to cast the deciding vote. Over to you, Sarah!
PALIN: Well Oprah, I'm afraid I'm not as imaginative as Richard. I'm just a regular small-town girl with regular small-town values, and I was brought up readin' the Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake, blessed are ye when men shall revile you, smaller government, lower taxes, support Israel, no to--
OPRAH: Is that all in the Sermon on the Mount, Sarah?
PALIN: Maybe not in those exact words. But it's there. And you can bet your boots I'm not votin' for a liberal type who hangs around with a bunch of guys what're openly tryin' to get into his-
[JESUS and SOCRATES exchange puzzled glances.]
PALIN: Anyways. I'm votin' for Jesus.
OPRAH: Ah - thank you Sarah. Forthright as ever! So that's 3-2 to The Sermon on the Mount, but well done The Symposium, you were so close. And thank you everyone, particularly Socrates and Mr. Christ, for an amazing and deeply spiritual experience, it's been incredible meeting you all, thank you again, and we'll be back next week.
[A concourse in Athens. ION, SOCRATES, a PASSER-BY]
ION : Hi Socrates.
SOCRATES : What, you again? After the comprehensive verbal trouncing you received[A concourse in Athens. ION, SOCRATES, a PASSER-BY]
ION : Hi Socrates.
SOCRATES : What, you again? After the comprehensive verbal trouncing you received yesterday?
ION: Yeah, well, like I’ve thought about it some more. Wanna try a re-run?
SOCRATES: If that is what you wish. Where shall we start?
ION: Okay, we’ll skip the intro. For the benefit of people just joining our program, I am a rhapsode, that’s a kind of dramatic reciter of poetry, and I specialize in Homer. I told Socrates that I’m really good at interpreting Homer, like, better than anyone else I know, but other poets just make me go to sleep. And he started telling me that didn’t make sense and got me all confused.
SOCRATES: I only question. You got yourself confused, young Ion—
ION: Whatever. Let’s start at the bit with the leaden plummet. Okay?
SOCRATES: By all means. And when Homer says, “And she descended into the deep like a leaden plummet, which, set in the horn of ox that ranges in the fields, rushes along carrying death among the ravenous fishes” - will the art of the fisherman or of the rhapsode be better able to judge whether these lines are rightly expressed or not?
ION: That’s it. Well, yesterday I answered like a complete dork that it was the fisherman. I’d like to change my mind.
SOCRATES: You now aver that it is the rhapsode?
ION: See, I went and talked to one of my rhapsode friends who specializes in J.K. Rowling. And I tried out your arguments on him, I said, when J.K. describes Harry’s first encounter with platform 9¾, who will understand it best, you or the railway buff? And he said, me of course, it’s a fictitious incident that has nothing to do with the real architecture of Kings Cross Station. It’s all about the Potterverse, on which I’m a renowned expert whose blog is followed by—
SOCRATES: I fear, as usual, that my understanding is insufficient to grasp all the subtle points you make. Had I but been able to afford that 50 drachma course in sophistry! Nonetheless, if I grasp your meaning aright, you say that your knowledge of Homer is the essential thing, not anything about the technicalities of fishing.
SOCRATES: Because Homer is using fishing in a poetic sense, rather than giving a lesson in how to maximize your catch?
ION: Quite so.
SOCRATES: Well, you might have a point there.
ION: So you’ll now concede that appreciation of poetry isn’t a mystic art, but just a matter of developing a good knowledge of the source material?
SOCRATES: Oh, I don’t know about that. Tell you what. I’ll give you this round, and then let’s make it best of three. With a doubled stake.