Monday, April 17, 2017

The Bones of St Leonard's

We visited the seaside at Hythe in Kent, one of the five Cinque ports, on Saturday. Hythe is a pleasant little market town, although nothing like as pretty as Rye or Winchelsea.

The highlight of Hythe for medievalists is found beneath St Leonard’s Church. The church itself is an enormous edifice up on the hill, largely built in the fourteenth century, with features going back to the eleventh century. That is all quite typical of an old Kentish church, and luckily St Leonard’s has been left relatively unscathed by the dreaded Victorian Church Restorers.

St Leonard's Ossuary
Under the chancel, there is a long-forgotten chamber that holds a remarkable collection of medieval bones. Over a thousand skulls are neatly arrayed in racks and there is a huge neat stack of bones. Local legend claims that these are victims of the Battle of Hastings, but analysis has revealed the majority are women, and there are few wounds in evidence. The crypt’s attendant had a much more prosaic explanation for where the bones came from: when the chancel was built in the fourteenth century, much of the churchyard was dug up. The bones of parishioners found during the building work were stored in the cellar of the church and forgotten about for centuries. The earliest references to the ossuary date from the seventeenth century and the current layout, with its neat stack of bones, was assembled in 1910. The collection has recently yielded interesting information on the health of medieval people, which wasn’t great.

St Leonard's Ossuary
The crypt is not as spooky as an old room housing thousands of human bones might be. There are large windows providing plenty of natural light and the skulls seem content to mind their own business as we tourists passed through. But I found that if I stopped to examine the bones more closely they ceased to be gothic decor and became the remains of individuals. Once, these grey and decaying relics were people who were in the centre of their own universes, just like I am in mine. The owners of some of these skulls knew and maybe loved the owners of others. Now every one of them is anonymous and unknown. The dead are democrats as they all now count for the same.

While ossuaries are not uncommon on the Continent, there is nothing else quite like the St Leonard’s crypt in England. It is generally open over the summer and well worth a visit.

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Thursday, April 13, 2017

New articles on science and religion/history of science

Although my new book is on What Everyone Needs to Know about Tax, I have been contributing to various books on the history of science, and on science and religion in the last few years.

First up, and out this month in the US, is the Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2017). This is a massive new encyclopaedia to which I was invited to contribute a number of the historical articles, including on Giordano Bruno, Hypatia and biblical chronology. Although it is edited from an evangelical perspective, it contains a wide variety of viewpoints and looks like a useful resource for anyone interested in the intersection between science and Christianity.

I have also written an introduction to a collection of academic articles published last year in Medieval Science Fiction (KCLMS, 2016). This is a rather pricey academic tome, but an expanded version of my introduction is available at my web site. To help get to grips with how ordinary medieval people viewed the cosmos, in this piece I’ve mined some of the most significant works of medieval literature for nuggets of scientific wisdom. I was quite pleased with how it came out. Other contributors to the volume include Michael Flynn, well known in these parts (that’s the science fiction writer rather than Trump’s erstwhile advisor).

A few years back, I wrote a chapter on the history of popular science for a book on Successful Science Communication (Cambridge University Press, 2011). I’ve added that chapter to my website as well. It is a whistle stop tour of how scientists have communicated with the general public, from ancient Greece to the present day.

Finally, if you are in the UK or Europe and would like a signed copy of my book God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, then I have a few available and will happily inscribe one with a message of your choice. You can order from the website. Sorry, but for licensing reasons, I can’t sell copies to the US where there is a separate edition of the same book called The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution. The hardback is now only $15 on Amazon.com.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

My new book: What Everyone Needs to Know about Tax

I have a new book out called What Everyone Needs to Know about Tax. In it I take look at the UK tax system and provide non-specialist readers with an easy-to-understand explanation of tax and tax policy to show them just how much they pay, how the money is collected and how tax affects ordinary people every day. While this is a very different subject from God’s Philosophers, tax consultancy has been my day job for over 20 years and I wanted to clear up some of the confusion surrounding it.

What Everyone Needs to Know about Tax is published by Wiley, best known for their For Dummies series, and is available from bookshops, Amazon.co.uk and direct from the publisher (use the code JHT30 for 30% off if you order from Wiley).

With no accounting or legal knowledge required, it contains practical examples to illustrate how tax functions in the real world, for example: how the VAT on a plumber's bill all adds up; why fraudsters made a movie to throw HMRC off their scent; how a wealthy couple can pay minimal tax on a six-figure income without any fancy planning; and the way tracing the money you paid for your iPad sheds light why the EU is demanding Apple pay billions extra in tax.

Written in a conversational style, What Everyone Needs to Know about Tax gives you a real-world look at how tax in the UK works. In it you will be able to:

  • Learn about the many ways that the tax system separates us from our money
  • Discover how Brexit could change the way we pay taxes
  • Understand how changing tax policy affects people's everyday lives
  • See through the rhetoric from politicians and the media surrounding tax controversies

The system's underlying logic is illustrated through three 'golden rules' that explain many of the UK tax regime's oddities:

  1. Lots of small taxes together add up to make big tax bills – “The point of all these taxes is to spread the pain so we notice it less.”
  2. No matter what name is on the bill, all taxes are ultimately suffered by human beings – taxes levied on manufacturers are passed on to the consumer through a higher price for the product
  3. Taxes are kept as invisible as possible – “Since we all hate paying taxes, the government has perfected the art of ensuring that we rarely have to hand over the money ourselves. Most taxes are paid by businesses on our behalf.”

With tax, there are no easy answers. No one enjoys paying them, but without them, the government would shut down.

Whether you are self-employed, have a general interest in the way the UK tax system works, are a finance or tax professional, or a student wanting to understand more about taxation in a break from traditionally dry text books, What Everyone Needs to Know about Tax gives you the background and foundational knowledge you need to be a well-informed taxpayer.

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Monday, January 30, 2017

BS

Some University of Washington philosophers are teaching a course this coming spring term on critical thinking. A very specific aspect of critical thinking. Their course title is "Calling Bullsh*t" without the asterisk. Right away, though, I'm disappointed. In their syllabus, the second week's required reading will be a chapter from Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. But Sagan was as much a purveyor of bullsh*t as anyone, especially when accusing others of purveying bullsh*t. The title of the book is one example. Here's another. People who laud themselves as skeptics are only skeptical about what they want to be skeptical about.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Brexit: What on earth happened?


Readers of the blog come from all over the world and they may have heard some surprising tidings from the United Kingdom over the last few weeks. As most of international news reporting has painted events as either a revolt by xenophobic peasants or just complete chaos, I thought it was worth setting down what has really happened and the reasons behind it.

First, my biases. Although I am, I suppose, a member of the globalised neo-liberal order, I campaigned hard in my local area for a vote to leave the European Union, commonly called the EU, at the referendum on 23 June. I have been a sceptic of the EU since 16 September 1992, ‘black Wednesday’ when the German central bank provoked the markets to devalue the British pound against the will of the British Government. In the meantime, we have seen the EU bring in the single currency that, in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008 has turned into a rack upon which the economies of many of its members are slowly being broken. In essence, the EU has become an oligarchy, and not even a very effective one.

Second, some history: back in 1975, the British overwhelmingly endorsed their membership of the European Economic Community or EEC, the predecessor organisation of the EU. On balance, the British decided that membership of a huge market on their doorstep was worth sacrificing some of their self-rule for. Besides, back in the 1970s, the UK was in a bad way, with widespread labour disputes, high inflation and shaky Government finances.

However, in 1992, the EEC was turned into the European Union by the Maastricht Treaty, which was intended to be the first step towards a federal United States of Europe. The British Prime Minister at the time, John Major, declined to obtain a democratic mandate for this. The previous Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, had been deposed a couple of years before when she effectively threatened to veto the plans for a federal Europe. The combination of Maastricht and Black Wednesday turned the majority of the Conservative Party against the EU. They also destroyed the credibility of Mr Major and his Government, which lost the 1997 election by a landslide.

From 1997 to 2010, Tony Blair’s Labour Party was in Government and was determined that the UK would play a full part in the EU. In 2005, in an effort to increase the democratic legitimacy of the EU, a series of countries held referendums on its new constitutional treaty, which was a further step towards a federal Europe. However, when the EU lost the votes in France and the Netherlands, the results were ignored and the constitutional treaty was pushed through anyway with a different name. Both Mr Blair and the new Conservative leader, David Cameron, also promised a referendum on the constitutional treaty but both reneged when it became politically inconvenient to give the people a say. The grand plan to provide the EU with democratic legitimacy ended up destroying its credibility because the people declined to give the answer they were required to.

In 2013, now in Government, Mr Cameron again promised a referendum. He said he would renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU before the referendum and then ask the people if they wanted to Leave or Remain, based on the new terms. He hinted that, if the negotiation didn’t go his way, he might campaign to Leave. But when his negotiations duly failed to achieve anything of substance in February 2016, he announced he would, after all, campaign to Remain. His credibility as honest broker was instantly destroyed and British voters stopped listening to a word he said. They also got sick of every international bigwig, from President Obama downwards, telling the UK was doomed if it voted to Leave.

On 23 June, we voted 17 million to 15 million to Leave the EU. Everything about the vote was a surprise. No one thought Leave would win. Even after the polls closed, the betting markets implied a 90% chance of a Remain vote. Turnout was 73%, the highest in a national vote for 25 years. In short, more of the British voted to Leave the EU than had ever voted for anything else in our history.

So what happened and what happens next? The Leave vote was a coalition of three disparate groups. The campaign was led by a relatively small group of internationalist libertarians, including Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Daniel Hannan. They saw the EU (correctly, in my view) as an anti-democratic and corporatist racket that was immune to reform, as the failure of Mr Cameron’s renegotiation had shown. The shock troops for Leave were supporters of Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party: mainly paleo-conservatives who objected to uncontrolled immigration (the UK must accept unlimited numbers of immigrants from the EU).

The third element of the coalition for Leave was whose participation nobody could predict in advance. It was also the one that all my local canvassing was aimed at winning over. This final group consisted of working class people who nominally supported the Labour Party, but in practice rarely voted. Sick and tired of being ignored, and not seeing the benefits of globalisation, they came out to vote on 23 June and delivered the verdict of Brexit.

Now the UK embarks on an exciting journey. We will continue to trade freely with the EU, but also sign free trade deals with the rest of the world as fast as we can. We’ll continue to welcome many new immigrants to the UK, but they won’t have an automatic right to reside here. And the democratic control of farm subsidies, fisheries and taxation (the UK currently can’t even abolish the tax on sanitary towels) will return to Westminster. Of course, plenty of the British have valid concerns about the effects of Brexit. And it is to be expected that many people will have invested in the status quo of EU membership, especially if the status quo has lasted for over 40 years. That does not make it a good thing. Indeed, institutional inertia and the fear of short-term consequences over long-term benefits is one of the most damaging of political motivations. 

As for the rest of the EU, it needs to reform quickly to gain democratic legitimacy while also, somehow, undoing the immense damage done by the single currency. Is that possible? Probably not. But we British wish the EU well. With Brexit, we cease to be a truculent tenant and become a friendly neighbour.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

New book

My first book was just published. It's about the various arguments to the effect that determinism and/or naturalism are self-defeating. You can read a goodly portion of the first chapter on the publisher's website, on Amazon, and on GoogleBooks. It's kind of spendy -- sorry. Feel free to ask your library for a copy.

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Saturday, May 21, 2016

Just read

I just read a great short story that some of you might like. It's a combination detective story, hard science fiction, and the history of science called "The Weighing of Ayre" by Gregory Feeley. The link gives the various books it's appeared in; I have it in The Year's Best Science Fiction, vol. 14. It's about 20 years old, but it's new to me.

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Sunday, May 15, 2016

Some comments on the flood, part 1

The account of Noah and the flood is one of those Bible passages held up as being inconsistent with contemporary science -- probably only the creation account receives more fire. In fact young-earth creationists use the flood accounts to justify their positions. According to them, all the geological strata, along with the fossils embedded in them, were laid down by the flood. Some even suggest that the earth was much smoother at the time of the flood and that the mountain ranges formed during it. This is why young-earth creationism is often called "flood geology". The anti-science impression is compounded by how the young-earth folk tie the flood account to the creation account: on the second day of creation, God separated the waters above from the waters below. The waters above, they contend, refers to a primeval water canopy that surrounded the earth which created a sort of tropical paradise where it never rained (as claimed in Genesis 2:5). The flood took place when this canopy collapsed and fell to the earth.

Now, as far as I can tell, the only part of this scenario that was widely accepted prior to the mid-19th century is the claim that the flood was global. I'll deal with that issue in part 2. For now I'll focus on the other issues.

The concept of a primeval water canopy comes from the visions of Ellen White which started in the 1840s and which formed the basis for Seventh-Day Adventism. Seventh-Day Adventism was originally a cult as they considered White's visions to be as authoritative as the Bible. They have since backed away from that stance and are generally considered to be an authentic Christian denomination today -- although I note that Walter Martin, in his magisterial The Kingdom of the Cults, had a 100-page appendix entitled "The Puzzle of Seventh-Day Adventism". Contemporary young-earth creationism is virtually identical to -- and historically derived from -- White's visions.

However, I'm going to ignore the dubious provenance of young-earth creationism in order to focus on some of the problems with how it uses the flood to create an alternative view of earth's history. With regards to the water canopy theory, they point out that the Bible states that the waters were separated to be above and below an expanse, which the text specifically defines as the sky or heavens (שָׁמָ֑יִם). This term had numerous meanings in ancient Hebrew: the Bible uses it to refer to the air or space around us (I owe this point to Dallas Willard's comments in The Divine Conspiracy, chapter 3), the air or space above us, the earth’s atmosphere, outer space, or the spiritual realm where God dwells. Thus one could correctly say that birds fly in the heavens, clouds float in the heavens, stars shine in the heavens, and angels dwell in the heavens. The spiritual heavens are themselves divided further into the seven heavens, not just in Jewish tradition, but in many ancient cosmologies.

In order to defend the canopy theory, one would have to say that the expanse (that is, the heavens) refers specifically to the earth's atmosphere. But I think it is more plausible that it refers to the air or space that is around and above us, and that the waters above them simply refers to clouds and precipitation. My reasoning for this is that, first, if the phrase "the waters above" does not refer to something common in our experience (like precipitation, water that falls from above), then it is completely obscure. Genesis 1 does not define what "the waters above" is, so if it is not meant to refer to an aspect of our common experience (just as "the waters below" refers to rivers, lakes, oceans, and their underground sources), it could be forced to mean nearly anything.

Second, there is biblical evidence against the canopy theory. The text says that when the flood abated, the waters returned (וַיָּשֻׁ֧בוּ) to where they had been prior to the flood (Genesis 8:3). Therefore, if the water had originated in a canopy, it would have returned to form another canopy after the flood. Since the water did not reform into a water canopy that surrounded the earth, the floodwaters did not originate in such a canopy.

In fact there are other Bible passages which show that the waters above refers to clouds and precipitation. Proverbs 3:19-20 states that "By wisdom the LORD laid the earth's foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the deeps were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew." Referring to God's laying of the earth's foundations and setting the heavens in place clearly hearkens back to the creation account in Genesis 1. "The deeps were divided" sounds exactly like the separation of the waters below from the waters above ("the deeps" and "the deep" are common references to oceans and water in the Bible, even in Genesis 1 -- "darkness was over the surface of the deep"), and "the clouds let drop the dew" obviously refers to precipitation. Similarly, Proverbs 8:27-29 states "I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep." Again, "when he set the heavens in place" clearly refers back to the creation account in Genesis 1, and "clouds above" and "fountains of the deep" immediately brings to mind the concept of the waters above and the waters below, which would entail that the waters above refer to clouds.

The claim that it didn't rain on the early earth (and therefore that "the waters above" couldn't have referred to clouds and precipitation) is based on two passages: the first is Genesis 2:5, which states that "the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth [בָאָ֔רֶץ] and there was no one to work the ground." However, this verse is a part of the story of God's creation of Adam and Eve; it does not refer to the entire planet and all of earth history, but to the garden of Eden on the sixth day of creation. The term אָ֔רֶץ means "land", and often refers to local areas like this. So on the sixth day of creation, after God had set aside Eden but before he had placed the first people there, it had not yet rained in Eden. (This is assuming the Genesis 2 account should be taken fairly literally which may not be necessary.)

The other passage offered is Genesis 9:13-17 which states that God set the rainbow in the sky to represent his promise to never destroy the earth's population by flood again. This supposedly implies that there had been no rainbows prior to this, and hence, it had never rained. However, whenever God makes a covenant with people in the Bible, he takes something they're already familiar with and says, in effect, "From now on this represents my covenant with you" (other examples being baptism, circumcision, animal blood, and bread and wine). So Genesis 9:13-17 shouldn't be understood as saying that there had never been any rainbows, but that they were to represent God's covenant from that point on. Therefore, I conclude there is no biblical reason to suggest that the flood was the first time it rained on the earth, and that the passages from Proverbs mentioned above show that there are biblical reasons to think it had rained before.

The claim that the earth's landmass was smoother before the flood is not based on the flood narrative itself, but on some translations of Psalm 104:6-8 (I'll discuss this psalm in more detail in part 2) which, in describing a separation of land from water, refer to the upheaval of the mountains rather than the recession of the waters. For example, the NASB translates vs. 8 as "The mountains rose; the valleys sank down To the place which You established for them"; and the ESV as "The mountains rose, the valleys sank down to the place that you appointed for them." In contrast, the KJV translates this verse as "They [the waters] go up by the mountains; they go down by the valleys unto the place which thou hast founded for them"; and the NIV as "they flowed over the mountains, they went down into the valleys, to the place you assigned for them." It is not clear whether the verbs refer to the waters or to the mountains and valleys.

There are several responses to this:

1) Psalm 104 is a poetic reiteration of Genesis 1. Thus, verses 6-8 are not describing the events of the flood, but the events of creation week when God first formed dry land. So even if we should take these verses as referring to the mountains rising and valleys sinking, it's doing so in the context of creation week, not the flood.

2) Genesis 8:1-3 specifically states that during the flood it was the waters that receded, not the land that was raised.

3) To claim that over eleven miles of tectonic uplift (the difference between the deepest ocean chasm and the tallest mountain) could have taken place in a year's time (the duration of the flood) poses insurmountable problems. A magnitude six earthquake only creates two inches of uplift. Multiply this by 180 million. In such a situation, the passengers on board the ark could not have survived. Moreover, there would have been aftershocks which would have been powerful enough to completely wipe out the survivors.

At this point, some will no doubt object that to say these things couldn't happen is simply to disbelieve in a God who performs miracles. Surely God could have uplifted the mountains supernaturally rather than through tectonic uplift so that the lives of those on board the ark were not threatened. Or surely he could have supernaturally preserved their lives, and supernaturally prevented the aftershocks from destroying the postdiluvian population.

But the problem with these suggestions is not that they are miraculous; the problem with them is that they are ad hoc. That is, they are made in the absence of any biblical evidence in their favor, in order to retain the young-earth creationist / flood geology model. The more a theory goes beyond the given facts, the more ad hoc, or contrived, it is.

In fact, Henry Morris , the founder of young-earth creationism, makes this point fairly well. In The Genesis Record he writes:

It would be helpful to keep in mind Occam's Razor (the simplest hypothesis which explains all the data is the most likely to be correct), the Principle of Least Action (nature normally operates in such a way as to expend the minimum effort to accomplish a given result), and the theological principle of the Economy of Miracles (God has, in His omnipotence and omniscience, created a universe of high efficiency of operation and will not interfere in this operation supernaturally unless the natural principles are incapable of accomplishing His purpose in a specific situation), in attempting to explain the cause and results of the great Flood.

Unfortunately, Morris violates these principles themselves, not least in The Genesis Flood, the book that launched the young-earth creationist movement in 1960 by introducing the Seventh-Day Adventist interpretation of Genesis (based on Ellen White's visions) to a broader Protestant audience. In it, Morris and his co-author John Whitcomb attempt to respond to the argument that the eight people on board the ark could not have fed, cared for, and cleaned up after more than a few thousand animals at most, by suggesting that many of the animals may have gone into hibernation. However, most of the animals taken on board wouldn’t normally hibernate, those that do would only do so for a season and not for the year that they were on the ark, and hibernating for such a significantly longer time would create severe health problems for the animals. Morris and Whitcomb then state that God could certainly have performed such an act, and that anyone who questions this doesn’t really have faith in a God of miracles. But of course, the objection to this is not that it is miraculous but that there is no biblical evidence that any of it happened. That is what makes it so implausible, that is what makes us groan and put our heads in our hands when we hear such contrived attempts to salvage a bad explanation, not the fact that it espouses a miraculous explanation.

Update (10 July): A commenter argues that the flood geology model is not used by contemporary young-earth theorists. If so, I apologize. This post is actually based on some things I wrote about twenty years ago, so it's more than likely out of date. On one hand I could say that I know plenty of young-earth folk and they all accept the flood geology model, so it's still a relevant issue -- but on the other hand I absolutely loathe it when atheists critique the concept of God they insist is held by the average Christian rather than the official doctrines as worked out by theologians, philosophers, and logicians over the centuries. If you want to rebut a position, you address it in its strongest form.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Sunday, April 17, 2016

Oy

OK, I can finally exhale. I was going to start blogging more, then I had to review the proofs and compile the index for a book that's coming out in a couple months, and the stress was ... considerable. Actually, I still have a couple weeks before the end of the term, then I correct final exams, and then I can exhale. In the meantime, for your reading pleasure, I present you with "Pray the Lord My Mind to Keep" by Cornelius Plantinga.

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Sunday, March 27, 2016

Happy Easter

I've written some posts on the historical Jesus, although not recently. You can peruse them here (the link goes to my other blog, but many of them were cross-posted here) or you could look at my posts of interest and scroll down to "Historical Jesus" for the highlights reel. Enjoy.

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