Archive for the ‘Deep Thoughts’ Category

The Crushed Little Man

June 19, 2017

Take a look at this pillar.

This pillar with the little man crushed under it can be found in the Church of the Jacobins in Toulouse, France. I read about this oddity in this article from Atlasobscura.

The Church of the Jacobins is in the center of the city of Toulouse in southern France. It is a Gothic mass of brick and stone, decorated inside with elaborate trompe l’oeil and soaring pillars. Most famously, it houses the remains of St. Thomas Aquinas. A lot less famously, it has this strange little carving of a man trapped under one of the pillars.

The remains of Thomas Aquinas are entombed in a golden reliquary along the side wall of the nave. Just behind it to the left there is a double-column that sits on a square base. Look down towards the floor and you’ll see, sticking out, a peculiar pair of bony hands and chubby crossed feet, their meaning and origin unknown. Some of the church tour guides don’t even know the crushed little man is there.

The church dates to the early 13th century, founded by the French Dominican order of the Jacobins. It has weathered a complicated history, beginning with the Dominicans being outlawed in France during the Revolution. It then began a journey that included everything from a takeover by Napoleon (who used it as barracks and an armory for the military), a period as a school gymnasium, an exhibition hall, and, during World War I, a safe haven for art treasures from the Paris museums.

The later decades of the 20th century saw enormous efforts to bring back the majesty of the church. After periods of major restoration – including the reveal of medieval paintings that had been whitewashed by Napoleon – it has emerged as an important museum and cultural center for Toulouse. But the little carving remains a mystery, the only one of its kind in the church. Posted, you might say, without comment.

It’s a little hard to find the little man, but look behind the St. Thomas Aquinas golden altar. You’ll see his little squished hands and little squished feet at the bottom of the pillar to the left.

I wonder what the sculptor was thinking. Does the crushed little man have any relation to Thomas Aquinas? Aquinas was one of the Catholic Church’s most prominent theologians who did much to codify Catholic doctrine. His philosophical system, Thomism, is still used by the Catholic Church and even other Christian denominations to some extent. Maybe the little man represents Truth crushing ignorance, or the Devil being crushed by Christ.

Here is a painting of Thomas Aquinas overcoming Averroes, a Spanish Muslim philosopher who helped to reintroduce Aristotle to the West.

Presumably the painter considered Thomas Aquinas’s interpretation of Aristotle to be superior to Avarroes’s. Maybe the crushed little man represents the same idea in stone.

Or maybe it was just a joke. Maybe the artisan who was carving out the base of the pillar thought it would be funny to make it look like they stuck the pillar on top of a man. I wonder if anyone noticed or if the artist got into any trouble. I wonder what sort of person he was, or even what his name was. We will never know, but I think I’d like to meet him in whatever afterlife might exist and learn his story.

One Horn

May 31, 2017

I have been studying German lately, mostly by using Duolingo, and I have noticed an interesting difference between English and German. This article I read about Ira Einhorn, the founder of Earth Day who murdered and composted his girlfriend brought the difference to mind.

Ira Einhorn was on stage hosting the first Earth Day event at the Fairmount Park in Philadelphia on April 22, 1970. Seven years later, police raided his closet and found the “composted” body of his ex-girlfriend inside a trunk.

A self-proclaimed environmental activist, Einhorn made a name for himself among ecological groups during the 1960s and ’70s by taking on the role of a tie-dye-wearing ecological guru and Philadelphia’s head hippie. With his long beard and gap-toothed smile, Einhorn — who nicknamed himself “Unicorn” because his German-Jewish last name translates to “one horn”  —advocated flower power, peace and free love to his fellow students at the University of Pennsylvania. He also claimed to have helped found Earth Day.

Einhorn is actually the German word for unicorn. What I have noticed is that English tends to create new words for new or abstract concepts by taking words from other languages, particularly Latin and Greek and often combining them in new ways not found in the original languages. German tends to create new words from other German words and seems to be less eager to take words from other languages.

In English we watch television (Greek tele “far” + Latin visionem, participle of videre “to see”). Germans watch the Fernseher (literally “far-seer” in German). We may study science (Latin scientia “knowledge) in school while Germans study Wissenschaft (“knowledge” in German). If you study chemistry you may be familiar with the elements, like hydrogen (Greek Hydr “water” + gen “produces or born from” thus “made from water”) or oxygen (Greek oxys “acid”+ gen so “made from acid). In German they are Wasserstoff (waterstuff) and Sauerstoff (sourstuff). Carbon comes from Latin carbonem “coal” Germans call it Kohlenstoff, “coalstuff”.

Electricity (Latin electrum and Greek elektron both meaning amber) is one of humanity’s greatest inventions. The Germans do have the word Elektrizität but they also call it Strom “stream, current”. We may be afraid of exposure to radiation(Latin radiationem “shining” from radius “beam of light). A German would prefer not to be exposed to Strahlung “beaming”.

You don’t have to study science to notice the difference. English speakers may vote (Latin votus “to vow”) in an election (Latin ex “out of” + legere “to choose”) for Congress (Latin congressus from com “with” + gradus “to walk” thus walking or meeting together) or Parliament (French from parler “to speak”). Germans may abstimmen (choose or coordinate) in a Wahl (choice) for the Bundestag (Bundes “Federal” Tag literally “day” from Latin diet “daily” the name of various representative assemblies in the Holy Roman Empire and elsewhere). This body may pass legislation (Latin legis latio “proposing a law”). In German it is Gesetzgebung (Gesetz “law” + gebung “-tion” so “lawization”. In English, we may participate (Latin participare “to share”) in and organization (Latin organizationem from organum “organ”). In German they teilnehmen (take part) in a Unternehmen (undertaking). I could go on and on but you get the idea.

I don’t want to exaggerate the contrast between the two languages. German does have plenty of words derived from Latin, mostly taken, like English through French, and English, of course, does make new words out of older English words, just like German. We can say we take part in an “undertaking” too. In fact, English seems to have a double vocabulary, one made up of simpler words derived from Anglo-Saxon and another composed of fancier words from French and Latin. Which approach is better, the German or the English is a matter of taste, I think. English perhaps has more words and is more eager to appropriate words from other languages, but all those Latin words may make English a more abstract language in some respects, one more easy to obfuscate in. German seems somehow homier, yet as anyone who tried to read Hegel or some of the other German philosophers can attest, German can also be an obfuscating language with dense verbiage.

So, why is English half a romance language, while German remains, well, Germanic? Part of the reason must be that there was nothing like the Norman Conquest in German history. Germany was not conquered by a nation that spoke a Romance Language as England was conquered by the French speaking Normans and so there was not the huge influx of Latin derived words into German as there was with English.

Yet, I also think that there is another reason why English has generally been careless about adopting words. from other languages. For some reason, English speakers seem to lack the concern about language purity found in the speakers of many other languages. The French have the Academie Francaise, an official institution that tries to safeguard the purity of the French language by setting standards for usage and inventing proper French words to replace any foreign words that have managed to slip in. Almost every major language has a similar official organization to set standards, with one exception, English. There has never been any sort of official or semi-official body in the English speaking world with any authority to set official standards for usage, or even for spelling, nor has there been any serious movement to purify the English language by purging it of “foreign” words. Other languages have had spelling reforms sponsored by various governments. German spelling was reformed in 1901 and again in 1996. The People’s Republic of China simplified the characters used in written Chinese, and there was even a proposal, shortly after the Communists came to power to abandon the characters altogether in favor of romanization. Ataurk ordered the Turks to abandon their traditional use of the Arabic script to write Turkish in favor of the Latin alphabet. Nothing like that is likely to occur in English, even though English orthography is a mess and badly needs to be simplified.

It seems that there is simply about the Anglophone mind and culture that tends to resist regimentation and regularization imposed from above, even when such such regularization might make things easier. English speakers have generally been the most reluctant to adopt the metric system, and the United States still uses the traditional system of measurements. We seem to prefer things haphazardly and chaotically rather than rational and regular, and we don’t mind speaking a language where every rule has an exception and in which if we don’t have a word for something, we have no trouble stealing words from other languages. If the new words aren’t proper English words, we don’t care.

Maybe if English were more regular, it would be an easier language for foreigners to learn. Since English is rapidly becoming the Common Tongue of the whole world, maybe we owe it to the poor souls who have to learn the language to make it easier for them. On the other hand, the fact that English has at least one word from almost every other language may make it at least a little familiar to others. English is certainly a more interesting and dynamic language because of its propensity to borrow shamelessly from other languages and maybe that is part of the reason English is the primary international  language.

 

Charles Murray at Middlebury

March 18, 2017

Earlier this month sociologist and writer Charles Murray attempted to give a speech at Middlebury College. He was not successful because some of the students at Middlebury College decided that they didn’t want to hear what he had to say, and they didn’t want anyone else to hear him, so naturally they shouted him down. College is, after all, not the place where one might be expected to be exposed to new insights and experiences that might challenge one’s worldview.

Here is the story from insidehighered.com

Hundreds of students at Middlebury College on Thursday chanted and shouted at Charles Murray, the controversial writer whom many accuse of espousing racist ideas, preventing him from giving a public lecture at the college.

Murray had been invited by Middlebury’s student group affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank at which Murray is a scholar. Many of his writings are controversial, but perhaps none more than The Bell Curve, a book that linked intelligence and race and that has been widely condemned by many social scientists (even as Murray has been supported by others).

Prior to the point when Murray was introduced, several Middlebury officials reminded students that they were allowed to protest but not to disrupt the talk. The students ignored those reminders and faced no visible consequences for doing so.

As soon as Murray took the stage, students stood up, turned their backs to him and started various chants that were loud enough and in unison such that he could not talk over them.

I wonder how much any of these students actually know about Charles Murray and his work. I doubt very much if any of them have read the allegedly racist “The Bell Curve”. For that matter, I wonder if any of the critics of Murray and “The Bell Curve” have actually read the book. As it happens, “The Bell Curve” is not about race but about the relation of intelligence, or at least that portion of intelligence measured by IQ tests, and success in a meritocratic society like the United States. Murray considers the question of how much IQ is determined by heredity and suggests that people of higher IQ will tend to form a new elite separated from the mainstream of American society. I gather Murray considered this to be undesirable. Only towards the end of the book, in an appendix I believe, does he take up the question of race, noting that some races score higher on IQ tests than others and speculating that heredity may play a role. Murray did not, so far as I know, suggest that one race is inherently superior to another or that any individual of any race should be denied their civil rights. I do not believe that Charles Murray is a racist.

Here are some of the things the protesters chanted:

“Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray, go away.”

“Your message is hatred. We cannot tolerate it.”

“Charles Murray, go away. Middlebury says no way.”

“Who is the enemy? White supremacy.”

“Hey hey, ho ho. Charles Murray has got to go.”

Obviously, they have no idea about what Charles Murray actually thinks. For that matter, they don’t really know what racism, sexism, fascism, or any of the other epithets they shout actually mean. If questioned, they couldn’t explain why racism or fascism are bad things. They only know that Murray is a thought criminal, a Goldstein to be attacked.

They are like the sheep in Orwell’sAnimal Farm” who are too dull witted to understand the meaning of the revolution or the principles of Animalism. They can only chant, “Four legs good, two legs bad” over and over, as they are taught be the pigs. At the end of the book, when the pigs decide to stand on two legs like humans, the sheep just as mindlessly chant, “Four legs good, two legs better”. Like the sheep, these students mindlessly repeat slogans without any understanding of their meaning or the issues.

I suppose it is not really their fault that they are so ignorant and foolish. They were taught to be that way be a failing educational system. They went to college presumably to learn how to think and were only taught what to think, or not to think at all. Trump University may have been a fraud, but at least the people who paid money got a few investing tips and a photo next to a cutout of Donald Trump. The students at Middlebury and all too many other colleges have ended up being dumber as a result of their supposed education.

Universities were invented to teach students how to think. If, instead they exist to indoctrinate students into left wing ideology and to suppress dissenting views, then what good are they?

That Cartoon from the New Yorker

January 23, 2017

This cartoon from The New Yorker has been making the rounds lately.

170109_a20630-1000“These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?”

What, exactly, is the cartoonist trying to say here? That we should not be led by democratically elected leaders but by some body of elites or experts especially trained in government, perhaps with some sort of license or certification, just like a pilot? That only persons specially vetted should be permitted to hold public office? That this body of certified leaders ought not to be accountable to the people they lead since they are not sufficiently acquainted with the nuances of government? Is the only role of the passengers simply to sit down and shut up while the pilot flies the plane? Do they have no recourse if the pilot is manifestly incompetent or flies the plane to a destination contrary to their wishes?

I think the cartoonist has it backwards. The passengers do not work for the pilot. The pilot works for the passengers. The passengers are the ones who decide where the plane is going. They are the ones who buy the tickets from the airline for the plane that will take them where they want to go. The pilot cannot decide, on his own, what the plane’s destination will be. If a pilot decides that he knows better than the passengers where they ought to go, or if the pilot shows that he is not capable of properly flying the plane, than the passengers have good reason to complain to the  airline and demand a refund of the price of their ticket. If an airline continually employs incompetent pilots who ignore their duties to the passengers, that airline will lose customers and eventually go out of business.

If we apply this analogy to the country, it is we the passengers who decide in what direction we want the country to, not some self-proclaimed elites. We elect people to public office so that they will work for us by taking the country in the direction we want. We do not elect them to office to tell us where to go or how we should live our lives. It may be, as the cartoonist suggests that we have chosen poorly in electing Donald Trump as our next president, but it is still our choice to make. As a very wise man said some two hundred years ago:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

 

Recently, it seems that we have been electing pilots who do not want to listen to us, the passengers. They seem to have the idea that it is their job to take the airplane where they want it to go on the basis that they know better than the rest of us. We have been trying to get the pilots to listen to us , with mixed results. Now, we have elected a new pilot from a very different background. This new pilot has not been to flight school, as we may put his lack of experience in electoral politics, but perhaps he will be more inclined to remember his proper job. Perhaps the other pilots may learn from this last election and start to listen to us again. If not, we may have to switch airlines, or exercise our right to,”alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government”. We may hope that it doesn’t come to that, but it is up to those we elect to represent us to start doing what we tell them to do.

The Nativity According to John

December 23, 2016

Like Mark, John does not include a narrative of the nativity. Instead, John chooses to go all the way back to the beginning.

 1.In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life,and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-4)

“The Word” is the usual translation of the Greek word λογος (logos) but logos means more than just “word” Logos means something like speech or discourse or reason. Hence the word logic is derived from logos, as well as “ology” as in geology or biology. The Stoic philosophers used the word logos to refer to the divine Reason in their pantheistic belief system while the Hellenistic Jews identified logos with the wisdom or spirit of God. John follows the Jewish view by identifying the logos with God. Notice he also identifies light and life with God this is a theme found throughout his gospel and in the first letter of John.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe.He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. (John 1:6-8)

John the Baptist was not the Word. He was only a messenger.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:9-14)

The Word became flesh. But who was the Word or the Son.

15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) 16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. (John 1:15-18)

The Word made flesh was Jesus Christ. Of the four gospels, John most emphasizes the divine nature of Jesus, even to the  point of omitting incidents that show any weakness on the part of Jesus. John does not mention Jesus’s temptation in the desert by the Devil after being baptized by John the Baptist nor does he show Jesus’s agony at the Garden of Gethsemane. There is no cry of despair from the cross. Jesus is alway shown as being calm and in control of events.

It may be that John wanted to emphasize the divinity of Jesus as a rebuttal to those who either believed that Jesus, while the Messiah was merely human and those who held that Jesus  was born human but had been adopted as the Son at his baptism or at some other time. John states that Jesus has existed since before time began as the eternal Word of God. At the same time, John firmly rejects the other extreme that Jesus did not really have a body made of matter but only seemed to be flesh. This idea was held by many Gnostics who taught that physical matter was an inferior substance to the spiritual realm, created by an inferior, and perhaps evil, deity. Jesus Christ, being a emissary from the higher God could not have a body made of mere flesh. John asserts that the the Word was made flesh and that really did have a body and really did eat and sleep.

It is curious that both these heresies are still found today, clothed in modern garb. Many liberal theologians cannot believe in the divinity of Jesus and insist that he was merely a great moral teacher. There are some Atheists who insist that Jesus never really existed in the physical realm but only as a myth. Maybe there really is nothing new under the Sun.

Tomorrow we celebrate the Word made flesh, the birth of our Saviour Jesus Christ.

The Nativity According to Mark

December 22, 2016

The Gospel of Mark does not actually include a narrative of Jesus’s birth. Instead Mark gets right to business with John the Baptist.

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God,  as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way”
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’”

And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

(Mark 1:1-8)

Then Jesus makes his first appearance, fully grown and ready to begin His public ministry.

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

(Mark 1:9-15)

English: John the Baptist baptizing Christ

English: John the Baptist baptizing Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mark’s gospel was probably the first gospel written. It is the shortest of the four gospels and seems to have been intended as a sort of FAQ for Christians wanting to know more about the central figure of their faith. Mark doesn’t include a lot of details about Jesus’s life and teachings. He just gives the basic facts about Jesus’s ministry, his miracles and his death on the cross.

The earliest Christians weren’t really interested in the details of Jesus’s birth or His early life. Even His teachings were of secondary importance. For the early Christians, the most important fact about Jesus was that he was crucified, died, and them came back to life, defeating death and sin and redeeming the whole world. Paul, whose letters are some of the earliest Christian writings hardly mentions any details of Jesus’s life. He was surely not ignorant. Both he and the recipients of his letters already knew the information found in the Gospels. For both Paul and the people he wrote to, the most important thing was the death and resurrection. For the earliest Christians Easter, not Christmas, was the most important day of the year. Indeed, the birth of Christ may not have been celebrated by Christians until the third or fourth century.

There is a lot of talk, these days, about the War on Christmas, and I have written posts about the Secular Christmas Grinches who seem determined to ruin Christmas for everyone, or at least strip it of all meaning until it is a generic “Holiday”. As Christians, we should remember the importance of Christmas and should fight against the increasing marginalization of the Judeo-Christian worldview that this nation was founded upon. Still, we should also remember that Christ’s death and resurrection was the reason he came into the world. If Jesus is the reason for Christmas, Good Friday and Easter are the reason for Jesus. We should remember Christ on the cross as well as baby Jesus in the manger.

Piltdown Man

December 19, 2016

The intellectual process of developing theories and hypotheses based on observations and experiments and checking those hypotheses with further experiments and observations that we refer to as science has proven itself to be the best tool human beings have ever developed for understanding and making use of the world around us. This process is not an easy one, however.  Not only is it a lot of work to conduct the necessary experiments and interpret the results, but the process demands a  rigorous honesty that does not come easily to anyone. Most people are less interested in discovering the truth than in being proven right, and there is always a tendency to consider only the evidence that confirms existing ideas and ignore the evidence against them. As Dr. Richard Feynmann put it in his lecture about cargo cult science:

It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards.  For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them.  You must do the best you can—if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong—to explain it.  If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it.  There is also a more subtle problem.  When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

The problem is that this level of integrity is almost contrary to human nature. There is a great temptation to cheat, particularly when the rewards of fame and fortune are present.

One of the most famous instances of scientific cheating is Piltdown Man. Piltdown Man was a hypothetical “missing link” between human and ape discovered by an amatuer paleontologist Charles Dawson at the Piltdown gravel quarry in 1912. Dawson stated that workmen at the quarry had discovered skull fragments which they had given to him. Dawson had been able to reconstruct the skull with these fragments and other pieces that he had found at Piltdown. The resulting skull had a roughly human cranium, although only two thirds the size of a modern human brain, but an ape-like jaw with large canines. Clearly this was the remains of a creature caught midway in the transition between human and ape, the missing link of the chain of evolution.

Charles Dawson

Charles Dawson

At first, there was some skepticism about Dawson’s find. The canines seemed too large for the jaw and the whole thing seemed to be just a little too neat a combination of human and ape. Then, Dawson found another skull about two miles away. It might be possible for a human skull and ape jaw to have somehow been put together once and fossilized . Surely that couldn’t happen twice. Piltdown Man was accepted as a legitimate ancestor to homo sapiens.

 

Piltdown Man

Piltdown Man

 

At the time of Piltdown Man’s discovery, relatively little was known about the details of how humans evolved from their apelike ancestors. Over the years, more early human fossils were discovered and much more was learned about how humans became human. As the missing pieces were fitted together, it became increasingly obvious that Piltdown Man didn’t fit in. Paleontologists began to suspect that Piltdown Man was either an aberration, perhaps a mutation of some sort, of a hoax. In 1953, the question was definitely settled. Piltdown was shown to be a hoax. Piltdown Man was actually a rather crude forgery. The skull was that of a medieval man with a small head. The jaw was from an orangutan and the canines were the teeth of a chimpanzee.

The only remaining question was whether Charles Dawson was the forger or whether he was merely an innocent dupe. Dawson was the obvious suspect, but there were others associated with the discovery of Piltdown Man, who might have been able to perpetrate such a hoax, notably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame, and the Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Recent research, however, has indicated that Charles Dawson was indeed the forger. He actually had something of a history of perpetrating such hoaxes and was well known for his skill at making unexpected archaeological finds, invariably later discovered to be forgeries.

Why did it take so long to expose Piltdown Man? The forgery was not very sophisticated and the discoverer had a reputation for not being particularly honest. To be fair, a space of forty years between the discovery and the exposure is not an unreasonable amount of time considering how much was discovered about human development in that time. Still, one might have expected more skepticism to be shown, especially considering how important the find seemed to be at the time. It seems as if everyone involved in the research involving Piltdown Man showed a disregard for the sort of scientific integrity that Dr. Feynman was talking about. For years no one seemed to want to consider the increasing evidence that Piltdown Man wasn’t real.

I think that was the problem. Piltdown Man was exactly what most paleontologists were expecting. At the time of his discovery, the general consensus was that human beings developed large brains first, while retaining a more apelike physiology such as a large jaw and lack of bipedalism. Only later, they believed did humans began to walk erect and to develop a flatter, more human face. It was also generally believed that human beings developed somewhere in Eurasia, Perhaps even in Germany, where Neanderthal Man had been discovered not long before, or in England. There was a certain amount of nationalistic pride in being the area where humanity began. It is not that surprising, then, that British paleontologists were the least likely to be skeptical about Piltdown Man.

In any event, these assumptions that Piltdown Man seemed to confirm have proven to be wrong. Primitive humans, such as the Australopithecus (Lucy)  began to walk erect on two feet long before developing larger brains, and the human race arose in Africa, almost the opposite of what was generally believed. I wonder how much these widely held but wrong assumptions held back the science of paleontology.

I also wonder how many other Piltdown Mans there are out there that are holding back the progress of science. I don’t mean hoaxes or forgeries necessarily, though that is a greater problem is science than many realized, but ideas and theories that are held to be settled science but aren’t. I wonder how much that everyone “knows” to be true and so not worth questioning, are not true, and how long it will take before anyone thinks to question it.

Women’s Chess

December 4, 2016

I am a bit confused by this article I read from PJMedia.

Sports competitors are often asked to conform to the rules of the countries they visit.

That might mean eating local cuisine or simply driving on the opposite side of the road.

For one elite chess player, embracing one country’s religious customs isn’t an option. And she may not be alone

U.S. women’s chess champion Nazi Paikidze-Barnes won’t appear at February’s world championships to be held in Tehran. Female players will be expected to wear a hijab, which is mandatory by Iranian law.

That isn’t acceptable to her:

If the venue of the championship is not changed, I will not be participating. I am deeply upset by this. I feel privileged to have qualified to represent the US at the Women’s World Chess Championship and to not be able to due to religious, sexist, and political issues is very disappointing.

Paikidze-Barnes may have company soon enough. Former Pan American champion Carla Heredia wants the 64 female players slated to participate in the event to protest the mandatory hijab garb as well.

“Sports should be free of this type of discrimination,” Heredia explained.

Nazi Paikidze-Barnes, chair of Fide’s Commission for Women’s Chess, said the hijab ruling shouldn’t be an issue. It’s a matter of respecting local culture, Polgar says, adding the dress code will apply to all players.

It’s not the question of whether or not female chess players should be required to wear the hijab when playing in Iran that confuses me, but rather why should there be such a thing as Women’s Chess, as opposed to Men’s Chess.

womensworldchamp1981

Sports and competitions involving physical prowess usual segregate between men and women. There are men’s and woman’s tennis, soccer, track and field, and so on. This segregation exists because men are generally stronger and more physically powerful than women. There are exceptions and a degree of overlap to this generalization; weaker men and stronger women, but the generalization is true enough that in any physical contest between a man and a women, the man will almost always have a decisive, and in sports an unfair, advantage. In most cases, a competition between a male athlete and a female athlete might not be interesting to watch. In mixed gender team, the female players might often be sidelined in favor of the male players who would be more able to make the goals, etc. Thus, we have men and women’s sports, to make the competitions fairer and more fun to watch.

Chess is not a contest of physical prowess but of mental ability. The difference in physical strength between men and women is entirely irrelevant in games like chess. Why should there be such a thing as Women’s Chess? It may be that there are differences between male and female cognition. There may be some element of truth in the stereotype that boys are better at math while girls have superior language skills. Even so, the mental differences between men and women are surely more subtle with a far greater degree of overlap than the physical differences. Such mental differences as may exist also do not favor one gender as much as the obvious physical differences. I do not believe that anyone would contend that one sex is generally more intelligent than the other. Even if the specific skills needed to be successful at playing chess were more common in men than in women, the disparity would surely not be so great as to require separate leagues for men and women. I don’t understand it.

 

The Last Battle

October 17, 2016

The Last Battle is the cruelest, and most heart rending of the Chronicles of Narnia, as perhaps is appropriate for the last book in the series. It is set in the last days of the world of Narnia. There is a false Aslan, the Narnian Anti-Christ, abroad in the western woods of Narnia with a false prophet, the ape Shift, to promote his claims. Under Shift’s guidance the Calormen have been infiltrating into Narnia and cutting down the trees, killing their dryads. Tash, the Calormen god has taken up residence in Narnia to be worshipped as Tashlan. The scenes where Tash makes an appearance must be the most terrifying in the whole Chronicles.

Tirian, the last king of Narnia, and the two children sent from our world, Eustace Shrubb and Jill Pole try to save Narnia, but nothing they do works. They try to expose the false Aslan as the befuddled and repentant donkey Puzzle wearing a lion skin, only to have Shift and the Calorman captain announce that there is a donkey pretending to be Aslan and so Aslan will not appear to the animals any more. They await reinforcements from Cair Paravel only to learn that Cair Paravel has fallen to a Calormen army. They rescue Dwarfs being led into slavery, but the Dwarfs decide that they will not be ruled either by Calormen or the King of Narnia. In the end, Tirian and the two children fight a desperate battle for Narnia with the few animals who will fight alongside them, knowing there is no hope of victory with each one thrown one by one into a stable where something terrible, perhaps Tash, is waiting. All throughout  the beginning and middle of the Last Battle the reader’s hopes are raised again and again, only to be cruelly dashed. It seems that all is lost.

But then, Aslan makes his long delayed appearance. The stable turns out to be not the home of Tash, who is promptly banished to his own place, but the way to Aslan’s country where the Seven Friends of Narnia are waiting to greet  Tirian. Aslan is there to set everything to rights, though this means that Narnia must be ended. Yet the end of Narnia is not really cause for grief, for as Tirian and the Friends discover by going further up and further in, that the real Narnia, of which the Narnia they knew was only a shadow, is eternal and everything that was good about the old Narnia, and England, will be preserved forever in the new Narnia.

As I write this, things are looking a little bleak for our country. The frontrunner in the upcoming presidential election is an unprincipled, amoral woman who would gladly sell out they country she aspires to lead for her own profit. This ought not to be at all surprising since she is the nominee of an unprincipled, amoral political party that places the pursuit of political power ahead of honor or decency and has come to have a vision for this country that is sharply at odds with the principles of freedom it was founded upon. Not that her opponent is better. He is a narcissistic con man who tells people what they want to hear and who has somehow become the presidential candidate of a political party that ideologically he has next to nothing in common with, insofar as he espouses any coherent political ideology at all. Neither of the two major candidates seem to have much use for the concept of liberty, particularly religious liberty. Even the Libertarian candidate doesn’t seem to really have much support for the idea of liberty in the abstract. He and his running mate are willing to fight for the freedom to smoke marijuana. They are less willing to fight for the freedom of a person to live a life according to the beliefs of their faith, unmolested by the state. We may be facing dark times in the next decade, whoever wins the election.

It would be easy to feel despair. There seems to be nothing we can do to keep the country from making a disastrous wrong turn. It is not even easy to see what the right turn might be. It is only natural to worry about the future. We shouldn’t worry, all the same. In the end, we are not the ones who will decide what comes next. Not even our leaders, whatever their pretensions, will have the last word. It is Aslan, or Jesus Christ as he is known in our world, who is our king and is the one guiding events according to his plan.  Aslan is the one who has everything under control and he will make everything right in the end. It is not for us to question or doubt him. We are all between the paws of the true Aslan and we must take what adventures he sends us as true Narnians must and have faith that Aslan will guide us.

 

All About Mormons

September 13, 2016

The creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have a curious relationship towards religion. They are not religious and enjoy mocking religion in their show, yet they deny being atheists and have been just as quick to make fun of the pretensions of Atheism and the New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, and they have admitted to having  a certain curiosity and respect for religious belief. In fact, a closer look at the South Park episodes which ridicule religion shows that they are really opposed to hypocrisy or bad actions justified by religious belief.

Parker and Stone have a particular liking for Mormonism. Growing up in Colorado, right next to the Mormon promised land of Utah, they knew many Mormons and have expressed an appreciation for their politeness and niceness, even while regarding the story of Joseph Smith and Mormon beliefs as ridiculous. Their feelings about Mormonism and religion in general are expressed in the seventh season episode, “All About Mormons“.

In this episode, a Mormon family, the Harrisons, moves to South Park and one of the boys, named Gary, is in the same class as the series regulars.  The Harrisons are nice and polite and eager to befriend everyone in South Park, particularly the Marshes and while they do not want to force their religious beliefs on anyone, they are more than willing to tell their neighbors the history and beliefs of the Mormon religion and it’s prophet Joseph Smith.

The Harrisons

The Harrisons

This history is told through a series of musical flashbacks.

Stan is not impressed with their account of Joseph Smith and points out the inconsistencies and logical fallacies that suggest that Joseph Smith was simply making up his stories about the golden plates and the Angel Moroni.

"All you've got are a bunch of stories about some asswipe who read plates nobody ever saw out of a hat and then couldn't do it again when the translations were hidden!"

“All you’ve got are a bunch of stories about some asswipe who read plates nobody ever saw out of a hat and then couldn’t do it again when the translations were hidden!”

The next day Gary confronts Stan at the bus stop and explains why he is a Mormon even if the stories are a little silly.

Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life, and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don’t care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. And even though people in this town might think that’s stupid, I still choose to believe in it. All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you’re so high and mighty you couldn’t look past my religion and just be my friend back. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. Suck my balls.

The sentiment expressed by Gary, and presumably shared by Parker and Stone is one that I would hope if widely adopted, might promote greater tolerance and civility between persons of different faiths, and with those with no faith. Still, it doesn’t satisfy me because it ignores the question that is most important to me. It is good if the religion you follow makes you a better person, but the question I think more important is, is the religion true? Can the assertions and claims made by this particular religion be shown to be true or false?

I do not mean the metaphysical claims made by nearly all religions concerning deities or the afterlife or anything of that sort. These matters cannot be shown to be true or false this side of eternity and properly matters of faith Nor do I expect that every word of the Book of Mormon or spoken by Joseph Smith to be literally and completely true. That is a burden that even my own mainstream Christianity couldn’t bear. I do think it is fair to ask whether, in a broad sense, the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith are what they claim to be. Is the Book of Mormon really a historical record of Jewish refugees who settled in the New World? Is Joseph Smith really a prophet of the Lord who translated this account?

The answer to both questions would seem to be no. Studies of the DNA of the Native Americans show that their ancestry is almost entirely from Northern Asia or Siberia. There is no indication of any ancestors of Semitic or Middle Eastern origin. There is no archeological evidence that any of the events described in the Book of Mormon ever took place Not a single city or country named in the Book of Mormon has ever been positively located or identified, nor do any individuals named in the Book of Mormon appear in any historical record outside the Book of Mormon. In contrast, many places in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, can be located on a map and many people named in the Bible can be attested in other sources. It may well be that some of the accounts in the Bible are slanted, or even fictitious, but there is no question that there really were places like Israel, Judah, Jerusalem, or Babylon and that people like the kings and prophets of Israel, Jesus and his apostles really did exist.

As for Joseph Smith, he had something of a reputation as a con artist who practiced folk magic, specializing in money digging, or searching for lost treasure by occult means. It is possible that Smith reformed after the visions he claimed to have had, but Smith’s actions even after he founded the Mormon religion do not seem to be those of an honest man, still less a prophet.

Does it matter it there is any truth to the Book of Mormon or the story of Joseph Smith, so long as it improves people’s lives? Perhaps not, but it seems to me that a faith built on untruths is a faith built on sand rather than solid rock. I do not believe that such a faith can endure.

For my part, if it were shown that the claims of Christianity were false, I would be obliged to change religions. I could not take comfort in the idea that it does not matter whether the stories the gospels tell about Jesus are true so long as I follow the teachings in the gospels because Christianity is not based on the teachings of Jesus, or Paul, or anyone else. Buddhism could still exist even if it were shown that there was no such person as Gautama because his teachings about life and suffering stand on their own regardless whether he existed or not. The same could be true of Confucius or Socrates or many other sages. The teachings of Christ are not much different from the teachings of other sages and express the same truths common to the whole human race. The central message of Christianity is a historical one, that the man Jesus of Nazareth was God in human form who was crucified for our sins, who died and was resurrected, defeating sin and death. If Jesus were shown to have never existed or were shown to have been just an ordinary man, than I, and every other Christian, have been wasting our time. As Paul put it,

12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1Cor 15:12-19)

Is this true of Mormonism? I don’t know. The family values taught by the contemporary Mormon faith certainly have little to do with the polygamous Joseph Smith. It may be that the faith is better than its founder. And yet, the family values that Mormonism teaches are, or used to be, the mainstream within the Judeo-Christian tradition. If one can have the family values without the silly stories about Joseph Smith, why bother with the silly stories? If the Mormon religion gives life meaning but is shown to be based on falsehoods, than then meaning one derives from the faith is also based upon falsehoods. I think I would rather have a faith based on truth.


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