30 August 2011

Thought for the day: Platonism vs Christianity

the one essential difference between Platonism and Christianity is absolute: the difference, that is, between the mysteries of the city and the counsels of the philosopher’s daimon, on the one hand, and the sacraments of the church and the pilgrimage of scripture, on the other; or, otherwise stated, the difference between the backward glance that seeks a path of retreat out of the alien distance of a chaotic exterior and the forward gaze, saturated by the light of the Kingdom’s distant dawn, that surveys the graciously exterior distance of the gift.

Hart, David Bentley (2000) ‘The Writing of the Kingdom: Thirty-Seven Aphorisms Towards An Eschatology of the Text’, Modern Theology 16(2): 181-202 (190).

29 August 2011

J.R.R. Tolkien

Here is a review of another book I have recently acquired from Booksneeze:

J.R.R. Tolkien by Mark Horne
Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2011

This new biography of Tolkien takes the form of a brief chronological summary of Tolkien’s life. Three chapters are devoted to his childhood in and around Birmingham, culminating in his childhood romance with the girl he would eventually marry. Chapter 4 deals with his time as an undergraduate in Oxford, while Chapter 5 outlines his experiences in the First World War and his marriage to Edith. Chapters 6 and 7 summarize his academic career between 1918 and 1937, first in Leeds and later back in Oxford. Chapter 8 focuses on the decade following the publication of The Hobbit during which time he wrote much of The Lord of the Rings, while Chapter 9 deals with the public reception of LOTR and Tolkien’s later years. A final brief chapter entitled ‘Legacy’ explores Tolkien’s influence on modern fantasy literature and attempts to say something about Tolkien’s Christian vision.

My initial reaction to the volume was one of disappointment. The account of Tolkien’s life appears to be reasonably accurate (at various points I checked it against Humphrey Carpenter’s biography), but the book is too short to deal adequately with the important relationships in his life. In particular, there is surprisingly little about his relationship with C.S. Lewis and the rest of the Inklings. More importantly, it fails to live up to the series promise that you will learn ‘how Tolkien’s faith was an intrinsic element of his creative imagination, one that played out in the pages of his writings and his life’. Scattered references to his Roman Catholicism and a brief attempt in the final chapter to address the Christian underpinning of his writing do not amount to a demonstration that his faith was integral to his creativity. For example, more could have been made of his understanding of fantasy as sub-creation; stronger connections could have been made between his penchant for anarchism and his faith; and it would have been good to see something about his concept of eucatastrophe (a concept that embraces both the cross of Christ and the destruction of the ruling ring). To add insult to injury, the book is simply not particularly well written; the text is grammatically correct, but it is dull and lifeless. Tolkien deserves better.

NB  I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze.com book review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

27 August 2011

Understanding the Present

Another old review of mine from Science and Christian Belief:

Bryan Appleyard, Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man (Picador, 1992)

Arguably science is the most effective form of knowledge the world has yet known. The developments of the past four centuries have given us unprecedented powers to manipulate our environment. But, in addition to the technological innovations spawned by science, it has bequeathed to us an outlook on the world which has had far-reaching effects on western (and, more recently, global) culture.

Bryan Appleyard’s interest in the cultural implications of science stems from interviewing Stephen Hawking for the Sunday Times Magazine in 1988. The result of his investigations is a powerful critique of modern scientific culture.

He adopts an essentially historical approach, tracing the development of scientific culture from the emergence of the modern scientific method some four centuries ago. Appleyard argues that the success of the scientific method provoked an epistemological crisis from which emerged a new worldview.

This worldview (scientism) is the bedrock of modern liberal culture. However, it precludes the possibility of taking about ultimate meaning and purpose. In the face of its ability to manipulate the world around us Western non-scientific culture has been gradually overwhelmed and transformed. Appleyard traces this ‘long tale of decline and defeat’ with particular reference to religious and moral responses. He concludes that Western Christianity has been roundly defeated by the new culture of science: theological liberalism represents its capitulation.

In later chapters, he examines contemporary developments. He explores the way in which doubts about the morality of hard science (fuelled by the horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima) have encouraged a green reaction. Within science itself, the strangeness of twentieth century physics has given rise to suggestions that we may be able to develop a new spirituality, but Appleyard remains unconvinced. The final element in his indictment of scientific culture is an examination of attempts to develop artificial intelligence and the erosive implications of this for a more humanistic view of personality and selfhood.

Appleyard’s concluding chapter is both the most important and, in another respect, the weakest chapter in the book. After a lucid summary of the argument so far, he outlines the dangers of the real enemy: modern liberal culture based upon the assumptions of scientism and bolstered by the successes of science and technology. His diagnosis is superb; his proposed remedy is so feeble as to seem ridiculous. He asserts that, ‘Science begins by saying it can answer only this kind of question and ends by claiming that these are the only questions that can be asked. Once the implications and shallowness of this trick are realized, fully realized, science will be humbled and we shall be free to celebrate our selves again’ (p. 249). In other words, all we have to do is disentangle science from scientism. But it is not enough merely to reject the worldview of scientism. The human spirit abhors a vacuum. Unless some constructive alternative is offered, other ideologies, perhaps even more abhorrent than scientism, will rush in to replace it.

Many historians and philosophers of science will hate this book. His historical analysis is simplified to the point of distortion. For example, Galileo’s telescopic observation of the moon is blown up out of all proportion. He turns it into an icon of the scientific method. More seriously, for most of the book he confuses the method and the attendant worldview: science and scientism.

Nevertheless this is a helpful book. It is a clear and resounding critique of scientism. Appleyard’s journalistic abilities have resulted in a work capable of reaching a much wider audience than the more erudite tomes usually reviewed in these pages. It should be compulsory reading for all sixth-formers (and undergraduates)!

26 August 2011

Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology

Here’s a book review I wrote for Science and Christian Belief some time ago:

Max Jammer, Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology (Princeton University Press, 1999)

Everyone with an interest in the relationship between physics and theology will welcome the publication of this volume by the distinguished philosopher of physics, Max Jammer. In spite of the general recognition of the importance of Einstein’s thought both for modern physics and its relationship with religion this is, as far as I am aware, the first comprehensive account of Einstein’s own views on the relationship.

Jammer has organised his material into three main sections. The first of these deals with ‘Einstein’s Religiosity and the Role of Religion in His Private Life’. As the title suggests, this chapter deals with Einstein’s personal attitude toward religion from childhood until his death. It is a detailed and roughly chronological account in which Jammer documents Einstein’s apparently self-contradictory attitude towards religion. On the one hand, he had a lifelong aversion to authority that was expressed in a distaste for organised religion (culminating in his request not to be given a Jewish funeral). On the other hand, as a personal response to the cosmos, he experienced what can only be described as profound religious feelings. In short, Einstein’s personal religion is shown to be typically late modern – affirming personal spirituality while disavowing organised religion.

In his second chapter, Jammer turns from Einstein’s personal attitude to what he has written about religion and its role in human society. The chapter is entitled ‘Einstein’s Philosophy of Religion’ and sets out to be a logical justification of the attitudes described in the first chapter. I must confess that I felt rather suspicious of this (re)construction of Einstein’s philosophy of religion. Jammer’s interpretative approach seems to have been to assume that it must always be possible to reconcile apparently contradictory statements. The result is a superhuman degree of consistency. Frankly I doubt whether even someone of Einstein’s stature could achieve such consistency outside his own field (and, indeed, his vacillations about the implications of relativity theory for the nature of time suggest that he did not always achieve it within his own field). That criticism apart, this chapter offers a valuable summary of Einstein’s articulated views about religion. In particular, it explores his lifelong admiration for Spinoza and sets his well-known determinism, realism and insistence on the impersonality of God in that context.

The final chapter is devoted to ‘Einstein’s Physics and Theology’. Here Jammer moves on from Einstein’s own views to explore some of the ways in which his contributions to science have been received by theologians and philosophers of religion. These explorations are organised logically (following roughly the order in which the ideas on which they are based appeared within the development of relativity theory) rather than chronologically. Among the issues tackled are the implications of Einstein’s redefinition of simultaneity for our understanding of eternity, determinism and omniscience; theological uses (and abuses) of time dilation; T.F. Torrance’s use of mass-energy equivalence as an exegesis of Incarnation and, more generally, Pannenberg’s assignment of theological significance to Einstein’s concept of field. Finally he explores some of the theological implications of quantum mechanics (on the grounds that Einstein’s criticisms played a major role in shaping its development). Some readers may find this final chapter both confusing and inconclusive. In part this is due to the fact that Jammer distances both Einstein and himself from the discussions he is reporting. Thus it reflects the current status of theological efforts to appropriate Einstein’s ideas.

Jammer has done an excellent job in bringing together and making accessible the scattered evidence for Einstein’s views about religion. Unfortunately the work is marred by the extreme length of the chapters (Chapter 3 runs to 110 pages!) and the complete lack of internal divisions. This makes reading the book a more daunting task than is necessary. Nevertheless, this is a valuable contribution to the subject.

23 August 2011

The Skin Map

The nice people at Booksneeze let me have an electronic copy of Stephen Lawhead’s recent novel The Skin Map. So here is my review:

The Skin Map by Stephen R. Lawhead
Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2010.

This is the first volume of a new science fiction/fantasy series entitled ‘Bright Empires’ which, its author claims, has been fifteen years in the making.
The story begins when Kit discovers that he has the gift of being able to jump between worlds via ley lines. Unfortunately he inadvertently loses his girlfriend Mina in the process. Enlisting the aid of his great grandfather, Cosimo, who also possesses the gift, Kit sets off to rescue her, a quest that takes him first to seventeenth-century London and later to twentieth-century Egypt. But this quest brings Cosimo and his ally Lord Henry Flyte into conflict with their old enemy Lord Burleigh.
A second strand of the story follows Mina who finds herself somewhere in central Europe in the seventeenth century. With the aid of a young baker called Englebert, she makes a new life for herself in Prague. This strand culminates with Mina encountering Burleigh and later overhearing him asking an alchemist to manufacture some mechanical device for him.
A third strand introduces Arthur Flinders-Petrie who is a pioneer of exploration using the ley lines. He is the author of the map that gives the novel its title and which for security reasons he has tattooed on his own body. We see him in conflict with Burleigh (who wants the map for his own purposes), falling in love with a young Chinese woman, watching her die in ancient Egypt, and setting off in search of the Well of Souls in an effort to save her. At some point, presumably after his death, the map is flayed from his body, divided up and given to various ley line travellers for safekeeping. However, in an epilogue to the volume, we see him stealing the section of map that was given to Cosimo and Henry.
The volume concludes with Kit being captured in early twentieth-century Egypt by Burleigh and discovering that he has already killed Cosimo and Henry. Then, completely out of the blue, Mina appears and sets him free.
I enjoyed Lawhead’s development of the idea that ley lines allow us to travel through time and space. He has clearly gone to a lot of trouble with this element of the story. The result is plausible and convincingly described. Actually his descriptions are generally pretty good, making it very easy to visualize the action and enter into the world of the novel.
Unfortunately other aspects of the novel’s world-building are less satisfactory. In particular, the characters’ apparent ability to jump from one culture to another without even the faintest hint of culture shock is hard to believe. Even less believable is their apparent ability to blend into to those distant times and places without arousing curiosity or suspicion. And Mina’s miraculous ability to use her childhood twentieth-century German to make herself understood in seventeenth-century Austro-Bavarian and in a matter of weeks to be able to carry on business negotiations in that language.
I also found Lawhead’s characterization and dialogue disappointing. Kit and Mina are rounded, if rather straightforward, characters. But the supporting cast tend to be stereotypical; for example, his villains seem to have stepped straight out of a Victorian melodrama (one can almost see Burleigh twirling his moustaches!). As for the dialogue, it is often little better than wooden; one wonders whether the author ever read it aloud to himself.
Last but not least, in his rush to bring the first volume to an end, Lawhead turns Mina into a deus ex machina. Presumably somewhere between the end of her story strand and her reappearance at the end of the volume she has persuaded the Prague alchemist to duplicate Burleigh’s device; she has mastered its use; and she has discovered that Kit is in danger. I can’t help feeling there is an interesting story here. Unfortunately it is a story that remains untold.
None of the story arcs introduced here is brought to a satisfactory resolution leaving one with the feeling that this volume is really just setting the scene for the rest of the series.
It is many years since I read anything by Stephen Lawhead, but I recall enjoying several of his early works so I approached with this volume with high expectations. Sadly The Skin Map fell far short of those expectations. However, I found his use of ley lines sufficiently interesting that I will probably persevere with the sequel when it is published later this year.

NB  I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze.com book review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

20 August 2011

More footage of the RSNO flash mob

After their impromptu performance of Ravel’s Bolero in the check-in area at Glasgow Airport, members of the RSNO went on to perform in the food hall:

19 August 2011

More on the shape of things to come

More speculation. This time, a scary paper entitled ‘The Food Crises and Political Instability in North Africa and the Middle East’, which has recently been posted on arXiv.org. According to the authors, Marco Lagi, Karla Z. Bertrand and Yaneer Bar-Yam,
Social unrest may reflect a variety of factors such as poverty, unemployment, and social injustice. Despite the many possible contributing factors, the timing of violent protests in North Africa and the Middle East in 2011 as well as earlier riots in 2008 coincides with large peaks in global food prices. We identify a specific food price threshold above which protests become likely. These observations suggest that protests may reflect not only long-standing political failings of governments, but also the sudden desperate straits of vulnerable populations. If food prices remain high, there is likely to be persistent and increasing global social disruption. Underlying the food price peaks we also find an ongoing trend of increasing prices. We extrapolate these trends and identify a crossing point to the domain of high impacts, even without price peaks, in 2012–2013. This implies that avoiding global food crises and associated social unrest requires rapid and concerted action.

The shape of things to come

Charlie Stross has recently posted his USENIX 2011 Keynote Address on his blog (here). His main focus is on network security in the medium term (by which he means anywhere from AD 2061 to 2561!), but the talk includes a long introduction in which he speculates about the general shape of society over the next few decades. Lots of useful world-building material for anyone who (like Charlie) is into near future SF.