Posts Tagged ‘Charles Darwin’

Books on God and Religion

March 17, 2018

On Thursday, Jo, one of the great commenters to this blog, asked my a couple of questions on the nature of the Almighty, which I tried to answer as best I could. I offered to put up here a few books, which might help people trying to explore for themselves the theological and philosophical ideas and debates about the nature of God, faith, religion and so on. I set up this blog about a decade and a half ago to defend Christianity against attacks by the New Atheists. I don’t really want to get sidetracked back there, because some of these issues will just go on forever if you let them. And I’m far more concerned to bring people of different religions and none together to combat the attacks by the Tories and the Blairites on the remains of the welfare state, the privatisation of the NHS, and the impoverishment and murder of the British public, particularly the disabled, in order to further enrich the corporate elite. Especially as the Tories seem to want to provoke war with Russia.

But here are some books, which are written for ordinary people, which cover these issues, which have helped me and which I hope others reading about these topics for themselves will also find helpful.

The Thinker’s Guide to God, Peter Vardy and Julie Arliss (Alresford: John Hunt Publishing 2003)

This book is written by two academics from a Christian viewpoint, and discusses the Western religious tradition from Plato and Aristotle. It has the following chapters

1. Thinking About God – Plato and Aristotle
2.The God of the Philosophers
3. The God of Sacred Scripture
4. Religious Language
5. The Challenge of Anti-Realism
6. Arguments for the Existence of God
7. The Attributes of God
8. Life After Death
9. Miracles and Prayer
10. Jesus, the Trinity, and Christian Theology
11. Faith and Reason
12 Attacks on God, Darwin, Marx and Freud
13 God and Science
14 Quantum Science, Multi-Dimensions and God

God: A Guide for the Perplexed, Keith Ward, (Oxford: OneWorld 2003)

1. A Feeling for the Gods
God, literalism and poetry, A world full of Gods, Descartes and the cosmic machine, Wordsworth and Blake, the gods and poetic imagination, Conflict among the gods, Friedrich Schleiermacher: a Romantic account of the gods; Rudolf Otto: the sense of the numinous; Martin Buber: life as meeting, Epilogue: the testimony of a secularist.

2. Beyond the gods
Prophets and seers; The prophets of Israel and monotheism; Basil, Gregory Palamas and Maimonides: the apophatic way; Thomas Aquinas: the simplicity of God; The five ways of demonstrating God; Pseudo-Dyonysius the Areopagite; The doctrine of analogy; Three mystics.

3. The Love that moves the sun
The 613 commandments; Pigs and other animals; the two great commandments; The Ten Commandments; Jesus and the Law; Calvin and the Commandments, Faith and works; Theistic morality as fulfilling God’s purpose; Kant, the categorical imperative and faith, God as creative freedom, affective knowledge and illimitable love.

4. The God of the Philosophers

God and Job; Plato and the gods; the vision of the Good; Appearance and Reality; Augustine and creation ex nihilo, Aristotle and the Perfect Being; Augustine and Platonism; Anselm and Necessary Being; Evil, necessity and the Free Will defence; Creation as a timeless act; Faith and understanding.

5. The Poet of the World

The timeless and immutable God; The rejection of Platonism; Hegel and the philosophy of Absolute Spirit; Marx and the dialectic of history; Pantheism and panentheism; Time and creativity, The redemption of suffering; History and the purposive cosmos; Process philosophy; The collapse of the metaphysical vision.

6. The darkness between stars

Pascal: faith and scepticism; A.J. Ayer; the death of metaphysics; Scientific hypotheses and existential questions; Kierkegaard: truth as subjectivity; Sartre; freedom from a repressive God; Heidegger and Kierkegaard: the absolute
paradox; Tillich: religious symbols; Wittgenstein: pictures of human life; Religious language and forms of life; Religion and ‘seeing-as’; Spirituality without belief; Non-realism and God; The silence of the heart.

7. The personal ground of being

God as omnipotent person; The problem of evil; Fichte, Schelling, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche: beyond good and evil; Omniscience and creative freedom; God: person or personal; Persons as relational; The idea of the Trinity; The revelatory roots of religion; Conclusion: Seven ways of thinking about God.

Bibliography

Teach Yourself Philosophy of Religion, by Mel Thompson, (London: HodderHeadline 1997)

Introduction
What is the philosophy of Religion?
Why study religion in this way?
What is involved?
The structure of this book
What this book aims to do.

1. Religious Experiences
Starting with experience
What happens when you experience something?
What is religious experience?
Induced religious experiences
Prayer
Conversion
Mysticism
Charismatic experiences
Revelation
Some features of religious experience
What can we know?
Authority and response
Conclusion

2.Religious Language
A private language?
Knowledge and description
Faith, reason and beliefs
The rational and the non-rational
Interpreting language
Cognitive and non-cognitive
Language games
The limitations of language

3. God: the concepts
God as creator
Eternal
Omnipotent
Omniscient
Transcendence and immanence
Theism, pantheism and panentheism
Atheism, agnosticism and secularism
Nietzsche: God is dead
Secular interpretations of God
A postmodernist interpretation
The Christian concept of God: the Trinity
Beliefs, language and religion
Saints?
Religious alternatives to theism
Basic beliefs

4. God: the arguments
The ontological argument
The cosmological argument
the teleological argument
the moral argument
the argument from religious experience
Conclusion

5. The Self
Bodies, minds and souls
Dualism
materialism
Idealism
Knowing our minds
Joining souls to bodies?
Identity and freedom
Freedom?
Life beyond death
Some conclusions

6. Causes, providence and miracles
Causes
Providence
Miracles
Summary

7. Suffering and evil
The challenge and the response
the problem
God as moral agent
Suffering and the major religions
Coming to terms with suffering
The devil and hell
Religion and terrorism
Summary

8. Religion and Science
The problem science poses for religion
the key issues
the changing world view
the methods of science and religion
the origin of the universe
evolution and humankind
Some conclusions

9. Religion and ethics
Natural law
Utilitarianism
absolute ethics
Morality and facts
How are religion and morality treated?
Values and choices
Conclusion

Postcript, Glossary, Taking it Further

God and Evolution: A Reader, ed. by Mary Kathleen Cunningham (London: Routledge 2007)

Part One
Methodology

1. Charles Hodge ‘The Protestant Rule of Faith’
2. Sallie McFague ‘Metaphor’
3. Mary Midgley ‘How Myths work’
4. Ian G. Barbour ‘The Structures of Science and Religion’.

Part Two
Evolutionary Theory

5. Charles Darwin, ‘On the origin of species
6. Francisco J. Ayala ‘The Evolution of life as overview
7. Michael Ruse ‘Is there are limit to our knowledge of evolution?

Part Three
Creationism

6. Genesis 1-2
7. Ronald J. Numbers ‘The Creationists’.

Part Four
Intelligent Design

10. William Paley ‘Natural Theology’
11. Michael J. Behe ‘Irreducible complexity: Obstacle to Darwinian Evolution’
12. Kenneth R. Miller, ‘Answering the biochemical argument from Design

Part Five
Naturalism

13. Richard Dawkins, ‘The Blind Watchmaker’
14. Richard Dawkins, ‘God’s utility function’
15. Daniel C. Dennett, ‘God’s dangerous idea’
16. Mary Midgley, ‘The quest for a universal acid’
17. Michael Ruse, ‘Methodological naturalism under attack’.

Part Six
Evolutionary Theism

18. Howard J. Van Till, ‘The creation: intelligently designed or optimally equipped?’
19. Arthur Peacock, ‘Biological evolution-a positive theological appraisal’
20. Jurgen Moltmann, ‘God’s kenosis in the creation and consummation of the world’.
21 Elizabeth A. Johnson, ‘Does God play dice? Divine providence and chance’.

Part Seven:
Reformulations of Tradition

22. John F. Haught, ‘Evolution, tragedy, and cosmic paradox’
23. Sallie McFague, ‘God and the world’
24. Ruth Page, ‘Panentheism and pansyntheism: God is relation’
25. Gordon D. Kaufman, ‘On thinking of God as serendipitous creativity’.

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Short Book on William Morris

March 3, 2018

One of the programmes on the BBC Radio 4 series on the history of British Socialism Present by Anne McElvoy was, naturally, on William Morris, the great British artist, writer – he translated a number of Icelandic sagas, and is regarded as one of the founder of modern genre Fantasy – and social activist and revolutionary Socialist, William Morris.

If you don’t have the time or patience for a full scale biography of Morris, but want to know a bit more about him, I can recommend Peter Stansky’s William Morris (Oxford: OUP 1983). It was published as part of OUP’s ‘Past Masters’ series of short biographies of the great figures of the past, like Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Darwin, and so on. It’s only 96 pages, including index. The chapters are as follows:

1. Youth
2. Oxford
3. Red House and the Firm
4. Poetry and Early Politics
5 The 1880s
6 Last Years

There’s also a section for further reading. The blurb for it on the back cover runs

William Morris was one of the great figures of the Victorian age; an artist and craftsman and a successful writer of romances. He was also an ardent socialist and leader of the labour movement. His concern for the place of art in society, and his analysis of that society’s discontent, place Morris as a thinker in the company of Marx and Ruskin. Peter Stansky presents, in the context of his age, and in all his engaging multiplicity, the life and personality of a man whom a contemporary perceptively described as ‘The Earthly Paradox’.

Tony Linford on Toby Young, Eugenics, and Disabled People’s Right to Life

January 25, 2018

This is a piece I found on YouTube by the disabled vlogger, Tony Linford, commenting on Toby Young’s attendance at a eugenics conference at University College London. The video was posted on the 11th January 2018, so it’s somewhat old news now. But I wanted to put it up, as it gives the perspective of a disabled person on Young and his grotty views.

Linford makes the point that the Nazis considered the congenitally disabled ‘lebensunwertigen’ – ‘unworthy of life’, and that they were murdered by the SS as part of the Nazis’ eugenics programme. He goes on to stoutly defend the right of all disabled people to life, and movingly talks about his experience meeting one severely disabled youngster being cared. The lad was in a wheelchair, and was mentally challenged, in the polite way of talking about it. Nevertheless, the lad was full of life and energy, and bubbling with ideas. Linford states that he learned a lot from him. He sadly reflects that the lad’s probably dead by now, but as disabled as he was, he was certainly not ‘lebensunwertigen’.

And discussing Young and his vile opinions on selective breeding, he also wonders how many others in the Tory party also hold the same disgusting views.

My guess is that there’s quite a few, but they keep very, very quiet about it because their leaders know full well the storm of outrage they’ll cause if they ever make their beliefs public. Maggie’s mentor, Keith Joseph, provoked such indignation with his comment in the 1970s that unmarried mothers were ‘a threat to our stock’. Young clearly thought he could get away with such views. Looking at some of the videos on YouTube, it appears that the Spectator had published a piece ‘The Return of Eugenics’, which was plastered all over its front cover. It looks like that after this piece was published, and didn’t seem to have people rioting in the streets, Young thought he would be safe. I am glad that he was profoundly mistaken.

Young and the other Tory eugenics snobs, Ben Bradley, who wanted the unemployed sterilised and the police to play ‘splat the chav’ with watercannon during the London riots six years ago, and his defender James Cleverly, hold thoroughly disgusting views. It’s the same attitude Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics, had, who was terrified that the biologically unfit poor would outbreed respectable, biologically superior middle and upper class people. It’s the views of privileged public schoolboys, who see themselves as innately biologically superior to everyone else, and have nothing but contempt for their social inferiors.

Cleverly tried defending Bradley’s comments about sterilising the unemployed by bleating something about it being at heart, a ‘reasonable’ statement about personal responsibility. Er, no. If the argument was about personal responsibility, then it would have been about encouraging those, who can’t afford children to use contraception. That would be about personal responsibility, as the choice would still be that of the unemployed whether or not they wanted to bring another life into the world.

Bradley’s comment was about denying the unemployed any personal responsibility, by taking away their personal freedom and forcibly sterilising them. It was a moralistic, punitive attitude by someone, who clearly has nothing but a Daily Mail-type rage against the poorest members of society.

And it isn’t just proles and the lumpenproletariat, who become unemployed. It also strikes respectable middle class people. I can remember hearing Tim Waterstone, the founder of the chain of booksellers that bears his name, speaking on the radio one day about how he spent a period unemployed. He described his feelings of absolute humiliation at the experience. Waterstone was lucky, in that I think he went on from this to start up his chain of stores. But others aren’t. They are laid off, or their businesses fail. And the lifestyle they found easy to support on their previously high salaries suddenly become a heavy burden. What happens to these people, if they have large families that they may find difficulty providing for if and when they are made unemployed? In Ben Bradley’s ideal eugenics Britain, would they be sterilised? Or do they get a pass, because they’re nice and middle class? Given the way the Tory party does everything it can to give extra money to the rich, while denying the poor the financial and medical support they need, my guess is that if this happened to a large number of middle class people, Bradley would be loudly screaming about how disgraceful it all was and demanding government support for them. His attitudes show the class snobbery that runs through Tory politics, and particularly through May’s government of privileged toffs.

The Nazis used eugenics not just to murder the disabled, but as part of their attempted extermination of the Jews during the Holocaust. The German historian Martin Broszat, in his The Hitler State, points out that the Nazi murder of the disabled served as a trial run for the mass slaughter of the Jews, including the use of poison gas. And there were Nazis and Nazi-sympathisers over here, who shared the same horrendous views.

One of these was Lord Lymington, an aristocrat, who wished to recreate the rural, agrarian and feudal society he idealised over modern capitalist, industrial society. Lymington was also a fan of eugenics, and in his 1943 book, Alternative to Death: The Relationship between Soil, Family and Community, discussed ‘the dangers of losing our own character from alien influence and blood’ in which he ranted about the threat to British racial purity from ‘the marketer, the unscrupulous trader, the slick haggler, the seditious natural underdog’, who was a type of immigrant ‘too often conditioned to the mental slum and the bazaar’. (See Richard Griffiths, What Did You Do During the War? The Last Throes of the British Pro-Nazi Right (Routledge, 2017) 240-1.) All of which is coded way of playing on anti-Semitic prejudice, without actually spelling it out in so many words. The quote graphically demonstrates why so many people found Young and his belief in eugenics so repulsive, that he ended up resigning from his position on the universities’ regulatory board. And why so many people this week have been extremely unimpressed with Bradley and Cleverly, and their stupid, bigoted, dangerous and contemptible comments.

Chunky Mark on Toby Young’s Attendance at a Eugenics Conference

January 11, 2018

In this short clip, Chunky Mark, the artist taxi driver, expresses his absolute disgust at a report that Toby Young, the grotty right-wing hack Theresa May put on the regulatory board for the universities, attended a secret eugenics conference recently at University College London. What, he asks pointedly, does this say about the Tory party? He points out that Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Jo Johnson, Fraser Nelson and Andrew Neil all defended Young, despite knowing about his foul and dangerous views on this subject.

Up to this video, I was prepared to give Young the benefit of the doubt on eugenics. Yes, he’s an obnoxious, right-wing snob, who’s published pieces sneering at the working class, disabled people and a variety of left-wing issues and causes. This includes the Welsh. I can remember him appearing on one of the TV shows a few years ago describing how he had to sneak out the back way when he appeared on Welsh radio in Cardiff. Young had previously described the Welsh as ‘swarthy, stunted trolls’ or something similar, and one of the station’s listeners had decided that he wasn’t going to put up with it, and had come in to sort the wretched hack out. So Young was forced to scurry down the back stairs to avoid him and a good hiding.

I knew from the various articles on Young, including those put up by Mike over at Vox Political, that he had published a piece arguing for eugenics. This is the pseudoscientific doctrine that some people are biologically unfit, and to maintain the purity and fitness of the race should be prevented from breeding. It was a part of Nazi policy during the Third Reich, when recidivist criminals and the congenitally disabled were sterilised, in order to prevent them passing on their bad biological heritage. It was also the rationale behind the murder of the disabled under Aktion T4, in which the mentally handicapped were taken to special hospitals and gassed by Nazi doctors under the direction of the SS. The Nazis based much of their eugenics legislation on contemporary laws governing biological heredity and disability in America, which provided for the forcible sterilisation of those considered ‘unfit’. Indeed, the Nazis boasted that in this regard, they had not invented anything. Similar views were held by a number of people over this side of the Pond, where eugenics was, in the early part of the 20th century, one of the popular topics among the chattering classes. The Nazis’ crimes against humanity and their mass sterilisation and murder of the disabled, as well as their attempted genocide of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs and other ethnic groups they considered subhuman, were no doubt powerful influences that turned popular and elite opinion against eugenics. Nevertheless, the subject continued to survive amongst a group of supporters. The ‘societies and clubs’ section of Whitaker’s Almanac for 1987 includes the Francis Galton Society, named after Darwin’s cousin, who first promoted the idea, and which existed to promote eugenics.
I’d assumed, however, that when he published the article, Young may not have been entirely serious.

I was wrong.

Young strikes me as little more than a troll, adopting deliberately offensive views and language, in order to upset people. Sort of like Milo Yiannopolis, but heterosexual and without the Jewish heritage. I did wonder if he was one of those Tories, who admire Auberon Waugh, who used to publish similar articles in Private Eye and then the Torygraph sneering at the left, in what was seen by his admirers as some kind of wit. In fact, precious little of what Waugh seemed to me to be at all witty. It mostly seemed to be just abuse. I particularly remember his sneers at teachers in the Torygraph, which in retrospect just followed the Tory line of blaming teachers for everything wrong with British education while screaming loudly about progressive education, left-wing indoctrination and the need to bring back grammar schools. He also appeared on Wogan’s chat show, where he also spewed hate at the Greenham Common female peace protesters, decrying them as ‘lesbians’. Which wasn’t even the most original insult, as just about everyone on the right was claiming they were. Some may well have been, but certainly not all. Especially as some of the early news reports described how many of the women had children, whom they were missing terribly, and so presumably also male partners. I’d assumed Young had adopted eugenics as just another extreme, right-wing pose in order to cause the upset and anger that he appears to thrive on.

But it’s clearly not the case. If he attended this conference, then he really does believe it. Which makes him a positive danger. From the article as it appears in the video, it seems that the report comes from Private Eye, and Chunky Mark states that he can’t even read about some of the things that went on at the conference. But Young was there, along with Nazis and other horrors. As for what it says about the Tory party and its leadership, there always has been a current of extreme right-wing attitudes and policies within the Tory party, and it’s certainly been no barrier to advancement in the Tory ranks. Way back in the 1970s Thatcher’s mentor, Keith Joseph, caused outrage when he declared that unmarried mothers were a threat to ‘our stock’, using the language and attitudes of eugenics. And there has been a fringe of the Tory party that admires and has had links with the Fascist right. Way back in the 1980s one of the Libertarian groups within the Tory party held an annual dinner at which the guest of honour was the head of one of the death squads then exterminating left-wingers in Central America. One of the members of that group, if I recall correctly, was Paul Staines, the founder of the Guido Fawkes blog.

Young has since resigned from his position on the universities’ board, despite being loudly supported by Theresa May. His appointment was, in any case, a calculated insult to students. Young was put in because he favours the privatisation of education, as shown by his promotion of free schools. As for his other, obnoxious views, I’ve no doubt that they appeal to the type of grassroots Tory, including those on the backbenches, who regularly cause a scandal by blaming crime on Blacks and immigration, and rant on about how wonderful Enoch Powell was. At a time when students are worried about paying off tens of thousands in debts and tuition fees, Young and his grotesque opinions were a calculated insult. They showed the Tory faithful the absolute contempt the party really had for these pesky students and their concerns over the quality of the education they were receiving, and the determination of May’s government to continue privatising education and stamping out any trace of perceived left-wing bias, regardless of the wishes of students, lecturers and educationalists themselves. All done so that universities, like schools, would indoctrinate students with the required Tory view of history and politics, as demanded by Michael Gove, amongst others.

Young’s appointment was met with a barrage of complaints and opposition, leading to his resignation. It’s significant that he was not replaced by Theresa May, despite considerable pressure to do so. Some of this may have been weakness on her part. Young was supported by Gove and Johnson, and she may have been afraid that if she sacked Young, those two would move against her, just as they intrigued against Cameron. But it also shows that May, and the rest of the Tory front bench, really don’t see anything wrong with Young’s opinions, even when they include such an inflammatory, dangerous ideology as eugenics.

Chunky Mark ends his video by stating that they should all resign. He’s quite right. This is a brutal, murderous government anyway. It’s policies of stripping away workers rights, enforcing low pay, and zero hours contracts, have forced millions in work into poverty. At the same time, their expansion of the sanctions system have resulted in nearly a quarter of a million people relying on food banks for their next meal, and has led to the deaths of almost a thousand or so disabled people, deprived of benefits after being declared ‘fit for work’. Left-wing commenters like Mike, and the commenters on his and my blogs have called the deaths ‘the genocide of the disabled’, and suggested that it does indeed come from a conscious eugenics policy by the Tories, targeting the disabled for death. But done quietly, so as not to alarm the general public. After reading about Young’s very real support for eugenics, you could be forgiven for wondering if this isn’t, after all, the literal truth.

The Tories are a danger to the working people of Britain, and particularly to the poor and disabled. They should be removed as quickly as possible, and never let back into power.

RT’s Establishment Club Road Trip Bus Comes to Bristol

August 14, 2017

Russia Today are sending their Establishment Club bus on a road trip around the country. The name, if I’m not mistaken, is a homage to the satirical club run in the 1960s by the late, great Peter Cook, and which also displayed the talents of John Bird and John Fortune, who continued making satire with Rory Bremner on his show in the early 2000s. The bus, which is appropriately red, was looking for the best satirical talent around the country. Further auditions are planned for Brighton, Edinburgh and Newcastle.

Compered by Keith Allen, a stand-up comedian and the Sheriff of Nottingham on the Beeb’s recent remake of Robin Hood, as well as the father of pop star Lily, this short, five minute video shows some of the talent they had come aboard when they stopped in my home city of Bristol.

There are four or five performers. One chap does two pieces, including a skit at the end about how the Beeb selectively edits interviews with the general public to create the impression it wants, in this case with a drunk, who needs to be coached before associating Brexit with immigrants, before this is edited to show how Britain is alive with racism. Another fellow sings a song on his ukulele about the Fuhrage’s plane crash. May favourite is the man, who recites a poem about the dismantlement of the welfare state. This piece calls it as it is and identifies the social Darwinism underpinning the policy – he sings about ‘Mr. Darwin’s little theory’. Which might be a little unfair to Darwin, as it was formulated by Herbert Spencer.

Allen did raise a few eyebrows, and appear in the press last week, when he attacked the current state of British stand-up. Using his characteristic earthy language, he said it ‘needed a cattle prod to the bollocks’ because of the careerism amongst too many contemporary comics. All they wanted to do, according to him, was tell jokes about the colour of Trump’s hair, and then get on a panel show.

Buddy Hell over Guy Debord’s Cat has, as another comedian, also lamented the decline in the quality of prospective comics. He has said that all too often they simply recite their life history, without actually being funny or making a joke.

I’m sure there are more genuinely funny people out there, and wish Allen and the RT team every success in finding and nurturing the next crop of comedic talent. Talent that will tear great, bloody chunks off the establishment and its monstrous edifice of bureaucratic indifference, corporate greed, and institutional class hate.

Vox Political: Kipper and Conservative MP Douglas Carswell in Row with Scientists over Tides

September 20, 2016

This piece by Mike over at Vox Political is a real gem, as it encapsulates the profound anti-intellectualism and sheer bone-headed stupidity of the Tories and the Kippers. Mike has posted up a piece commenting on a report in the Independent that Douglas Carswell, the former Tory and now Kipper MP for Clacton, has got into a row with Britain’s scientists over the origins of tides. Conventional science holds that they’re caused by the Moon. Carswell, however, believes they’re caused by the Sun, and has challenged a top scientist at Sussex University’s Science Policy Research Unit over the issue.

The report also notes that this bizarre claim was made after Michael Gove declared that the British people were tired of experts after he failed to name one economist, who thought that Brexit would be good for Britain.

The title of Mike’s piece just about sums up the astonishment Carswell’s claim must cause in everybody, who has any idea about science: Both Tories and Kippers Have Made Douglas Carswell an MP. Read This and Asky Why?

Both Tories and Kippers have made Douglas Carswell an MP. Read this and ask: Why?

Quite. If you’re wondering whether the Moon does cause tides, Mike over in his piece has a clip of Brian Cox explaining the phenomenon.

I’ve a feeling that as far back as the ancient Greeks, it was known that the Moon caused tides. Certainly the great medieval philosopher and scientist Robert Grosseteste of Lincoln knew about it in the Twelfth century. As he was writing several centuries before Isaac Newton discovered the Law of Gravity, Grosseteste believed that they were caused by the Moon’s magnetism, rather than its gravitational effect on Earth. Still, you can’t expect too much of the people of that period, when science was still very much in its infancy. But it nevertheless shows the astonishing advances the people of the Middle Ages were capable of, simply using the most primitive of equipment, observation, and the power of their minds.

This simple fact, that the Moon causes the Earth’s tides, has been put in thousands of textbooks on astronomy and space for children since at least the beginning of mass education and popular science. Astronomy has been a popular hobby for amateurs since at least beginning of the 20th century, and I’ve no doubt probably as far back as the 19th. Generations of children have had the opportunity to learn that the Moon causes tides, along with other interesting and fascinating facts about space. Carswell, however, is clearly the exception, having rejected all that.

It all brings to my mind the conversation Blackadder has with Tom Baker’s bonkers sea captain, Redbeard Rum, in the epdisode ‘Potato’ from the comedy show’s second series. Trying to impress Good Queen Bess by sailing abroad as explorers, Blackadder, Percy and Baldrick plan to fake their expedition by sailing round and round the Isle of Wight instead until they get dizzy. They get lost instead as Rum believes it is possible to sail a ship without a crew. When they ask him if you really can, Rum replies, ‘Opinion is divided.’
‘So who says you don’t?’
‘Me.’
‘So who says you do?’
‘Everybody else.’
‘Bugger!’

Quite.

This exactly describes Carswell’s attitude to space physics. Everybody else believes the Moon causes the tides, except him. I can see this causing yet another panic amongst scientists and ‘science educators’. Way back around 2009, the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, various scientists like Richard Dawkins were running around demanding better science education because polls showed a majority of the British public didn’t believe in it. This was partly a response to the growth in Creationism and Intelligent Design, though both of these views of evolution have had a very limited impact over here in Britain. That controversy seems to have quietened down, though the issue of the continuing need for improved science education has carried on with the persistence denial of climate change and anthropogenic global warming by the Right in both America and Britain. One of the sceptics of global warming and climate change over on this side of the Pond is Nigel Lawson. He’s even written a book about it, which I found the other day in another of Cheltenham’s secondhand book shops. Now that Carswell’s made this statement about the tides, which flies in the face of everything scientists have known since blokes like Aristotle, it wouldn’t surprise me if today’s leading science communicators, like Dawkins, Robert Winston, Alice Roberts, Brian Cox and the rest of them started worrying about this issue as well. And I wouldn’t blame them if they did.

As for Gove’s comment that ‘People in Britain are fed up of experts’, this also reminds me another comment by the American comedian, Bill Hicks. ‘Do I detect an air of anti-intellectualism in this country? Seems to have started about 1980 [the year Reagan was elected].’

If you’re worried that the Tories and UKIP don’t understand science, and are going to take us back to the Dark Ages, be afraid: you’re right. And heaven help the rest of us with them in charge.

Herbert Spencer and the Equation of Collectivism, Socialism and Totalitarianism

February 24, 2016

The Libertarian Right in the American Republican party and the Conservatives over here tends to see Socialism as identical to Communism and collectivism. It’s why Obama has been loudly shouted down as a ‘Communist’ and ‘Nazi’ when he introduced Obamacare and the idea of a single-payer health system. Much of this comes from von Hayek, of course, and Ayn Rand, but it also goes further back to Herbert Spencer in the 19th century. Spencer was the founder of ‘Social Darwinism’, the attitude that state legislation to protect the weak was bad, because it stopped the operation of the Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ which would lead to the gradual emergence of a new, better, fitter, variety of humanity in the course of evolution. And according to G.C. Peden in British Economic and Social Policy, it was also Spencer who identified collectivism as socialism, and claimed that it aimed at the total ownership of the individual and their enslavement, instead of, as Socialists believe, their liberation. Peden states

In his On the Origin of Species, which also appeared in 1859, Darwin portrayed the natural world as one of ceaseless struggle which ensured, by natural selection, the survival of the fittest. It was possible, by analogy, to draw the conclusion that efforts to protect the weak at the expense of the strong would retard the natural evolution of society. Social Darwinism is now most commonly associated with Herbert Spencer, whose( Man Versus the State (1884) certainly made use of biological analogies and accepted that suffering was a necessary aspect of progress. Spencer also equated collectivism with socialism, and socialism with ‘slavery’, in the sense that society became the owner of the individual. P. 3).

Now Spencer does have a point, in that Communism and other totalitarian, collectivist states did enslave their citizens. However, that does not mean that collectivism and socialism are automatically totalitarian, or even forms of Communism. This does show how Victorian ideas have persisted in the transatlantic Right, most vociferously in the Republican party in America, but also very much over here in the attitudes of many Tories. It’s why the media pundits in the Land of the Free have accused Bernie Sanders of being a Communist, and why, for example, two Tory activists in one of the northern towns at one point decided it would be jolly japes to dress up as Red Army soldiers to bate the ruing Labour council. And it explains Margaret Thatcher, who gave a speech to the Tory faithful in Cheltenham in the 1990s attacking socialism as a nasty foreign import related to Communism. Historically, it is, but the attitudes can be very different, as you can tell from the way committed Communists hated and despised ‘Reformism’ and democratic socialism at every opportunity.

Social Darwinism in the 19th Century and in Cameron’s Britain

October 13, 2014

Very many bloggers and political commenters, such as Mike over at Vox Political, Johnny Void, the Angry Yorkshireman and myself, have made the point that the Tories are Social Darwinists. This is the ideology, founded in the 19th century by the philosopher Herbert Spencer, that demanded total laissez-faire capitalism and promoted the ‘survival of the economic fittest’. Just as Darwin’s theory of evolution by Natural Selection was held to prove that in nature, evolution proceeded through the survival of the fittest in a state of competition and conflict between individuals and species, so Social Darwinists believed that human social and biological evolution should be promoted through unrestrained economic competition, which should allow people of superior talents to rise to the top of society and keep the less talented masses in their place. Millionaire industrialists were thus celebrated, and attempts to improve the conditions of the poor through legislation, such as regulating working conditions, housing and medicine decried as detrimental to the proper, beneficial working of capitalism.

The philosopher Mary Midgley includes examples of the statement of Social Darwinist attitudes from Spencer’s closest followers themselves in her book, Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears. Midgley herself isn’t an opponent of evolution. The book was written against the way Darwin’s theory had, in her view, been distorted into a quasi-religious form to support malign and dehumanising ideologies like Social Darwinism, or the belief that human culture and action are somehow ultimately the product of our genes.

The first quote comes from George Sumner’s The Challenge of Facts of 1887:

The millionaires are a product of natural selection, acting on the whole body of men to pick out those who can meet the requirement of certain work to be done … It is because they are thus selected that wealth – both their own and that entrusted to them – aggregates under their hands … They may fairly be regarded as the naturally selected agents of society for certain work. They get high wages and live in luxury, but the bargain is a good one for society. There is the intensest competition for their place and occupation. This assure us that all who are competent for this function will be employed in it, so that the cost of it will be reduced to the lowest terms.
(P. 118).

This could well come from a Tory in Britain, or Republican spokesman in America today. There’s the same idealisation of the rich, and the demands that they are the socially and biologically superior ‘creators of wealth’, who should be allowed to enjoy their riches unconstrained by the state. Hence the demands by the Right, including UKIP, that the rich should have their tax burden reduced.

She then quotes the American historian, Richard Hofstadter, on the way Social Darwinism was invoked to prevent any legislation that would improve the lot of the poor by placing constraints on the power of the wealthy:

Acceptance of the Spencerian philosophy brought about a paralysis of the will to reform … Youmans (Spencer’s chief American Spokesman) in Henry George’s presence denounced with great fervour the political corruption of New York and the selfishness of the rich in ignoring or promoting it when they found it profitable to do so. ‘What do you propose to do about it?’ George asked. Youmans replied ‘Nothing! You and I can do nothing at all. It’s a matter of evolution. Perhaps in four of five thousand years evolution may have carried men beyond this state of things’. (p. 119).

The role of Social Darwinism and its malign conception of evolution are too well-known, and too connected to Nazism, for politicians to openly make comments like this in today’s society. Nevertheless, the idea that intense, unrestrained competition somehow conforms more to human nature than Socialism, regardless of the form it is in, nevertheless forms a strong component of Conservative ideology on both sides of the Atlantic even today.

The Descent of Man and the Ascent of Faith: Darwinism as Aid to 19th century Apologetics

May 28, 2013

One of the great myths of the history of science is that Darwin’s theory of Evolution by Natural Selection was strongly opposed by the Christian church. There was indeed much opposition, but what is often neglected is that much of this was on scientific, rather than theological grounds. There were also a number of theologians who positively welcomed Darwinian evolution as an aid to faith.

Darwin’s Theory Not Proven Scientifically at Time of Proposal; Support of Theory by Some Clergy

At the time Darwin’s theory was still highly speculative, a fact that Darwin himself acknowledged. He was confident, however, that further facts and fossil evidence would be found to support his theory. Alister McGrath, the theologian and microbiologist, notes in his book, The Twilight of Atheism, that Bishop Samuel Wilberforce opened his legendary debate with Huxley with the statement that if Darwin’s theory of evolution were true, Christians would have to accept it, no matter how uncomfortable they found it. Furthermmore, while Huxley 31 years later remembered the debate as a great triumph, others were certainly not so sure. Sir Joseph Hooker believed that Huxley had turned the tables on the Bishop. He had failed, however, to deal with the weak points in Wilberforce’s arguments and had not convinced the rest of the people there. Indeed, Wilberforce actually convinced some of the scientists that evolution was actually wrong. One of these was Henry Baker Tristram, who was an early convert to Darwin’s theory. He had applied Darwin’s theory to the development of larks and chats in the Sahara desert. Witnessing the debate, he came to reject the theory. In 1867 the Guardian newspaper attacked the view, first proposed by F.W. Farrar, that the clergy as a whole were enemies of science. Its review of Darwin’s Descent of Man was critical. The reviewer nevertheless stated that viewed man as part of the evolutionary process, and considered that evolution would soon be as uncritically accepted as gravity. It stated that there was no ‘reason why a man may not be an evolutionist and yet a Christian. That is all that we desire to establish’. It then went on to state that ‘Evolution is not yet proved, and never may be. But … there is no occasion for being frightened out of our wits for fear it should be.’In 1874 T.G. Bonney’s book, A Manual of Geology, which argued for the vast age of the Earth, was published by the religious publishing house, the S.P.C.K. ON Darwin’s death in 1882, Huxley considered requesting that he be buried in Westminster Abbey. To his surprise, not only was his request not refused, but Canon F.W. Farrar declared to him that ‘we clergy are not all as bigoted as you suppose’ and asked him to make a formal application. Despite some opposition, Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey with full Christian rites. The following Sunday he was the subject of an appreciative sermon by Harvey Goodwin, the bishop of Carlisle. A memorial fund was set up for him that included not only the scientists Galton, Hooker, Romanes, Tyndall ahnd Herbert Spencer, but also the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Bishop of London. Near the end of the century Asa Grey told the Bishop of Rochester that looking back on the controversy, ‘he could not say that there had been any undue or improper delay on the part of the Christian mind and conscience in accepting, in such sense as he deemed they ought to be accepted, Mr. Darwin’s doctrine’s’. This contrasts strongly with the attitude of some Anglican clergy a few years ago, who issued an apology for the Anglican Church’s ‘misunderstanding’ of Darwin’s theory. Clearly, many of those at the time did not believe it had been misunderstood, or that the opposition had been excessive.

Use of Darwin in Christian Apologetics: Drummond

Some churchmen even viewed Darwin’s theory as an aid to Christian evangelism and apologetics. One of these was Henry Drummond, a minister of the Free Church of Scotland and professor of Natural Science at the Church’s College in Glasgow. In 1871 he hailed Natural Selection as ‘a real and beautiful acquisition to natural theology’, and declared that the Origin of Species was ‘perhaps the most important contribution to the literature of apologetics’ to appear in the 19th century. Taking the laws of nature as his inspiration and model, in 1883 he published Natural Law in the Spiritual World. Drummond used examples from the natural world to illustrate the same processes that he believed were present in the world of the spirit. This confusion between natural and spiritual was condemned by his those readers with philosophical inclinations. Nevertheless, it was also highly successful. This success was partly due to the use of illustrations from Darwin and Spencer, and scientific terminology and concepts such as biogenesis. In the view of Drummond’s biographer, G.A. Smith, his readers were not so much concerned whether he made a convincing case, but simply by the fact that he expressed and reinforced their deep religious convictions using the then dominant intellectual methods.

Darwin’s Theory and God’s Immanence in Creative Process

And Drummon was not the only clergyman who believed that Darwin actually aided faith. Some Christians, such as Charles Kingley, believed that the model of a mechanistic universe in which God only occasionally acted to introduce novelty served to separate the Almight from His creation. It stressed God’s transcendance at the expense of His immanence. For Kingsley and other like him, the doctrine of God’s Fatherhood and His Incarnation also meant that God was actively and creatively involved within His creation as well. In his contribution to the volume of theological essay, Lux Mundi, in 1881, the British theologian Aubrey Moore, used Darwin’s theory to attack the Deist notion of a God, who was not involved with His creation:

‘The one absolutely impossible conception of God, in the present day, is that which represents Him as an occasional visitor. Science has pushed the Deist’s God further and further away, and ata the moment when it seemed as if He would be thrust out altogether, Darwinism appeared, and, under the disguise of a foe, did the work of a friend.’
For Moore, there was a simple choice. Either God was present everywhere, or he was nowhere.

Carpenter: Theistic Evolution without Natural Selection

Some of the believers in theistic evolution held something very similar to modern Intelligent Design. Asa Grey himself suggested to Darwin that, as no-one knew the true source of variation, it was wise to believe that the Lord was involved. William Carpenter, a British physiologist, believed he had found proof of this view in his study of the marine shellfish Foraminifera. In his hypothetical family tree, Carpenter demonstrated how a simple spiral shell had become circular through a regular progression. This had occurred following a definite evolutionary course in which each stage was in preparation for the next. He also pointed to the fact that all the members of the series still existed to demonstrate that their evolution could not be explained by Natural Selection. If the various members of the Foraminifera family still existed, then clearly they could not have been produced through a struggle for fitness, as this would have resulted in at least some of the species becoming extinct.

Emergence of Man too Accidental for Random Chance
James McCosh, a professor at Princeton University, wrote extensively attempting to reconcile evolution with Christian belief. One of his arguments that evolution actually pointed to a belief in the Lord came from the evolution of humanity itself. If humanity’s evolution was entirely due to chance, then our existence was an even more remarkable accident than even the atheists believed. On the other hand, it could also show that all these evolutionary accidents through which humanity was formed were hardly accidental. Indeed, humanity had evolved through ‘adjustment upon adjustment of all the elements and the all the powers of nature towards the accomplishment of an evidently contemplated end.’

Wallace: Evolution Argues against Intelligent Life in the Universe

Alfred Russell Wallace was also deeply impressed with the apparently chance emergence of humanity. In his 1903 book, Man’s Place in the Universe, he used it to attack those physicists and scientists searching for earth-like planets on which intelligent life may have evolved. In a similar argument to Stephen Jay Gould’s on the uhniqueness of terrestrial evolutionary history, Wallace suggested that no matter how similar the environment on another planet may be to the Earth’s, it’s own evolutionary history would be very different. Minor differences in the evolutionary history of that planet’s creatures would mean that they would definitely not be like those on Earth, making intelligent life extremely unlikely.

C.S. Peirce: Evolution Proves Existence of Personal God

For the American philosopher of science, C.S. Peirce, the element of chance in natural selection also pointed to the involvement of a personal God. The manufacture of pre-determined features was a purely mechanical process, which excluded development or growth. If the universe was not the result of pre-determined sequence of events, but he creation of a living personality, then it should show spontaneity, diversification and the potential for growth.

Temple: Evolution Proves God the Only Lord

Frederick Temple also argued that Darwinian evolution also demonstrated the existence of a single, creator God. Temple believed that the doctrine of separate creation was vulnerable to HUme’s argument that the universe’s design showed that it could also have been created by a number of separate deities. If Darwinian evolution was interpreted as a single process in which potential was realised in higher organic forms, it pointed to a single Designer.

Thus not only was the reception of Darwin’s theory of evolution more balanced than simple outright opposition, the theory was also used by some clergy to argue for and strengthen their faith. In his book, Darwinism and the Divine, Alister McGrath demonstrates that, in contrast to the received view that Darwinism ended natural theology, such speculation continued after the theory’s adoption. The theological arguments had been changed under the theory’s impact, as Huxley himself recognised and argued, but nevertheless, they continued.

Buffon’s Scepticism of Evolution

May 6, 2013

From the way the history of the theory of evolution is presented, you could be forgiven for believing that no-one had considered it as a possible explanation for the origin of life before Charles Darwin in the mid-19th century. Other theorists of evolution had appeared earlier in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century – Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, Lamarck, Chambers, the author of the Vestiges of a Natural History of Creation, and finally the co-discoverer of Natural Selection with Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace. Yet as Rebecca Stott has demonstrated in her book, Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists, some philosophers had considered that life had evolved as far back as the time of Aristotle and one of his followers, Theophrastus. One of the pioneers of modern evolutionary theory was G.L. leclerc, Comte de Buffon. His Natural History, published from 1749 to 1767 was an encyclopedic discussion of the history of the Earth and its creatures. It created a taste for natural history amongst the French public, and shaped the way it was investigated in France for over a century. His esxsay on the pig is considered one of the classics of French Enlightenment writing. Examining the animal’s physiology, Buffon argued that it contained vestiges indicating its descent from an earlier species. Buffon was cautious about expressing his personal views of the history of the Earth. It appears, however, that he was probably much more sceptical about the Genesis account of the creation of the world than he appeared in his writings. In his History and Theory of the Earth of 1749 he argued that the world was formed through gradual, uniform geological processes. His essay in the same volume ‘An Examination of Other Theories of the Earth’ attacked scholars who attempted to mix natural history with theology. While Buffon acknowledged the possibility that animals could be formed through evolution, he was sceptical of its ability to do so.

Buffon opens his essay, ‘The Ass’ with the statement that ‘This animal, even when examined iwth minute attention, has the appearance of a degenerated horse’. He then proceeds to describe the similarities and differences between the two animals. He then expanded this argument to consider the similarity, in body plan, between humans, horses, and other kinds of animals, including birds, reptiles, whales and fish. He suggested that this showed

‘that the Supreme Being, in creating animals, employed only one idea, and, at the same time, diversified it in every possible manner, to give men an opportunity of admiring equally the magnificence of the execution and the simplicity of the design’. Buffon was sceptical of the existence of the taxonomic families into which contemporary biologists grouped animals. For him the only animal divisions that really existed were those of species. ‘If these families really existed’, he argued, ‘they could only be produced by the mixture and successive variation and degeneration of the primary species: and if it be once admitted, that there are families among plants and animals, that the ass belongs to the family of hte horse, and differs from his only be degeneration; with equal propriety may it be concluded, that the monkey belongs to the family of man; that the monkey is a man degenerated; tha tman and the monkey have sprung from a common stock, like the horse and ass; that each family, either among animals or vegetables, has been derived from the same origin; and even that all animated beinigs have proceeded from a singlespecies, which, in the course of ages, has produced, by improving and degenerating, all the different races that now exist’. If this was true, it would mean that ‘no bounds could be fixed to the powers of Nature; she might, with equal reason, be supposed to have been able, in the course of time, to produce from a single individual, all the organised bodies in the universe’.

Buffon rejected this, first arguing from Scripture that God had formed each creature individually. He then stated that since the time of Aristotle twenty centuries previously, no new species had been seen to emerge. He noted that although Nature proceeded with gradual and often imperceptible steps, the gap between different creatures was not always equal. He then went on to suggest the number of variations that had to be produced to form a creature of a different species from, and which could not breed with, those of its parents. He believed that if evolution existed, it always acted through degeneration, which invitably produced weak and infertile offspring. Buffon therefore concluded that

‘Though, therefore, we cannot demonstrate, that the formation of a new species, by means of degeneration, exceeds the power of Nature; yet the number of improbabilities attentind such a supposition, renders it totally incredible: for, if one species could be produced by the degeneration of another, if the ass actually originated from the horse, this metamorphosis could only have been effected by a long succession of imperceptible degrees. Between the horse and ass, there must have ben many intermediate animals, the first of which would gradually recede from the nature and qualities of the horse, and the last would make great advances to that of the ass. What is become of these intermediate beings? Why are their representatives and descendants now extinguished? Why should the two extremes alone exist?’

Buffon concluded that the ass was a unique animal, not at all descended from the horse.

‘We may, therefore, without hesitation, pronounce the ass to be an ass, and not a degerated horse, a horse with a naked tail. The ass is not a marvellous production. He is neither an intruder nor a bastard. Like all other animals, his family, his species, and his rank, are ascertained and peculiar to himself. His blood is pure and untainted; and, though his race be less noble and illustrious, it is equally unalloyed, as ancient as that of the horse.’ Buffon ends his discussion of the ass by arguing for its good qualities, qualities that also demanded respect.

Now Buffon was clearly hindered in considering the potential of evolution of create new species through the lack of fossil evidence for them available in his time and the lack of knowledge of geological deep time. It was only decades later, with Hutton and Lyell, that biologists were able to provide ages of the Earth that allowed for the development of species by the gradual, imperceptible steps of time that biologists required. What Buffon’s essay also shows, is that many biologists and natural historians in Buffon’s day also rejected evolution because they did not see it as a scientifically viable theory, apart from its conflict with the authority of Scripture. This attitude continued into the 19th century. Most of Darwin’s opponents were other scientists, not theologians.

My point here is that the conflict over the theory of evolution in the 18th and 19th centuries was not simply that of theology versus scripture, but also over scientific validity of the theory itself. When Bishop Samuel Wilberforce famously debated Huxley over Darwin’s theory, he opened the debate by saying that even if the theory was theologically offensive, it would still have to be accepted if it was true scientifically. Unfortunately, the 18th and 19th century debates and conflicts over Evolution tend to be presented as simply between advancing science and backwards religion. While one element of the conflict was on religious grounds, the scientific element of the debate also needs to be remembered and included.