Category Archives: Philosophy

Another side to Socrates

A marble head of Socrates
Marble head of Socrates, Roman, 1st Century CE, ?after Lysippos, 4th Century BCE, via Wikipedia

We all know the story. Socrates has been told by the oracle that he is wisest of men, but he considers that he himself knows nothing. Puzzled, he takes to cross-examining his fellow Athenians about their beliefs, and time and again finds that they will not bear examination. As a result, he is indicted on trumped-up charges of impiety and corrupting the young. After a trial in which he eloquently defends his behaviour, he is condemned to death. A martyr to freedom of expression, and a shocking example of democracy suppressing dissent. Surely there is more to the story than that? Indeed there is.

I am not about to commit the folly of denying the greatness of Socrates. We still, twentyfour cenuries later, praise his methods of investigation. I myself have used an argument taken directly from one of Plato’s Socratic dialogues. The topic was practical ethics, Socrates’ speciality; and the technique used, questioning assumed certainties, his favourite tactic.

Here’s what happened. A few years ago, I was involved in a moderately successful campaign  [1] to reduce the statutory role of the Churches in Scotland’s local authority education committees. The Church of Scotland attempted to justify its privileged position by pointing to its distinctive Christian ethos. In reply, I pointed out that to the extent that this ethos is generally shared, we do not need any Church to promote it, while to the extent that it is specific to Christianity, the Churches have no right to impose it on the rest of us.

My reasoning derives directly from Socrates, in The Euthyphro, where Socrates challenges Euthyphro to define pious behaviour.

Euthyphro, after a few false starts, defines it as the kind of behaviour that pleases the gods. Socrates then asks a question which reverberates to this day, and which undercuts any attempts to define morality by reference to authority; does such behavior please the gods because it is pious, in which case we still have to ask what it is that makes it pious, and we are back where we started. Or is it pious because it pleases the gods? In that case, piety depends merely on the divine whim.

For how Plato’s Socrates would define morality, we can turn to The Republic, in which he advocates a city ruled by an oligarchy of philosophers, qualified for their post by their superior insights, who give out the legend that they are of different descent from common clay, impose limits on public discussion, and ban poets and non-military music. It is easy to guess how long the sainted Socrates of common belief would have lasted within such a city.
Alliances at the outset of the Peloponnesian War, US Army via Wikipedia

And what about the charge of corrupting the young? Here it makes sense to look at what we know about how Socrates’ disciples behaved during the period of his influence. This included the period of the Peloponnesian War   between Athens and Sparta, which had led to total defeat for Athens, and the temporary installation five years before the trial of a brutal oligarchy (the Thirty) operating under Spartan auspices. The War could be seen as part of an ongoing struggle between oligarchy and (severely limited) democracy. The overthrow of the Thirty speaks to Athenian resilience, despite which there had been a further oligarchic coup attempt just two years before the trial.

If there is a single person to blame for the defeat of Athens, it is Socrates’ disciple Alcibiades, who persuaded the Athenians to undertake a disastrous military operation in Sicily, defected to Sparta in the aftermath, and ended up advising Darius II of Persia on how to subvert the Greek city-states. Another prominent disciple of Socrates was Critias, a diehard oligarch who even after the overthrow of the Thirty had led a rearguard action that included the massacre of 300 people at Eleusis [2]. All these events would have been fresh in the memory of the Athenians at the time of the trial.

Alcibades being taught by Socrates, François-André Vincent.jpg
Alcibiades being taught by Socrates, François-André Vincent, 1776, Musée Fabre, via Wikipedia

Without in any way condoning the execution of Socrates, we might in the light of these events be able to come a little closer to understanding it. Unfortunately, the only contemporary accounts we have of the trial are derived from Plato, and from Xenophon who also clearly admired Socrates. So we have the case for the defence, but not the case for the prosecution. We have the wording of the indictment, but not the details of the allegations. Trying to find out what was really going on at the trial is a matter for an investigative journalist, and preferably one deeply committed to both free speech and democracy, who can help us understand why Socrates attracted less than universal admiration.

The Trial of Socrates

Fortunately, we have the results of exactly such an investigation, in the form of The Trial of Socrates, by I.F. Stone. Stone was an independent-minded investigative journalist, who avoided close contact with official sources and built his case on publicly available documents. He was a critic of Cold War policies, racism and anti-Semitism in the FBI, and much besides. During his career he worked for several different newspapers, and produced his newsletter, I. F. Stone’s Weekly, from 1953 until angina forced him to retire in 1971. At this point, he completed his long interrupted Bachelor’s degree in classical languages from the University of Pennsylvania, devoted himself to the study of classical Greek literature and thought, and over a ten-year period produced this book, which he completed a year before his death in 1981. What follows is his analysis of the trial and its significance, which I with my two years of schoolboy Greek am not qualified to improve on.
I. F. Stone, aged 64. Image by Kzitelman via Wikipedia

As Stone reminds us, Socrates himself wrote nothing down, and everything you know about him is at second or third hand. There are some critical mentions in Aristotle, who was born 15 years after Socrates died, fiercely hostile satires staged many years before the trial in Aristophanes’ The Clouds and The Birds, and a defence of Socrates in Xenophon’s Memorabilia and Apology, but the most extensive source by far is Plato. Plato’s dialogues, centred on Socrates, are dramatic masterpieces through which Socrates emerges with still contemporary urgency. Scholars will continue to debate how much of this material may represent Socrates, and how much is Plato’s own, but unless there is reason to think otherwise, what we are usually discussing is Plato’s Socrates. However, in the case of the trial, we have the independent account by Xenophon, allowing us to check many crucial facts.

Let me start with Stone’s discussion of The Euthyphro, which occurs in the middle of the book, but goes to the heart of Stone’s critique. The dialogue is set as an encounter outside the courts, where Socrates is dealing with the preliminaries to his trial. It is usually presented, as I did myself earlier, as a triumphant example of Socrates’ probing demolition of Euthyphro’s unwarranted certainty. What we risk losing sight of is why Euthyphro and Socrates are having this discussion in the first place. Euthyphro has a real life dilemma. A labourer has killed one of his father’s slaves, whereupon his father left him in chains in a ditch while sending for legal advice. Three days later, the labourer was dead. Euthyphro has to decide whether it is more pious to be a good son and say nothing, or to be a good citizen and report the matter to the authorities, and he chooses the latter.

It should by now be no surprise that Socrates attacks this decision. Euthyphro has decided that in the circumstances piety requires him to inform against his own father, but under Socrates’ cross-examining, it turns out that he cannot even define piety. This is the background to Socrates’ unanswerable philosophical dilemma. Socrates is guided by the principle that questions can be decided by examining definitions, and it is the lack of a good definition that has led Euthyphro to what Socrates considers to be a perverse decision. I have long regarded The Euthyphro as showing Socrates at his best; but thanks to Stone, I can now see that it also shows him at his worst.

We cannot understand Socrates’ attitude without reference to its political context. Thus the word “labourer,” as Stone points out, was a technical term for the lowest class of freemen, those without property, who had won the right to full citizenship just two centuries earlier, and had suffered most under the oligarchies that Sparta had imposed on Athens. Classical Greek was proverbial for the subtlety of its vocabulary, and accordingly, here as elsewhere, Stone pays close attention to the actual words used, and shows us many shades of meaning that would otherwise be lost in translation. His discussion of the Euthyphro runs to 5 pages, and includes such relevant background detail as the changing fates of the landowners on the island of Naxos, where the episode had taken place, during the Peloponnesian War, and the disenfranchisement of labourers in the oligarchical interludes of the preceding decades.

Stone, a journalist remember, does not waste words, and I cannot possibly do justice here to what takes him 250 fact-filled pages plus footnotes. So I will select just four topics for discussion; what we know about Socrates chief accuser, Socrates’ mutually contradictory claims to ignorance and to superior insight, the full significance of the indictment brought against him, and his extraordinary conduct at the trial.

Socrates’ chief accuser was Anytus, a tanner by trade, but on occasion a general by necessity. We first meet him in The Meno, where Socrates belittles all of Athens’ leading political figures, including Pericles and Thucydides, and Anytus warns Socrates that he could get into trouble by insulting so many people. The Meno is set two years before the trial, and we cannot tell whether this exchange actually took place, or whether the report is Plato’s dramatic embroidering. The underlying issue here, as Stone points out, is not that Socrates takes this or that political position, but that he is antipolitical. He attacks oligarchs and democrats equally, because he does not regard the common herd as fit for self-government under either system. Anytus himself was no extreme democrat. He was a follower of Theramenes, who had attempted to moderate the policies of the Thirty, and been executed for this on the orders of Critias. At that point, Anytas himself had fled Athens, and joined the coalition that soon recaptured the city from the Thirty, Critias himself being slain in the final battle.

Anytus’ son had for a while been part of Socrates’ circle, but that did not last. As Stone puts it, “One might add that Anytus was not unreasonable in withdrawing his son from Socratic tutelage. Anytus had reason to fear that his son might have been turned by Socrates against his father, taught to despise the family business [3], and converted by his aristocratic associates into a pro-Spartan snob and a supporter of the Thirty.”

Socrates boasted of his own humility. The Oracle at Delphi had proclaimed him superior in wisdom to other men, and so, he said, he had interrogated others renowned for their wisdom, and to his dismay found them lacking. We have already met his dismissal from consideration of Athenian statesmen across the political spectrum. In his Apology [4] he refers to this without naming names. He then turns his attention to the poets (his contemporaries here would have included Euripides and Sophocles), but rejects them also because they cannot explain their own works to his satisfaction. Regarding skilled tradesmen, a group that included Anytus, he observed that “even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets; because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom.” No one, it seemed, could meet his high standards, and he had to conclude that he was indeed better off than anyone else was, being at least aware of his own ignorance. He was also better off in having access to his own daemon, or inner voice. This is not, as one might imagine, some kind of conscience or inner light, but a spiritual entity, as the Apology, especially in Xenophon [5], makes plain.

Now to the indictment. I had always thought that this included an accusation of “making the worse appear the better cause”. But those words are not those of his accusers. They are Socrates’ (or perhaps Plato’s) own, crafted to cast the trial in the context of suppression of dissent. As Stone convincingly shows, this interpretation was not generally expressed until several centuries later. The actual indictment refers to corrupting the young, and to not believing in the gods the state believes in, but in others.

As for corrupting the young, we have seen the examples of Alcibiades and Critias, and we can at least sympathise with a tanner faced with a Socrates who teaches his son that his father’s occupation is unworthy. We can also be more specific. Aristophanes, lampooning Socrates in his comedies, describes the young under his influence as having been socratified and, in The Birds, spartified. Fifteen years earlier, when The Birds was staged, that may have been a bit of a joke, but not in the aftermath of the Sparta-imposed dictatorship of the Thirty, and the even more recent coup attempt.

The rest of the indictment is the accusation that Socrates “does not believe in the gods the state believes in, but in other new spiritual beings.” According to Stone, what is important here is the reference to the gods that the Athenian state believes in, rather than to gods in general, although Socrates deliberately blurs this crucial distinction in his Apology. He readily establishes that he takes part in the customary rituals, but this could hardly be the point since everybody knew that anyway. Moreover, classical polytheism was indulgent to different views of the gods, and it is not until the rise of monotheism that we have the concepts of atheism and heresy as deviant. So if that is not what the indictment means, what does it mean?

Here we are forced to speculate, for lack of evidence. There are three specific deities that Stone mentions at this point. Firstly there is Hephaestus, god of the smithy, a divine craftsman highly revered in a city renowned for the quality of its workmanship. Yet Socrates disdains such material activities. Then there are two divinities singled out for mention by Athena herself in the final scene of Aeschylus’ Orestes trilogy. One of these is Zeus, but more specifically Zeus Agoraios, Zeus of the assembly, the titular divinity of its free debates. The other is Peitho, or Persuasion, personified as a goddess. Socrates, Stone is suggesting, is under attack for his failure to embrace the essential democratic spirit of participation in public life.

Socrates does indeed attempt to defend himself from such a charge, apparently sincerely but not very convincingly. He says that he had not spoken in the assemblies, for fear of being killed for his opinions. Yet he was expounding those same opinions in the Agora every day, to anyone who would listen, and Plato would continue to teach Socratic doctrine unmolested at his Academy in Athens for another 40 years. He mentions voting against the initial majority in an important trial, but he could hardly have evaded the duty to take part, having been chosen by lot to be among the judges, nor could he have been in danger in stating his opinion, since he persuaded the majority to his own point of view. And he mentions that he quietly ignored an order from the Thirty to take part in an unlawful arrest. Hardly a spectacular display of opposition, when he could have added his very well-known presence to the opposition forces then mustering outside the city.

And finally, to Socrates’ conduct at the trial, and his motivation. Socrates made it very clear to Xenophon’s informant, Hermogenes, that he had knowing set out on a course that would lead to his death. He eloquently laments his lack of eloquence, while claiming that minds have been poisoned against him, and insults the court for being open to rhetorical persuasion. His proud display of humility is calculated to offend the citizens judging him. He belittles the excellences of craftsmanship, poetry, and political debate, for which Athens was justly famous. He gives credibility to the charge of believing in different gods, by invoking his daemon and its preternatural insight. He rejects in advance the possibility of being conditionally acquitted if he stops teaching, although he had done exactly that when asked to under the Thirty. He is surprised – one might almost say offended – by the narrowness of the guilty verdict against him. When proceedings move on to the punishment phase, the prosecution offers, as foreseen, the death penalty, expecting the defence to come up with a serious alternative. Yet Socrates’ counteroffer is that he be awarded civic banquets for life, in recognition of his services to the city. And although he eventually modifies that to paying a small fine, it is hardly surprising that the majority in favour of the death penalty ends up being larger than it had been for the earlier guilty verdict. He was asking for it, after all.

The killing of Socrates was a crime. Socrates was a willing accomplice.

The Death of Socrates by Giambettino Cignaroli, early 18C, via Wikipedia

1] I helped present a petition to the Scottish Parliament asking them to revoke the long-standing legal requirement for Council Education Committees to include nominees of the Churches as voting members. In response, the Scottish Government reinterpreted the legislation so as to make their presence a matter for each separate Council to decide.
2] Xenophon, despite his sympathy for the oligarchic cause, confirms this atrocity. Critias appears, favourably, and without any mention of these events, in several of Plato’s dialogues, but these were written many years later.
3] In Xenophon’s version of Socrates’ Apology, Socrates says that Anytus’ enmity arose “because, seeing him deemed worthy of the highest honours of the state, I told him it ill became him to bring up his son in a tan-yard.”
4] The word of course is used here in its original sense of explanation and justification, the very opposite of common current usage. In this paragraph, I use Plato’s version of the Apology, although it was probably written much later, since it is more explicit here than Xenophon’s.
5] Here Xenophon is the more explicit: “I speak of a divinity, and in using that designation I claim to speak at once more exactly and more reverentially than they do who [using divination] ascribe the power of the gods to birds. And that I am not lying against the Godhead I have this as a proof: although I have reported to numbers of friends the counsels of heaven, I have never at any time been shown to be a deceiver or deceived [tumult in court].”

This article first appeared in 3 Quarks Daily.

“Gold of the gaps”, the Discovery Institute, and Intelligent Design

The Panda's ThumbThis from Matt Young on pandasthumb:

Gold of the gaps

Does gold have a purpose? asks an unnamed author in Evolution News & Science Today. The author goes on to observe that there is more gold on earth than astrophysicists can account for and also that gold has risen to the surface of the earth faster than might be expected. They go on to note the “availability of many essential elements at the surface of the earth …” and also discuss the use of gold in medicine. They are somewhat breathless at the discovery that the body can metabolize gold:

Gold nanoparticles, which are supposed to be stable in biological environments, can be degraded inside cells, [boldface in original]

even though, as they note, gold salts have been used for decades in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.

At any rate, the article stresses the “mystery of biological gold” and claims several hints why gold may have a purpose: its abundance and seemingly unlikely transport to the surface of the earth, the ability of cells to “metabolize” [sic] gold, the fact that gold persists in the body, and the usefulness of gold for therapeutics. The conclusion of the article is Read the rest of this entry

Noah’s Flood, and how to talk to creationists about it

“Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren” Saint Augustine of Hippo, Commentary on Genesis, ca. 400 AD

How do you discuss evolution and Earth science with biblical creationists, in such a way as to lead them to question their beliefs, rather than digging in deeper? This is the central problem for the book that I am now at last writing, and I would greatly value comments.

If we want to engage biblical literalists in meaningful discussion, we need to use arguments that make sense from the literalists’ point of view. As Lakatos pointed out, scientists will not abandon a position, despite anomalies, until a more satisfactory one is offered. Why should the creationist be any different? It is not enough to point to the scientific evidence. It is not even enough to point out that Noah’s Flood, using biblical chronology, would have come just in time to drown the pyramid-builders. We need to do more than simply raise objections. We must offer a better alternative, better, that is, on the creationist’s terms, emotionally and spiritually. Such an alternative, I argue, is what emerges from textual and historical analysis.

It helps, I think, to dispel the myth that religious belief requires belief in a young Earth, and the rejection of evolution, and one way of doing this is to point out that most religious believers, in the West at least, do accept, and have contributed to, the science. Since the early 19th Century, biblical believers have been among prominent proponents of scientific geology and, later, of evolution. Most Christians belong to denominations that accept the fact of evolution, and there is an organisation, the Clergy Letter Project, dedicated to the celebration of evolution as part of God’s handiwork, a position sometimes referred to as theistic evolution. There are organisations, such as the American Scientific Association, devoted to accommodating religious beliefs to the science, and a large literature on the subject. Creationists, however, are either unaware of this activity, or reject it as incompatible with their more fundamental beliefs.

The creationist argument is simple: the Bible (including in particular Genesis) is the word of God, God tells the truth, therefore the Bible is true. What could be wrong with that, from the point of view of the believer?


However inspired the writers of Genesis may have been, they were of necessity people of their own times, expressing themselves within their own cultural context. This is hardly a novel observation. It goes back at least to Maimonides, 12th Century biblical commentator and philosopher.

And what a context! The Old Testament text itself refers to many books that are now lost to us. The biblical Flood narrative itself shows signs of being formed from the welding together of two separate accounts written from different viewpoints, while its literary antecedents, and the antecedents of numerous other biblical passages, go back long before the date ascribed to Moses.

File:Sargon of Akkad.jpg

Bronze head of Sargon(?), unearthed at Nineveh. Public domain via Wikipedia

You are probably familiar with the story of Moses in the bulrushes, and may have wondered where on earth it came from. Here’s your answer. It is a direct echo of the story of Sargon of Akkad (2270 – 2215 BCE). Sargon’s mother, he tells us, was a priestess, and therefore had no business having children. So she made him a reed basket sealed with bitumen, and placed him in the river, from which he was rescued by a farmer drawing water.

Consider also the Code of Hammurabi, around 1754 BC. This code, and many subsequent cuneiform tablets, resemble in their “If a man…” format the codes of Exodus and Deuteronomy, including the notorious “an eye for an eye”, which the Jews by rabbinical times had reinterpreted as a right to financial compensation for injury. And the part-mythical, part-historical Sumerian Kings List (ca. 2000 BCE) assigns enormously long lives of the pre-Flood rulers, as Genesis does to its pre-Flood patriarchs.



F0182 Louvre Code Hammourabi Bas-relief Sb8 rwk.jpg

Hammurabi receiving insignia from a seated god (Shamash, the Sun God, or Marduk); from Louvre stele of the Code, ca. 1750 – 1790 BCE. Image Mbtz own work via Wikipedia

The Flood story itself exists in numerous versions, the oldest ones known to us being the Sumerian Flood of Ziusudra and the Old Babylonian (Akkadian) of Atrahasis, from around 1600 BCE, although the story may by then already have been ancient. We should also remember that our cuneiform libraries are sadly incomplete, and in several key texts the ending is missing. Even so, the resemblance is clear, and sometimes extends to specific details. On one Old Babylonian tablet, the god who warns Atrahasis says that he will send him the animals to wait at his door to be rescued. Compare Genesis 6:20, where two of every sort will come of their own accord to Noah, thus answering the question of how he would have been able to round them all up. The same tablet even uses the expression “two by two”, as in Genesis 7:9, as does another recently translated tablet, the “Ark tablet” from around 1750 BCE, that shows the Ark as an enormous coracle.

Coracle on the Tigris in Baghdad, 1914. Freddy Khalastchy via Wikipedia

Closest to the biblical account among the surviving materials is the story of Utnapishtim, embedded in the Assyrian Epic of Gilgamesh, which I finally got around to reading this year. part of the great library of Ashur-bani-pal that was buried in the wreckage of Nineveh when that city was sacked by the Babylonians and their allies in 612 BCE. Gilgamesh is a surprisingly modern hero. As King, he accomplishes mighty deeds, including gaining access to the timber required for his building plans by overcoming the guardian of the forest. But this victory comes at a cost; his beloved friend Enkidu opens by hand the gate to the forest when he should have smashed his way in with his axe. This seemingly minor lapse, like Moses’ minor lapse in striking the rock when he should have spoken to it, proves fatal.

Enkidu dies, and Gilgamesh, unable to accept this fact, sets out in search of the secret of immortality, only to learn that there is no such thing. He does bring back from his journey a youth-restoring herb, but at the last moment even this is stolen from him by a snake when he turns aside to bathe. In due course, he dies, mourned by his subjects and surrounded by a grieving family, but despite his many successes, what remains with us is his deep disappointment. He has not managed to accomplish what he set out to do.

On his journey, Gilgamesh meets the one man who has achieved immortality, Utnapishtim, survivor of a flood remarkably similar, even in its details, to the Flood in the Bible. This includes the central figure acting on orders from a god, taking samples of all living things into the Ark, sealing it watertight with pitch (which is abundant in Mesopotamia), sending birds out of the Ark to test for dry land when, after the flood, it runs aground, and offering up sacrifice on emergence. In Genesis, famously, we have God pointing to the rainbow as a sign that He will never again bring on a universal flood. In the parallel passage in Gilgamesh, the goddess Ishtar displays her bejewelled necklace and says that she will never forget this time. There is a final element in Gilgamesh that is completely absent in Genesis. Enlil, who was primarily responsible for the Flood, is persuaded by the other gods that he has rather overdone it, goes down into the Ark, takes Utnapishtim and his wife by the hand, and grants them eternal life. (In Genesis, you may recall, Noah goes and gets drunk.)

One dramatic difference between the Genesis story and its Mesopotamian precursors is the length of the Flood; a year, rather than a few days. Another is the shape and composition of the Ark, which changes from a round coracle woven from reeds in Atrahasis to square planking in Gilgamesh to a giant gopher wood longboat in Genesis, although one feature (the use of pitch for waterproofing) remains constant throughout. Then there is the reason for the Flood. In Gilgamesh, none is given, but in other versions we are told that the gods, and especially the ill-tempered and arbitrary Enlil, think that humankind is making too much noise for their comfort.1 The gods are, among other things, personifications of natural forces, and Enlil as sky god is responsible for storms. In Genesis, humankind is destroyed, by the God who created them, because they deserve it. We can debate the relative merits and degree of realism of these two approaches.

Schoolroom cuneiform tablet, Babylon, describing Baby Sargon in his cradle. From Finkel, p. 254

From very early times, the Israelites must have been familiar with the literature of their powerful neighbours to the East. They would certainly have come into contact with it during the Babylonian Exile. The Book of Daniel tells us (and why should we not believe it?) that selected Judaean youth were given three-year courses in Babylonian language and literature, during which provision was made for their food and wine. A university education, complete with maintenance grant! And we know from the recovered debris of Babylonian schoolrooms that the King List, Sargon, and Gilgamesh were part of the curriculum.

Other interesting things were happening in Babylon around this time. One remarkable tablet seems to describe all the other gods as attributes of Marduk, the god particularly associated with Babylon. So we are told that Urush is Marduk of planting, Nergal is Marduk of battle, Nabu is Marduk of accountancy, and so on through a total of 14 equivalences. If Marduk-worship really was moving in the direction of monotheism, this might help explain the puzzling fact that the Jewish hero of the book of Esther is called Mordechai.

The Flood story may have entered what was to become the Jewish tradition more than once, and from subtly varying sources. The Genesis account gives the strong impression of being the fusion of two slightly inconsistent narratives, using different ways of referring to God.2 One of these has Noah taking one pair of each kind into the Ark, while the latter has him take in seven pairs of clean animals, presumably in order to have some available for sacrificing, or perhaps to restore agriculture after the Flood. The degree of distinctiveness of these two narratives, and their dates of composition, remain fertile areas for study and debate.

Thus, placed in context, the Flood story fits into a picture of intellectual and spiritual ferment as people, and peoples, develop their descriptions of the Deity. By contrast, the doctrine of verbal infallibility offers nothing but a single sterile rootless revelation. Genesis deserves better.

The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the FloodSources: This piece was triggered by reading Sanders’ 1960 translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh. Reading this sent me back to Genesis, and hence to two other books, The Bible [actually, just the Pentateuch] with Sources Revealed,   by Friedman, and The Ark Before Noah,  by Finkel. Friedman is Ann and Jay Davis Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia, while Finkel is curator of the British Museum’s collection of cuneiform tablets. Most of the material here derives from these two sources.

1] Sandars interpolated this reason from the Atrahasis Flood story into her translation of Gilgamesh; see her introduction for details.

2] Some readers will recognise these as P (in some authors, E) and J respectively, two of the four sources proposed in the Documentary Hypothesis, for which Friedman lays out the evidence in the work already mentioned and, at greater length, in Who Wrote the Bible?  For a powerfully dissenting view, however, see Rendsburg, “The Biblical Flood story in the light of the Gilgamesh Flood account,” in Gilgamesh and the world of Assyria, Azize, J & Weeks, N., Peeters, 2007, p. 117, open access here (Publication 119), and How the Bible Is Written (scheduled for 2019).

Maimonides image via O Jardim de Epicuro. I would welcome information about its source. I thank Professor Gary Rendsburg for helpful correspondence and access to unpublished material. Some of the material in this piece appeared in 3 Quarks Daily

Read the rest of this entry

Can Curiosity Kill The Sciences?

I am in the middle of a series of posts about scientific method, so this seemed very much to the point. especially, how to avoid acting like a Doctor Authority Figure Type (DAFT), while still defending the value of expert evidence over anecdote (and, I would add, over ideology)?

The Grumpy Geophysicist

There’s a book out there that seems to be attracting lots of lightning bolts (Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now!).  GG is not interested in reading or discussing that, per se. It sounds as though logic and empirical observation got confused in there (they are not the same). What got his attention was one of the responses by Ross Douthat of the New York Times, who essentially argues that smugness by those who purport to know better will stifle real science. The nub of the argument is in this quote:

I’m reasonably confident that both of the stranger worlds of my childhood, the prayer services and macrobiotic diet camps, fit his definition of the anti-empirical dark. And therein lies the oddity: If you actually experienced these worlds, and contrasted them with the normal world of high-minded liberal secularism, it was the charismatic-religious and “health food” regions where people were the…

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In praise of fallibility; why science needs philosophy, with examples from astronomy and chemistry

[Adapted from 3 Quarks Daily] More recent strata lie on top of older strata, except when they lie beneath them. Radiometric dates obtained by different methods always agree, except when they differ.  And the planets in their courses obey Newton’s laws of gravity and motion, except when they depart from them.

As Isaac Asimov reportedly said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ [I have found it], but ‘That’s funny …’ ” And there is nothing that distinguishes so clearly between the scientific and the dogmatic mindset as the response to anomalies. For the dogmatist, the anomaly is a “gotcha”, proof that the theory under consideration is, quite simply, wrong. For the scientist, it is an opportunity. If an idea is generally useful, but occasionally breaks down, something unusual is going on and it’s worth finding out what. The dogmatist wants to see questions closed, where the scientist wants to keep them open. This is perhaps why the creationist denial of science can often be found among those professions that seek decision and closure, such as law and theology.

The rights and wrongs of falsification

Karl Popper

Karl Popper (LSE Library photo, 1980s)

Dogmatists regularly invoke the name of Karl Popper, and the work he did in the 1930s. Popper placed heavy emphasis on falsifiability, denouncing as unscientific any doctrine that could not be falsified. Freud’s theories, for example, Read the rest of this entry

The “scientific method”, a needless stumbling block. With a note on falsification

Science does not have a separate special method for learning about the world, the “scientific method” as taught in schools is a damaging illusion, and the falsifiability criterion has itself been falsified

Below, R: How not to; “The Scientific Method”, as inflicted on Science Fair participants. Click to enlarge

Consider this, from a justly esteemed chemistry text:

Scientists are always on the lookout for patterns.… Once they have detected patterns, scientists develop hypotheses… After formulating a hypotheses, scientists design further experiments [emphasis in original]

Or this, from a very recent post to a popular website:

The scientific method in a nutshell:
1. Ask a question
2. Do background research
3. Construct a hypothesis
4. Test your hypothesis by doing experiments
5. Analyze your data and draw conclusions
6. Communicate your results [emphasis in original]

Then, if you find yourself nodding in agreement, consider this:

Since a scientific theory, by definition, must be testable by repeatable observations and must be capable of being falsified if indeed it were false, a scientific theory can only attempt to explain processes and events that are presently occurring repeatedly within our observations. Theories about history, although interesting and often fruitful, are not scientific theories, even though they may be related to other theories which do fulfill the criteria of a scientific theory.

If you are familiar with the creation-evolution “controversy”, you may well suspect that last example of being so much creationist waffle, intended to discredit the whole of present-day geology and evolutionary biology. And you would be right. This quotation is from Duane Gish, a major figure in the twentieth century revival of biblical literalist creationism, writing for the Institute of Creation Research.1

L: Mike Pence, ” [N]ow that we have recognised evolution as a theory… can we also consider teaching other theories of the origin of species?”

Such nonsense isn’t funny any more, if it ever was. The man who may very soon find himself President of the United States is an eloquent spokesman for creationism.

And yet Gish’s remarks seem to follow from the view of science put forward in the first two excerpts. What has gone wrong here? Practically everything. Read the rest of this entry

Socrates is still mortal, but fallacies aren’t fallacious

Updated repost of The Fallacy Fork and the Limits of Logic, at 3 Quarks Daily

No quiet moment; Theresa May calls snap UK election (BBC)

I had been waiting for a quiet moment to write about this, but there isn’t going to be a quiet moment, so now will have to do. [Update: these words went up on 3 Quarks Daily last Monday. On the Tuesday, Theresa May called a snap UK General election]

Debaters regularly accuse their opponents of using fallacies. These can be formal fallacies, such as simple errors of logic, or informal fallacies, such as appeal to authority, ad hominem and strawman arguments, among others. If a piece of reasoning depends on any of these fallacies, so it is claimed, the conclusion does not really follow from the premises, and while it might still be true we have not been given any good reason to believe it.1 And so books that discuss logic, and science-promoting blogs (including one I follow), regularly include descriptions of informal fallacies, with stern instructions to avoid committing them.

Sagan warns us against fallacies. But is exposing fallacies enough to shield us from the demons?

In an article entitled The Fake, the Flimsy, and the Fallacious: Demarcating Arguments in Real Life, Maarten Boudry, Fabio Paglieri and Massimo Pigliucci (henceforth BPP) challenge this view. BPP is written for the perusal of trained philosophers, which I am not, but I use it here as a jumping off point, while mixing in further content of my own. (For a discussion by one of the original authors, see here.)

BPP apply what they call the fallacy fork test to accusations of informal fallacy; either the reasoning is obviously erroneous, in which case no one would really use it, or else it is not obviously erroneous in context, and we still have all the work to do. In the first case, formal analysis is redundant; in the second, the facts of the matter need further consideration. Read the rest of this entry

Socrates: ancient Humanist? (reblogged from Footnotes to Plato)

If you want to know more about Socrates, or Humanism, or anything else that really matters, this is for you.

And the horns of Euthyphro’s Dilemma, described here, are as sharp as ever. This morning, February 2nd, a committee of the Scottish Parliament is considering the Scottish Secular Society petition for the removal of the church representatives who sit, immune from electoral scrutiny, on Scottish Local Education Authority Committees. Defenders of the status quo argue that they have an important role to play in transmitting Christian values. The petition (which I helped write) argues that if a value is specifically Christian, it will not necessarily be shared by the non-Christians who now form a majority among young Scots, while if it is not specifically Christian, we do not need a church representative to instruct us in it. The derivation from Euthyphro is obvious.

More on the petition on this blog and on the Parliamentary website. Updates as available. Massimo Pigliucci’s essay, below, speaks for itself, and I am flattered that he approves the use that the petition made of Socrates’ argument.

Footnotes to Plato

MNR-Socrate Socrates, Roman National Museum, photo by the Author

As part of my ongoing occasional series aiming at bringing some of my own technical papers to the attention of a wider public (after all, what the hell is the point of doing scholarship if it only benefits other scholars?), below I reprint a paper I recently published in The Human Prospect. It inquires on the possibility of interpreting Socrates as a proto-Humanist of sorts, and it therefore includes a discussion of Humanism as a philosophy of life, as well its likely stemming from the ancient Greco-Roman tradition of virtue ethics (via the mediation of the Renaissance Humanists, which were informed by, and yet were reacting against, medieval Christianity).

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The Church, education, and “Christian values”; another bad reason for denying democracy

Reminder: there is still time to show support for our petition to abolish Church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees; just click here and fill in your details

Summary: Religious values, unless they are also shared human values, will be important to those who want to follow that particular religion, but have no special significance for the rest of us.

The Churches refer to “Christian values”, in order to justify their uninvited presence on Council Education Committees. Like other reasons offered (see earlier post), this one repays closer examination.

The Church of Scotland enjoins its appointees to assert their presence  “by exercising your statutory right and endeavouring to influence council education policies in areas of interest to the national church, including the development of the curriculum, Christian values, religious and moral education and religious observance in schools”. I have already discussed the implications for the curriculum and for religious and moral education and religious observance. Here I would like to concentrate on the concept of Christian values, and, indeed, religious values in general. Read the rest of this entry

You don’t really know your mind, or do you?

Reblogged from Plato’s footnote; a partial corrective to my own pessimism.

I commented, we ignore uncomfortable knowledge about our own minds, but then we ignore a lot of uncmfortable knowledge. But it is possible to be unconsciously influenced by a bias that one rationally reects, which is why orchestras audition beind screens to conceal the gender of the performer.

Footnotes to Plato

Recent psychological research has been interpreted as casting serious doubts on many crucial aspects of the human experience: that we have “free will” (it’s complicated, hence the scare quotes), that we are at the least capable of rational thinking, and even that we are conscious. Indeed, it has become both fashionable and a bit of a cottage industry to “show,” scientific data in hand, that all those facets of mentation simply do not exist, they are illusions, figments of our imagination (though nobody has really provided an account of why on earth we have them, as metabolically costly as the apparatus that makes them possible is). All of this, of course, despite the staggering crisis in the replicability of results from psychology, which ought to make anyone reading anything in that field a bit cautious before agreeing that we are lumbering rationalizing and self-deluded robots.

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