Posts Tagged ‘Francis Bacon’

Sketch of American Astronomer, Space Scientist and Activist Carl Sagan

December 3, 2022

I’ve put up this sketch of Carl Sagan began he was one of the major figures in space research as well as a committed Humanist and political activist. He was also a major populariser of astronomy and science, most notably through his blockbusting TV series and its accompanying book, Cosmos. This was also notable for its soundtrack, composed by Vangelis, who also composed the music for Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner and 1492: The Conquest of Paradise. According to the blurb on Cosmos’ back cover, Sagan was

‘(t)he director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies and David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Studies at Cornell University. He played a leading role in the Mariner, Viking and Voyager expeditions to the planets, for which he received the NASA medals for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and for Distinguished Public Service, and the international astronautics prize, the Prix Galabert. He has served as Chairman of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society, as chairman of the astronomy section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as a President of the Planetology Section of the American Geophysical Union. For twelve years, he was Editor-in-Chief of Icarus, the leading professional journal devoted to planetary research. In addition to 400 published scientific and popular articles, Dr. Sagan (was) the author, co-author or editor of more than a dozen books, including Intelligent Life in the Universe, The Cosmic Connection, The Dragons of Eden, Murmurs of Earth and Broca’s Brain. In 1975 he received the Joseph Priestly Award “for distinguished contributions to the welfare of mankind,” and in 1978 the Pulitzer Prize for literature.’

It was Sagan who suggested that Black Holes could be used as interstellar subways so that spaceships from one part of the universe could use them to travel faster than light to another part of the cosmos connected by the wormhole passing between the Black Hole and its White Hole. He also suggested that Venus could be terraformed into a living, habitable world through the introduction of genetically engineered bacteria that would consume its toxic carbon dioxide atmosphere and replace it with breathable oxygen. He also noted that Mars had a large instability in its rotation, and that this could have resulted in its current, millions-year long period of lifelessness. But it was possible that in time its rotation would return to a more hospitable position and the planet would once more bloom into life. He was also a staunch advocate of the view that the universe was inhabited by intelligent alien civilisations and that one day we would contact them. He also wrote a later book, Pale Blue Dot, after the view of the Earth from space.

He was also a fierce opponent of what he considered to be superstition. He was one of the founders of CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal along with the stage magician James Randi. They were formed in response to the publication of Gauqelin’s research suggesting there really was a link between the star sign under which people were born and their later careers. He was alarmed by the rise of Creationism and the New Age, and expressed his fears about them in his book, The Demon Haunted World. He was afraid that this would lead to a new Dark Age in which people would wake up every morning to anxiously look through their horoscopes.

He was also greatly concerned with the environment and global warming and the threat of nuclear war. In the 1980s he also proposed the idea of nuclear winter. This was the idea that a nuclear war would send millions of tons of dust into the atmosphere, blocking out the sunlight and causing temperatures to plunge. This has since been rejected by scientists, but I have seen it suggested as one of the causes for the extinction of the dinosaurs. In this case it was the dust thrown up by the asteroid’s impact 65 million years ago that blocked out the sun’s light, after the initial holocaust caused by its impact.

During the inquiry following the Challenger disaster, Sagan claimed that it had occurred because the Shuttle was poorly designed, the result of a compromise between NASA and the military. The Shuttle was originally intended to be fully reusable and smaller. However, the armed forces insisted on it becoming larger so that it could carry military satellites into space. The result was that it was larger, and only partially reusable as it required an external tank to carry the extra fuel it needed to reach orbit. This was jettisoned after its fuel was consumed to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

He also wrote the SF novel, Contact, later filmed with Jodie Foster playing the lead. This was about a female astronomer, who makes contact radio contact with aliens, a method Sagan himself strongly advocated. Following their instructions, she constructs an artificial wormhole portal that transports her across space so she can finally meet them. I remember coming across the book in the Cheltenham branch of Waterstones in the 1980s and was rather put off by its blurb. This boasted about it challenging and refuting racism, sexism and so on. All good stuff, of course, but a bit too PC for me.

Many of these themes appear in Cosmos. This was his personal view of the history of science, and while I loved it at the time, I have serious issues with some of the claims now. One of the problems is that he accepts what we were all told at school, that the Greek philosophers were scientists. He believed that if Greek science had progressed, we would have had space travel by now. The ancient Greeks were certainly responsible for laying the foundations of western science, but they were not quite scientists in the modern sense. They used deduction rather than the scientific method of induction. Deduction meant that they observed a phenomenon and then invented an explanation. In induction, devised by Francis Bacon in the 16th/17th century, the scientist observes a phenomenon, comes up with an explanation, and then devises an experiment to disprove it. If the explanation passes the test, it is tentatively accepted as true until a later observation or experiment disproves it. The ancient Greeks didn’t do much practical experimentation.

Sagan also followed the popular explanation of the evolution of the brain, in which there is a lower, animal brain with the higher faculties evolving later, so there’s a primitive reptile brain and a more advanced mammal brain. But Victorian scientists found that both types of brain structure were present in the earliest, most primitive animals. He also followed the standard, accepted narrative that the Roman Catholic church had suppressed scientific knowledge and experimentation during the Middle Ages. This has since been rejected by historians of science. To many such historians now, the Middle Ages after the 8/9th centuries were an age of innovation and discovery. Jean Gimpel’s book proposing the idea was called The Medieval Machine, after the invention of the clock, to symbolise the period’s belief in a universe governed by law, discoverable by human reason under the light of the divine. And rather than the revival of classical learning in the Renaissance leading to a new enlightened, rational order, it had the potential to do the opposite. The medieval philosophers and theologians were Aristotelians but were very aware of the flaws in Aristotelian science and had modified it over the centuries in order to conform more closely to observed reality. But the Renaissance Humanists would have dumped all this, and so we would have been back to square one with no further scientific advances than what was permitted through a rigid adherence to Aristotle’s thought.

There’s also an anti-Christian element in Cosmos too. He describes how Hypatia, the late Neoplatonist female philosopher was murdered by a group of Christian monks in the 4th century. Hypatia has symbolised for a long time to radical atheists the fundamentally anti-science, and to feminists, the misogyny in Christianity. But by this time Neoplatonism was a mixture of science and mystical speculation, forming what has been called ‘the mind’s road to God’. The real motives for her murder weren’t that she was some kind of pagan threat, but more from a power struggle between the authorities in that part of the Roman world.

Sagan is also critical of western imperialism and describes the horrors the Conquistadors inflicted on the Aztecs and other peoples of the New World. He’s right and this section is clearly a product of its time, with the rise of anti-colonial movements among the world’s indigenous peoples, the Black Civil Rights movement in the US and the horrors of the Vietnam War, as well as Reagan’s new Cold War and the threat of nuclear holocaust. But looking at this 40 years later, it’s also one-sided. Europe wasn’t the only expansionist, brutal, imperialist culture. Islam was also militaristic and expansionist, and at the time the Spaniards conquered South America, the Turkish empire was expanding and subjugating parts of Europe, while Muslim pirates were raiding the continent as far as Iceland for slaves.

It’s also dated from an archaeological standpoint. At one point Sagan discusses the Bronze Age collapse of the societies of the Ancient Near East, showing how it was characterised by a series of crises, similar to the process of the fall of other, later civilisations into Dark Ages, but that these aren’t causes in themselves. It’s Systems Analysis, which was popular at the time, but which I think has also become subsequently passe.

All that said, Sagan was right about global warming, whose devastating effects he illustrated with the example of the planet Venus. This has also suffered catastrophic heating due to its greater nearness to the Sun. This released massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, creating a runaway greenhouse effect so that it is now a hell planet of burning temperatures and sulphuric acid rain. He also wasn’t wrong about the threat of renewed militarism and nuclear war and was a welcome voice against Reagan’s strident belligerence.

As a science populariser, his influence has also been immense. Cosmos was a bestseller, and I think it prepared the way for other bestselling works by astronomers and scientists like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. And I certainly was not surprised when Brian Cox, the scientist, not the actor, said in an interview in the Radio Times that he was a massive admirer of Sagan. That came across to me very strongly from his numerous TV series about space and the planets.

2000AD and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Artist Kevin O’Neill Dies Aged 69

November 9, 2022

I was saddened to learn of the death on Monday of Kevin O’Neill, one of the great British comics artists behind many of the favourite strips in 2000AD over here and DC Comics and other publishers in America. O’Neill was the co-creator, with writer Pat Mills, of the Robusters, ABC Warriors and Nemesis the Warlock strips in 2000 AD, the galaxy’s greatest comic. Robusters was about a robot disaster squad, led by Hammerstein, an old war droid, and Rojaws, a foul-mouthed sewer robot, who formed a kind of double act. The squad was owned by the dictatorial Howard Quartz, alias ‘Mr 10 Per Cent’, because after some kind of disaster, only ten per cent of him – his brain – was still human, housed in a robot body. The penalty for failure or simply upsetting the boss was destruction, and the pair were always on the verge of being pulled apart by the sadistic but thick robot bulldozer, Mekquake. ABC Warriors was a continuation of Hammerstein’s adventures, first in a world war against the Volgan Republic, and then on Mars and a far future Earth, as the leader of an elite squad of robots dedicated to fighting evil. Nemesis the Warlock was a weird sword and sorcery strip set in the far future. The surface of the Earth had become a devastated wasteland and humanity had retreated underground. Renamed Termight, short for ‘Mighty Terra’, it was a medieval society ruled by an evil order of warriors, the Terminators, that hated and feared intelligent alien. Led by their Grand Master, Torquemada, Earth regarded such aliens as demonic and waged a war of extermination against them. O’Neill’s art, which is angular and geometric, was suitably Gothic and horrific, creating a nightmare variety of alien creatures. His art was so horrific, in fact, that later, when he was working on the Green Lantern Corps, a superhero comic for DC, it put the wind up the Comics Code Authority. This had been founded in the 1950s during the moral panic over comics. It was supposed to judge whether or not a comic was suitable to be read by children. Although it was supposedly voluntary, in fact all children’s comics had to be submitted to the Authority as otherwise the mainstream newsagents over there wouldn’t carry them. The writer, Alan Moore, who also created the cult strip about a future Fascist Britain, V For Vendetta, took the unusual step of contacting the Authority. Would the comic get approved if various changes were made? No, they replied. It wasn’t the strip’s story; it was the artwork. It was totally unsuitable for children. This became something of a source of pride and amusement to O’Neill and the other creators at 2000 AD. So grim was his art that rumours started circulating that he had an occult temple in his basement and drew only at night. These were completely false. On the other hand, a fan once told his fellow 2000 AD artist, Dave Gibbons, that O’Neill’s art gave him nightmares which he could only cure by looking a Gibbons. When O’Neill wasn’t traumatising people with his serious strips, he made them laugh with Dash Descent, a parody of the old Flash Gordon serials. He also drew the Tharg’s Future Shocks strip which a court later ruled had been plagiarised by the film maker Richard Stanley for the film Hardware. This was set in a decaying city in which a scavenger in the radiation deserts finds and brings back the remains of an experimental war robot, the B.A.A.L. His artist girlfriends reassembles it and it then goes off on a frenzy of killing. Hardware is a cult film, which stands up even now, three decades after it was made. Highlights include cameo appearances by Lemmy, as a water taxi driver, and the voice of Iggy Pop as a radio announcer. It’s just a pity Stanley didn’t work out a deal with 2000 AD first. He also contributed in other, minor ways to the comic. He created the look of Tharg, the comic’s alien editor from the star Betelgeuse, and introduced the credit cards telling readers who the writer, artist and letterer were, quite against the publisher’s policy. But this allowed the people, who actually created the strips, to gain the proper recognition and respect for their work.

O’Neill left 2000 AD for work with the American comics companies. He and writer Pat Mills created Metalzoic for DC. This was another robot strip, set on a far future Earth where an ecology of robot animals had developed and taken over, and followed the adventures of a tribe of robot ape men and the human woman they had rescued. It still is one of my favourite strips, but sadly flopped, though it was later reprinted in 2000 AD. O’Neill was far more successful with the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, written by Alan Moore. This had the idea that the great figures of 19th and early 20th century SF, Fantasy and Horror – Alan Quatermaine, the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll/Mr Hyde, Captain Nemo and Dorian Grey – had formed a kind of superhero group. It was filmed with Sean Connery as Quatermaine. Back to causing gleeful mayhem, O’Neill and Mills created the violent, nihilistic Marshal Law. This was an adult comic set in a near future San Francisco. Devastated by an earthquake, the city was renamed San Futuro, and plagued by warring superhero gangs. The superheroes had been created to fight in a war in South America. As a result, many of the survivors had returned to America mentally and physically scarred, some turning to violent crime. Law was the member of a small anti-superhero squad, moved by a deep hatred of superheroes. He uttered phrases like ‘They say I hate superheroes. They’re wrong. Hatred is far too bland a word for the way I feel about them’ and ‘I’m hunting heroes. I haven’t found any yet’. Mills hates superheroes and has very left-wing politics and poured that into the strip. It commented on recent developments in genetic engineering and the patenting of GMOs, insane CIA plans to overthrow Fidel Castro and other South American left-wing regimes and how America trained the sadistic torturers for the continent’s Fascist dictators. There was also an overt feminist critique of the genre and the fictional glamorisation of the real horrors of war. The Marshal’s opponents were vicious parodies of various superheroes. Despite its grim premise, it was a hilarious strip, although the humour was pitch-black. It was too much for one publisher, however, and moved from one to another. It has now been collected into a single album, although sadly without the crossover strip featuring the Marshal fighting Pinhead from Hellraiser.

Outside of comics, O’Neill apparently published his own fanzine, Just Imagine: The Journal of Film and Television Special Effects. I also remember him being credited in Starlog for designing the aliens in the Disney film, Return to Witch Mountain.

I met O’Neill extremely briefly at the UKCAC 90 comics convention, 32 years ago. From what I can remember, he was a short, slightly built chap in a T-shirt championing solidarity with Nicaragua, whose left-wing regime was under attack by the brutal Contras funded by Reagan and Thatcher. He was drawing people’s favourite characters for them on badges supplied by the convention’s organisers. But he was an amazing artist, producing very high-quality drawings in a blur of speed. There are a series of videos of him speaking at various comics conventions about Nemesis, Marshal Law and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, where he appears as short, jolly fellow with a great sense of humour, chortling over the daft incidents he’s experienced during his career.

In a separate interview, also on YouTube, Alan Moore commented on his art, praising him as one of the greatest British artists of all time. Moore remarks that O’Neill’s celebrated for his robots and aliens, but not for his humans. But Moore considers that he is brilliant depicter of humans as grotesques, and in that sense is one of the best artists since Hogarth. It sounds like something that should go in Private Eye’s ‘Pseud’s Corner’, but in my opinion it’s absolutely correct. Particularly as Hogarth produced sequential art himself as the kind of precursor of comics. I strongly believe that comics artists, or at least the very best, are insufficiently appreciated. I think they can be as good as serious fine artists. Way back in the 90s I submitted a piece to one of the art magazines arguing that comics artists like O’Neill and Jack Kirby were artists, whose styles meant that they should receive the same appreciation as those of the Soviet austere style, Francis Bacon and H.R. Giger. The Nemesis the Warlock strip had scenes of pure body horror. In one of the two precursor strips that launched the character, Killerwatt, Nemesis and Torquemada chase each other down the teleport wires, in which people are transported electrically similar to the telephone. At one point they have to cross the Sea of Dead Souls, a nightmare morass caused when a gooney bird, a massive mechanical bird, sat on the wires. Those unfortunate enough to be there when it happened are turned into a mass of hugely distorted body parts, such as giant feet with eyes. It resembles the scene of the ‘shunt’ in the 80s horror movie, Society, where members of America’s elite class are portrayed as predators who can twist and distort their bodies into any shape whatsoever. The Shunt is an orgy in which they melt down into a similar morass of bodies to feed off tramps and other members of the lower orders. Society’s a great film if you like that kind of ‘orror, but came out a few years after Mills and O’Neill got there first.

There have been a number of great obituaries for him at Bleedingcool and on 2000 AD’s website. These give the reactions and messages of grief and appreciation from the other comics creators. The 2000 AD page gives a full potted biography and examples of his truly amazing artwork.

RIP great man. May your art continue to shock, amaze, amuse and inspire.

Kevin O’Neill 1953 – 2022

In Memoriam: Comic Artist Kevin O’Neill 1953 – 2022

Florence on Government-Approved Pseudoscience In ME and the ‘Nudge Unit’

October 31, 2015

Yesterday I blogged on Mike’s article, criticising a highly dubious report by the Torygraph that scientists at Oxford had concluded that ME, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, was all in one’s mind and could be cured through a mixture of exercise and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I took the view that this was basically pseudoscience. I got two highly interesting comments from Florence confirming this and providing further information. She writes

Reports in the literature from the USA on ME / CFS, The NIH for example, cite fMRI, PET scan (imaging of brain) evidence for CFS/ MEe, along with immunologic and inflammatory pathologies, ie it is a physical disease, with measurable physical changes in the patient. There are ample published critiques of the Oxford authors’ results, analysis and conclusions, poor experimental design and methods, and fatal flaws in the execution of the studies. Not least some medical researchers have raised ethical concerns regarding the Oxford Authors earlier PACE study, which is the basis for CBT/GET therapy in the UK. Indeed the IOM proposed a new name for the disease – Systemic Exertion Intolerance Disease, embedding the key concept of post-exercise malaise (mental or physical). So much for GET IN fact many of the committees and editorial boards of post-conference publications have expressly bewilderment and concern with the “UK model” of psychological illness. The prominence of this report in the national press demonstrates that these are the preferred Establishment scientists, and they are being rewarded for their work in providing (quasi) scientific support for a political view of this illness. Worrying.

In a nutshell, science has proven that ME is a real disease, and this tripe peddled in Oxford is purely politically motivated pseudoscience.

She adds

It dovetails nicely with the fake, and ethically-damned nudge unit foray into forced psychological “testing” of JSA claimants which was revealed a couple of years ago, plus the new forced CBT for JSA and ESA claimants in the Job Centres, illustrating the govt ideology that worklessness, like disability, is a psychological deficit in every individual. Many years ago I was asked to read & deliver my opinions on a number of publications by those working under Stalin (it was hard going). I took away a couple of things that remain relevant today. The Corporatist control of research, especially since Thatcher, has been quasi-Stalinist, and has been damaging to scientific research generally, but medical research in particular. Second, the current govt is following a descent into Stalinist state use of psychiatry and psychology against those it wants to control.

In other words, it’s just part of a general pseudoscientific model of illness that claims that somehow it’s all imaginary because this fits with Tory and Blairite attitudes to unemployment and those off sick through disability, in the same way that Stalinist policies corrupted science in the Soviet Union.

There are a number of very good books on pseudoscience, and the promotion of spurious, fake, and in the case of eugenics, murderous doctrines in the history of science. The one I mentioned yesterday was Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science.

Another book worth reading is Walter Gratzer’s The Undergrowth of Science: Delusion, Self-deception and Human Frailty (Oxford: OUP 2000).

Undergrowth Science Cover

This has chapters on the following fake science:

1. Blondlot and the N-Rays

2. Paradigms Enow: Some Mirages of Biology
Gurvich and his mitogenic radiation
The curse of the death-ray
Abderhalden and the protective enzymes
The case of the amorous toad
Memory transfer, or eat your mathematics.

3. Aberrations of Physics: Irving Langmuir Investigates
Capturing electrons
Allison’s magneto-optical effect.
Langmuir’s rules.

4. Nor any Drop to Drink: The Tale of Polywater

5. The Wider shores of Credulity
-This includes a number of weird ideas, including the controversy over Uri Geller and his supposed mental powers.

6. Energy Unlimited
– This is about Cold Fusion.

7. What the Doctor Ordered.
This includes a number of examples of extremely bad medicine, such as
-Ptosis, the doctrine that disease was caused by sagging organs, and which resulted in a fad of entirely
useless operation on perfectly healthy people, including their kidneys.
– Intestinal lavage, or colonic irrigation
– Surgical removal of parts of the colon to prevent aging.
– Monkey glands, or the surgical implantation of part of monkey testicles in order to rejuvenate people.
– Homeopathy.
– Drinking radium for your health.
– Lobotomy.

8. Science, Chauvinism and Bigotry.
This is about the growth of the nationalist belief of different countries in their own superiority as

9. The Climate of Fear:
The tragedy of Soviet genetics
The spread of the contagion
Soviet physics: idealism, pragmatism and the bomb
Is there a Marxist chemistry?

10. Science in the Third Reich: Bigotry, Racism and Extinction
The Roots of Fascist biology
The Ahnenerbe: Himmler the Intellectual
Die Deutsche Physik (German Physics): Its friends and enemies
A deutsche Chemie (German chemistry)
Anti-Semitism and mathematics
The consequences of the Nazi incursion into science.

11. Nature Nurtured: The Rise and Fall of Eugenics
The birth of eugenics
Eugenics and politics in Europe and America
Eugenics in the Third Reich
Eugenic nemesis in the Soviet Union
The rise and fall of eugenics: a pathological science.

Ever science Sir Francis Bacon and Descartes in the 17th century, science has been one of the most powerful forces in human society for extending human knowledge, and improving health, living conditions and industrial, technological and economic progress. But it doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It’s made by humans, sometimes fallible human, who can make mistakes, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Some of this is caused when science is moulded by ideological, particular political forces, such as in the Third Reich and Stalin’s Russia. While these cases are notorious, the topic is still highly relevant today, when it seems that nearly every day the papers carry stories claiming that scientists have found the cure for this, or that a particular disease is in reality caused by such-and-such. In many cases scepticism is most certainly warranted. And in the cases of the model of disease now promoted by the DWP, these should be taken with a whole mountain of salt. It’s clear to me that Ian Duncan Smith’s and John Lo Cascio’s ideas on the origins of the disease in the unemployed should also be consigned to the dustbin of dodgy, politically motivated pseudoscience, to be included in future editions of book’s like Glatzer’s.

Robert Boyle, Atheism and Christians in Science

May 8, 2013

Robert Boyle was one of the founder of modern experimental science in the 17th century. His book, the Sceptical Chymist, broke with medieval alchemy to lay the foundations for modern chemistry. Unlike previous, Aristotelian Natural Philosophers, Boyle believed that the universe was composed of atoms. This theory was viewed with great suspicion in the 16th and 17th centuries, as it had originated with the ancient Epicureans. These considered that the universe had been created by chance without the intervention by the gods, although they did not deny their existence completely. It was thus considered an atheist doctrine. Boyle himself was deeply religious, and bequeathed a legacy to set up a series of annual lectures arguing for and promoting Christianity. He also attempted to argue for Christianity and the compatibility of the Christian faith with the new science in his book, The Christian Virtuoso. Many of the arguments he advanced there are still valid today.

In the book’s preface, Boyle states that

‘I could scarce avoid taking notice of the great and deplorable growth of irreligion, especially among those, that aspired to pass for wits, and several of them too for philosophers. And on the other side it was obvious, that diverse learned men, as well as others, partly upon the score of their abhorrence of these infidels and libertines, and partly upon that of a well-meaning but ill-formed zeal, had brought many good men to think, that religon and philosophy were incompatible; both parties contributing to the vulgar error, but with this difference, that the libertines thought a virguoso ought not be a Christian, and the others, that he could not be a true one’.

He then argued that, whilst some atheists used science to oppose religion and Christianity, truly devout people would find in science even greater reasons to believe and praise the Lord:

‘And I deny not, but that, if the knowledge of nature falls into the hands of a resolved atheist, or a sensual libertine, he may misemploy it to oppugn the grounds, or discredit the practice of religion. But it will far much otherwise, if a deep insight into nature be acquired by a man of probity and ingenuity, or at least free from prejudices and vices, that may indispose him to entertain and improve those truths of philosophy, that would naturally lead him to sentiments of religion. For, if a person thus qualified in his morals, and thereby disposed to make use of of the knowledge of the creatures to confirm his belief, and increase his veneration of the Creator (and such a person I here again advertise you, and desire you would not forget it, I suppose the virtuoso, this papers is concerned in, to be) shall make a great progress in real philosophy; I am persuaded, that nature will be found very loyal to her author; and instead of alienating his mind from making religious acknowledgements, will furnish him with weighty and uncommon motives, to conclude, such sentiments to be rational and just’.

Boyle then goes on to quote the founder of the experimental method, Francis Bacon, whom he acclaims as the ‘first and greatest experimental philosopher of our age’

‘that God never wrought a miracle to convince atheists; because in his visible works he had placed enough to do it, if they were not wanting to themselves’.

Boyle himself was not impressed either by contemporary atheists’ grasp of the new science, or their arguments in favour of atheism. He states

‘I must own to you, that I do not think there are so many speculative atheists, as men are wont to imagine. And though my conversation has been pretty free and general among naturalists, yet I have met with so few true atheists, that I am very apt to think, that men’s want of due information, or their uncharitable zeal, has made them mistake or misrepresent many for deniers of God, that are thought such, chiefly because they take uncommon methods in in studying his works, and have other sentiments of them, than those of vulgar philosophers. And in the next place I must tell you, that having through the goodness of God, chosen my religion, not inconsiderately but upon mature deliberation, I do not find those virtuosi, you call atheists, such formidable adversaries, as those that are afraid to hear them do, by that apprehension, appear to think them. And indeed I have observed the physical arguments of the atheists to be but very few, and those far enough from being unanswerable.’

These arguments still apply today. From the statements made by very vociferous atheist scientists like Dawkins and Steven Weinberg, you could be mistaken for believing that all scientists were atheists, and indeed true scientists could only be atheists. Yet a Gallup poll made nearly a decade or so ago recorded that the proportion of religious and atheist scientists had not changed since the poll was first made a hundred years previously. Even then the number of theist scientists had surprised the researchers, who had confidently expected all the scientists to be atheists. Now the religious scientists are not in the majority, but they still form a sizable number equal to the number of atheists in science. There is a group, Christians in Science. James Hallam, the Roman Catholic historian of science who blogs as ‘Bede’ in Bede’s Library and the Adlibitum website, was an atheist until he studied physics and university and found just how unlikely it is that the cosmos does exist by chance. It can astonish you just how scientifically active and accomplished some of these religious scientists are. Yet you mostly don’t hear about them, because they’re mostly just interested in doing science, rather than using it like Dawkins and co. to promote atheism. So it’s important to bear Robert Boyle’s comments in mind the next time Dawkins or the comedian Robin Ince try claiming science for atheism.


Robert Boyle, The Christian Virtuoso, in D.C. Goodman, ed., Science and Religious Belief 1600-1900: Selection of Primary Sources (Dorchester: John Wright and Sons/ The Open University 1973) 119-29.

Francis Bacon and Science as the Road to God

May 6, 2013

Francis Bacon is one of the major figures of the 17th century Scientific Revolution. It was he who formulated the modern scientific method of induction through experimentation. This replaced the methodology of Aristotelian, scholastic science, in which one observed nature and then attempted to deduce the reasons behind it. Bacon was also deeply religious, and strongly argued that the new science promoted the belief in God, rather than atheism. The critics of the new ‘mechanical philosophy’ believed that it would lead to atheism as it concentrated only on secondary causes. Bacon strongly argued that religion and science should be kept separate. Nevertheless, he argued that although science could not tell us anything directly about God, it would still lead to Him as the Lord acted through secondary causes. He thus stated

‘Undoubtedly a superficial tincture of philosophy may incline the mind to atheism, yet a farther knowledge brings it back to religion; for on the threshold of philosophy, where second causes apear to absorb the attention, some oblivion of the highest cause may ensue; but when the mind goes deeper, and sees the dependence of causes and the works of Providence, it will easily perceive, according to the mythology of the poets, that the upper link of Nature’s chain is fastened to Jupiter’s throne’.


Basil Wiley, The Seventeenth Century Background (Harmondsworth: Penguin and Chatto and Windus 1934).

Dawkins, ID and Forteanism

June 9, 2008

Looking through this month’s copy of the Fortean Times, a monthly dedicated to reporting the weird and bizarre, I was particularly struck by two letters to the magazine from readers defending Dawkins from criticisms made by two of the FT’s long-term columnists, Noel Rooney and The Hierophant’s Apprentice, and the columnists’ replies to the letters. What I found particularly remarkable about the comments of Dawkins supporters wasn’t their defence of Dawkins’ attacks on religion, but the fact that they found his views Fortean. The author of one of the letters stated that ‘I consider Dawkins to be most ably informed on the excesses of religion and the myth of belief and to be doing a particularly fortean job in exposing the fallacies of religions, the religious and the religious principle in all its forms’. 1Now there is some similarity between Dawkins’ views on the paranormal and the type of philosophical scepticism adopted and recommended by Charles Fort, the compiler and publisher of weird and scientifically inexplicable facts after whom the Fortean Times is named. Dawkins’ view that if the paranormal exists, then it is ‘perinormal’, that is, it is not totally outside science but will eventually become incorporated into a scientific paradigm when enough evidence is accumulated to allow this, is close to Fort’s own observations that previously damned data – facts ignored or denied by conventional science – may become accepted by science through a change in the scientific paradigm, or the Dominant as Fort himself termed it. Nevertheless, at the risk of slavishly defining Forteanism according to Fort’s own personal philosophy, something that Fort himself did not want and which Noel Rooney in his reply also criticises, there’s a big difference between Dawkins’ scepticism towards the supernatural and Forteanism.

Dawkins own scepticism is very much that of 19th century Positivism, which believed, following the theories of Auguste Comte, that religion and metaphysics had been superseded by science. Indeed the university chair Dawkins holds, that of Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, has a strongly Positivist tone, suggesting that there is a single, absolutely authoritative view of science about which the public must be informed, but must not question. This is not an ‘anti-science’ view. I recall one scientist, who certainly showed Dawkins’ concern for better communication of science, making the same arguments in an opinion article published in the ‘Forum’ column of New Scientist in the 1990s. Fort, on the other hand, while not religious, directed his scepticism very much at science and the claims of scientists who presented as objective fact a view of reality based not so much on evidence as on their own, personal beliefs, in defence of which they excluded and suppressed any scientific data that could not be fitted into it, or which actively appeared to contradict it. Fort’s Book of the Damned begins by stating this very clearly:

‘A procession of the damned.

By the damned, I mean the excluded.

We shall have a procession of data that science has excluded.’ 2

Fort’s scepticism, rather than being Positivist, appears to be closer to that of the ancient Greek Sceptics like Pyrrho and Heraclites. These ancient Greek Sceptics believed that reality was fundamentally unknowable, in that nothing definite could be said about it, and so argued for a complete detachment from belief. 3 The great Sceptical philosophers, Carneades, was notorious for being able to argue both for and against a given position with equal force. While he also considered that reality was fundamentally unknowable, he considered that some impressions were more persuasive than others, and more servicable through closer inspection and corroborating impressions. They were thus more credible, though not more certain. 4 Fort’s view that everything was in a state of intermediacy, and striving to become ‘more nearly real’ while gradually blurring into everything else, was also similar to the view of the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus that everything was in a state of flux, and that nature operated through the union of opposites, stating that ‘Combinations – wholes and not wholes, concurring differing, concordant discordant, from all things one and from one all things’. 5 Fort’s scepticism towards dogmatic science was also shared by the militantly atheist Nietzsche, who also considered reality to be a flux that was only imperfectly caught and described in the net of language, and declared that any view that claimed objective validity was a ‘shadow of God’ that oppressed humanity.

Alhtough they aren’t Sceptics, in many ways the adherents of Intelligent Design have a far more Fortean approach to science than Dawkins. As Intelligent Design, by suggesting that living creatures are the product of an intelligent designer rather than chance Natural Selection, is very much contrary to existing orthodox evolutionary science, its supporters are, like Fort, critical of the claims of scientists to proceed through the dispassionate evaluation of objective evidence. Philip Johnson, one of the leading proponents of Intelligent Design, has supported his arguments in this regard using the views of the physicist and philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend. Feyerabend, like Thomas Kuhn, considered that scientific progress largely consisted of the change of one set of self-consistent scientific concepts with another, only marginally based on the empirical evidence and not really constituting anything like progress in knowledge. 6 Although a controversial view, the history of science does provide examples of the way scientists have acted to suppress facts that do not support their current paradigm, and supporters of Intelligent Design have documented and publicised these incidents. For example, a recent post for the 26th May, ‘Can Science be Unbaised’, at the Intelligent Design site, The Design of Life, by Jane Harris Zsovan noted the intense controversy surrounding the views of Steven Shapin and Simon Shaffer in their book, Leviathan and the Air Pump. Examing the debate about the usefulness of experimental in constructing a true model of the world between Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, Shapin and Shaffer concluded that scientists were no more objective in their view of the world than other people. In November 2007, Shapin and Shaffer in an edition of the Canadian TV science programme, Ideas, that after their book came out they suffered personal abuse and even threats of sacking from their colleagues, because of their rejection of the claim that science proceeds through complete objectivity. Thus, Denyse O’Leary, another leading supporter of Intelligent Design, has stated on her blog that ID is not the first or even the only scientific debate in which one side has been attacked and declared to be ‘anti-science’ by another.

Now this does not mean that Dawkins’ view of evolution is necessarily incorrect. It just means that in this instance, his view of science is less Fortean than that of the supporters of Intelligent Design, even though they aren’t sceptics like Fort himself. However, I do find interesting the recommendation of one of Dawkins’ defenders in their letter that Dawkins’ successor as Professor for the Public Understanding of Science should be invited to take part in the Fortean Times’ annual Unconvention and debate the motion ‘this house believes that all science undergraduates should be made to read Charles Fort’s The Book of the Damned’. 7 My guess is that they wouldn’t, especially if the similarity between Fort’s views appeared to support the wider philosophy of science expressed by Intelligent Design.


1. Philip Bolt, ‘Dissing Dawkins’, in Fortean Times, no. 237, (2008), p. 74.

2. X, ed., with introduction by Bob Rickard, Charles Fort’s Book of the Damned (London, John Brown Publishing 1995), p. 1.

3. ‘Scepticism’ in J. Speake, ed., A Dictionary of Philosophy (London, Pan Books 1979), p. 314.

4. ‘Scepticism’, in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 314, and ‘Carneades’ in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 56.

5. Aristotle, On the World, 396b7-8, 20-25, cited in Jonathan Barnes, Early Greek Philosophy (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1987), p. 114.

6. ‘Science, Philosophy of’, in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 320.

7. ‘Dissing Dawkins’, Jason Mills, Fortean Times, no. 237, (2008, p. 74.