What Questions Can Science Answer?

Sean Carroll in Cosmic Variance:

ScreenHunter_01 Jul. 19 12.03 One frustrating aspect of our discussion about the compatibility of science and religion was the amount of effort expended arguing about definitions, rather than substance. When I use words like “God” or “religion,” I try to use them in senses that are consistent with how they have been understood (at least in the Western world) through history, by the large majority of contemporary believers, and according to definitions as you would encounter them in a dictionary. It seems clear to me that, by those standards, religious belief typically involves various claims about things that happen in the world — for example, the virgin birth or ultimate resurrection of Jesus. Those claims can be judged by science, and are found wanting.

Some people would prefer to define “religion” so that religious beliefs entail nothing whatsoever about what happens in the world. And that’s fine; definitions are not correct or incorrect, they are simply useful or useless, where usefulness is judged by the clarity of one’s attempts at communication. Personally, I think using “religion” in that way is not very clear. Most Christians would disagree with the claim that Jesus came about because Joseph and Mary had sex and his sperm fertilized her ovum and things proceeded conventionally from there, or that Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead, or that God did not create the universe. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints, whose job it is to judge whether a candidate for canonization has really performed the required number of miracles and so forth, would probably not agree that miracles don’t occur. Francis Collins, recently nominated to direct the NIH, argues that some sort of God hypothesis helps explain the values of the fundamental constants of nature, just like a good Grand Unified Theory would. These views are by no means outliers, even without delving into the more extreme varieties of Biblical literalism.

More here.



In “100%” (Vertigo: 256 pp., $39.99), Paul Pope depicts a New York punctuated with bits of technological wizardry but still wholly recognizable — a city in which characters cower in fear from what might be lurking in the shadows, fall in love, eat sushi, drink too much and watch bad performance art. (“A naked woman smashing eggs,” one character observes. “What is the world coming to?”) The Gotham of this graphic novel, published serially in 2002 and 2003, is nestled somewhere between its incarnations in Thomas M. Disch’s beaten-down “334” and Martin Scorsese’s antic nightmare “After Hours.” With a palette dominated by stark black and white, “100%” would be your typical round-the-corner dystopia if everything didn’t feel so weirdly alive. Three couples, loosely linked, circulate in this grim nocturnal city of a few decades hence — there has been some sort of catastrophic war in India, the impact of which is left tantalizingly unclear. (For good measure, the upcoming 2050 World Cup will feature humans vs. mutants.) Here they make love or art while trying to figure out the necessary trick of how to get by. The jittery Kim (white) and capable Strel (black) are friends; Strel manages dancers at a state-of-the-art club called the Catshack, which (a quote-happy Zagat’s-like guide tells us) is “dead set in the center of Manhattan’s ‘revitalized Urbanista downtown’. . . . The food is ‘robust’ and ‘decent,’ but it’s ‘to be seen and seem’ that the clientele shows up.”

more from Ed Park at the LA Times here.

The Rape of Taraneh: Prison Abuse of Iran’s Protesters

Shirin Sadeghi in The Huffington Post:

2009-07-15-taraneh_mousavi One by one, the faces of protest are providing an essential yearbook of the individuals who comprise the protest masses, and a catalogue of the Iranian government's treatment of political activists.

On Friday June 19, a large group of mourners gathered at the Ghoba mosque in Tehran to await a speech about the martyrs of the post-election protests by presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. According to one Iranian blog, 28-year-old Taraneh Mousavi was one of a group of people that was arrested by plainclothesed security forces for attending the gathering.

Taraneh, whose first name is Persian for “song”, disappeared into arrest.

Weeks later, according to the blog, her mother received an anonymous call from a government agent saying that her daughter has been hospitalized in Imam Khomeini Hospital in the city of Karaj, just north of Tehran — hospitalized for “rupturing of her womb and anus in… an unfortunate accident”.

When Taraneh's family went to the hospital to find her, they were told she was not there.

More here.

Leszek Kołakowski, 1927-2009

Kolakowski In the BBC:

One of the few 20th Century eastern European thinkers to gain international renown, he spent almost half of his life in exile from his native country.

He argued that the cruelties of Stalinism were not an aberration, but the logical conclusion of Marxism.

MPs in Warsaw observed a minute's silence to remember his contribution to a free and democratic Poland.

Leszek Kolakowski was born in Radom, Poland, 12 years before the outbreak of the World War II.

Under the Nazi occupation of Poland school classes were banned so he taught himself foreign languages and literature.

Kolakowski's “How to be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist”:

Motto: “Please step forward to the rear!” This is an approximate translation of a request I once heard on a tram-car in Warsaw. I propose it as a slogan for the mighty International that will never exist.A Conservative Believes:

1. That in human life there never have been and never will be improvements that are not paid for with deteriorations and evils; thus, in considering each project of reform and amelioration, its price has to be assessed. Put another way, innumerable evils are compatible (i.e. we can suffer them comprehensively and simultaneously); but many goods limit or cancel each other, and therefore we will never enjoy them fully at the same time. A society in which there is no equality and no liberty of any kind is perfectly possible, yet a social order combining total equality and freedom is not. The same applies to the compatibility of planning and the principle of autonomy, to security and technical progress. Put yet another way, there is no happy ending in human history.

[H/t: Karen Ballentine]

Iranian protesters galvanized by sermon

Borzou Daragahi and Ramin Mostaghim in the Los Angeles Times:

Iran A sermon by powerful cleric and opposition supporter Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani reignited Iran's simmering protest movement Friday, heartening thousands of supporters who braved tear gas and club-wielding militiamen to march and chant slogans across Tehran.

In a highly anticipated speech, Rafsanjani slammed the hard-line camp supporting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, criticized the June 12 election results and promoted several key opposition demands. Analysts said his description of the unrest as an ongoing “crisis” was a signal to keep the pressure on Ahmadinejad and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

His speech, as well as the ensuing pitched clashes between security forces and supporters of opposition figure Mir-Hossein Mousavi, suggested that the political firestorm surrounding the marred vote would continue and that the movement it had inspired remained strong.

Reformist websites estimated that more than 1 million people participated. That number could not be confirmed, though even supporters of the hard-line camp who attended the prayer session to show support for Khamenei acknowledged that the crowds were huge.

More here.

Why the Left is wrong on Iran

DabaHamid Dabashi in Al-Ahram:

In his most recent posting, AbuKhalil has this to say about Iran: “For the most reliable coverage of the Iran story, I strongly recommend the New York Times. I mean, they have Michael Slackman in Cairo and Nazila Fathi in Toronto, and they have ‘independent observers’ in Tehran. What else do you want? If you want more, the station of King Fahd’s brother-in-law (Al-Arabiya) has a correspondent in Dubai to cover Iran. And according to a report that just aired, Mousavi received 91 per cent of the vote in ‘an elite neighbourhood’. I kid you not. They just said that.” The Iranians have no reporters, no journalists, no analysts, no pollsters, no economists, no sociologists, no political scientist, no newspaper editorials, no magazines, no blogs, and no websites? If AbuKhalil has this bizarre obsession with the American or Saudi media that he loves to hate, does that psychological fixation ipso facto deprive an entire nation of their defiance against tyranny, their agency in changing their own destiny?

What a terrible state of mind to be in! AbuKhalil has so utterly lost hope in us — us Arabs, Iranians, Muslims, South Asians, Africans, Latin Americans — that it does not even occur to him that maybe, just maybe, if we take our votes seriously the US and Israel may not have anything to do with it. He fancies himself opposing the US and Israel. But he has such a deeply colonised mind that he thinks nothing of us, of our will to fight imperial intervention, colonial occupation of our homelands, and domestic tyranny at one and the same time. He believes if we do it then Americans and the Saudis must have put us up to it. He is so utterly lost in his own moral desolation and intellectual despair that in his estimation only Americans can instigate a mass revolt of the sort that has unfolded in front of his eyes. What an utterly frightful state for an intellectual to be in: no trust, no courage, no imagination and no hope. That we, as a people, as a nation, as a collective will, have fought for over 200 years for our constitutional rights has never occurred to AbuKhalil. What gives a man the authority to speak so cavalierly about another nation, of whom he knows nothing?

What’s the baby sitter up to?

From Salon:

Book In the '20s, a parenting guide cautioned Mom that a sitter might trundle her tender charge out on the town, so she could flirt on street corners. In the '40s, Newsweek reported that one veteran and his wife had hired a girl who turned out to be a dance-crazed “bobby-soxer” inviting friends over to party, while the toddler in her care teethed on marbles. Since then, the bad baby sitter's renown has only grown, as she's come to play a prominent role in urban legends, horror movies, pornography and even pop music, according to Miriam Forman-Brunell's new book “Babysitter: An American History.”

The bad baby sitter's a teenage girl, often dressed inappropriately, who is an unreliable scatterbrain, more interested in doing her nails or texting than the kids. When she's not glued to the TV, she's gabbing on the phone all night while eating Mom and Dad out of house and home. Or maybe she's sneaking her boyfriend in after the kids are asleep, or batting her eyelashes suggestively at Dad on the drive home. The bad baby sitter can be a threat not only to the children left in her care, but also to the very marriage of the parents she's working for. But as historian Forman-Brunell's research reveals, the archetype of the bad baby sitter has more to do with adults' fears about the changing nature of girlhood today — whether today is in 1945 or 1995 — than it does with the reality of girls caring for younger kids for pay.

More here.

Science and the Sublime

From The New York Times:

Book In this big two-hearted river of a book, the twin energies of scientific curiosity and poetic invention pulsate on every page. Richard Holmes, the pre-eminent biographer of the Romantic generation and the author of intensely intimate lives of Shelley and Coleridge, now turns his attention to what Coleridge called the “second scientific revolution,” when British scientists circa 1800 made electrifying discoveries to rival those of Newton and Galileo. In Holmes’s view, “wonder”-driven figures like the astronomer William Herschel, the chemist Humphry Davy and the explorer Joseph Banks brought “a new imaginative intensity and excitement to scientific work” and “produced a new vision which has rightly been called Romantic science.”

A major theme of Holmes’s intricately plotted “relay race of scientific stories” is the double-edged promise of science, the sublime “beauty and terror” of his subtitle. Both played a role in the great balloon craze that swept across Europe after 1783, when the Montgolfier brothers sent a sheep, a duck and a rooster over the rooftops of Versailles, held aloft by nothing more substantial than “a cloud in a paper bag.” “What’s the use of a balloon?” someone asked Benjamin Franklin, who witnessed the launching from the window of his carriage. “What’s the use of a newborn baby?” he replied. The Gothic novelist Horace Walpole was less enthusiastic, fearing that balloons would be “converted into new engines of destruction to the human race — as is so often the case of refinements or discoveries in Science.”

More here.

The maid’s tale: Kathryn Stockett examines slavery and racism in America’s Deep South

From The Telegraph:

Kathryn-stockett-190 The British cover to Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help – about the experiences of black maids in Mississippi in the early 1960s – is a period photograph of a little white girl in a pushchair flanked by two black women in starched white uniforms – the 'help’ of the book’s title. The photograph, which was found in the National Congress archives, was deemed too controversial to be used on the American cover. The spectre of racism in the South is still raw and political correctness works overtime. When Stockett was first shown the photograph, which was inscribed Port Gibson, Mississippi, she sent it to a friend of hers, who, in turn, forwarded it to his mother. Back came the reply, 'Why, that’s just little Jane Crisler Wince on the corner of Church Street – she had two maids – her family owns the local paper…’ Stockett was thrilled with this information. 'That the whole South is just one small town, and we pass each other in the grocery store every day is a myth I love to perpetuate,’ she says.

The Help took five years to write, got at least 45 rejection letters from agents, and when finally published went straight into the American bestseller lists. It has sold a quarter of a million copies so far in the US, and is still selling briskly.

More here.

Vatican embraces Oscar Wilde

From The Guardian:

Oscar-Wilde--001 In a week in which the Vatican made its peace with that dangerous consorter with witches Harry Potter, the Holy See has also revealed an unexpected soft spot for Oscar Wilde. Earlier this week the Vatican's official newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, which had previously described JK Rowling's books as presenting a “vision of the world and the human being full of deep mistakes and dangerous suggestions”, praised the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince for making it clear that good must overcome evil “and that sometimes this requires costs and sacrifice”. Despite the Catholic Church's condemnation of practising homosexuality, the newspaper has now run a glowing review of a new book about the famously doomed lover of Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde was “one of the personalities of the 19th century who most lucidly analysed the modern world in its disturbing as well as its positive aspects”, wrote author Andrea Monda in a piece about Italian author Paolo Gulisano's The Portrait of Oscar Wilde.

In an article headlined “When Oscar Wilde met Pius IX”, Monda wrote that Wilde was not “just a non-conformist who loved to shock the conservative society of Victorian England”; rather he was “a man who behind a mask of amorality asked himself what was just and what was mistaken, what was true and what was false”.

“Wilde was a man of great, intense feelings, who behind the lightness of his writing, behind a mask of frivolity or cynicism, hid a deep knowledge of the mysterious value of life,” he said.

More here.

19 days


June 4, 1989
A massacre took place in the capital city of the People’s Republic of China. The size of it shocked the world. Nobody knows precisely how many innocent people lost their lives. The government put the number of “collateral deaths” at two hundred or less. But many Chinese believe that it was more like three thousand innocent students and residents who were slain.
I didn’t witness the killings in Tiananmen Square. I was home in Fuling, a small mountain town well known for its pickled and shredded turnips. When I heard the news, I was outraged. I composed an epic poem, “Massacre,” to commemorate the government’s brutality against its people. With the help of a visiting Canadian friend, I made a tape, chanting my poem into an old toothless tape recorder. My wife Axia was also present.

June 4, 1990
It was a sultry, gloomy day. I was locked up inside a detention center operated by the Chongqing Municipal Public Security Bureau. I had survived the initial blitz of constant interrogations, which had lasted twenty days. I was packed into a cell with several dozen common criminals. My head had gone bald on the top. Waves of lightning cut across the sky like giant saws. I muttered to myself: “Time flies. It’s been a year already.”

More from Liao Yiwu at The Paris Review here.

nostalgia for better killing times


I TELL a friend that I am reviewing a book about killing in war. Like me, she spent years writing a war novel. “Ah,” she says, “the book it will need to measure itself against is Joanna Bourke’s An Intimate History of Killing. I happen to have it to hand.” She doesn’t even put the phone down: “I’m opening it at random. Here we are: ‘I became a f..king animal. I started f..king putting f..king heads on poles. Leaving f..king notes for the motherf..kers. Digging up f..king graves. I didn’t give a f..k any more. Y’know I wanted — They wanted a f..king hero, so I gave it to them. They wanted f..king body count, so I gave them body count.”‘ There is a certain comic pleasure in hearing this Vietnam veteran’s words delivered with such relish by someone normally so refined. That passage recalls one of the more penetrating and disturbing novels about war, Junichiro Tanizaki’s Secret History of the Lord of Musashi (1935). In 16th-century Japan, his mock history recounts, warriors collected the heads of vanquished enemies. In the heat of battle, they would quickly slice off the nose so that it could be matched at leisure, as in some horrible fairytale, with its face. This mutilated trophy was known as a “woman-head”. Having covertly watched the women of the castle where he spent his childhood dressing and perfuming these grimacing heads, Terukatsu develops the sexual obsession that feeds his career of violence. The Secret History’s achievement lies in the dark complexity of its vision of war; in its explicit linking of sex and death; in its awareness that warriors develop specific cultures and languages, even aesthetics, of violence; and perhaps most brilliantly, in recognising the central place in wars of nostalgia.

more from Delia Falconer at The Australian here.

The Folly of Pretense: Dennett on the “I’m an atheist but…” Crowd

Daniel-Dennett-001Daniel Dennett in the Guardian:

As I explain in the chapter by that title in Breaking the Spell, “belief in belief” is a common phenomenon not restricted to religions. Economists realise that a sound currency depends on people believing that the currency is sound, and scientists recognise that the actual objectivity of scientific studies on global warming is politically impotent unless people believe in that objectivity, so economists and scientists (among others) take steps to foster and protect such beliefs that they think are benign. That’s acting on belief in belief.

Sometimes the maintenance of a belief is deemed so important that impressive systems of propaganda are erected and vigorously defended by people who do not in fact share the belief that they think is so important for society to endorse. For instance, imbecile monarchs have been kept on their thrones by widespread conspiracies of oblivion and deception when it has been deemed too socially disruptive to confirm to the populace what everybody suspects: the king is an idiot.

Religion offers an extreme case of this. Today one of the most insistent forces arrayed in opposition to us vocal atheists is the “I’m an atheist but” crowd, who publicly deplore our “hostility”, our “rudeness” (which is actually just candour), while privately admitting that we’re right. They don’t themselves believe in God, but they certainly do believe in belief in God.

German Dolls

In Words Without Borders, a translation of Pedro Rosa Mendes’ German Dolls:

“German Dolls” takes Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) to Berlin. It is a text about memories–false and inaccurate, as memories always are–and how they interfere with the places we inhabit, the places we best know by getting lost in them (in the sense of choosing to vanish into them). Pessoa grew up in Durban and wrote his first poems in English. Apart from two trips from Portugal to South Africa, he rarely traveled, and so far as I know was never in Berlin. But his invention of identities, like different layers of one’s self–the heteronymus–has everything to do with a city, Berlin, that hides its true identity, and its memories, behind names that are recognizable only from the inside. To a stranger, they lead nowhere. I wanted to work on a metamorphosis of the Poet into a dog. Pessoa used more than seventy heteronyms, some of them discovered only recently by scholars studying his handwritten papers. It made sense to me to imagine Pessoa as a Stasi agent, playing a game with a city, and a society, where everyone could spy on everyone, living a double life and reporting to a “master”–a Poet, let’s say, or a demiurge–who had the key to everyone’s true identity.–Pedro Rosa Mendes

Berlin is lost,

(he said, licking the back of his hand)

lost on the map. It’s a tropical city in exile. Or in hibernation. The only tropical city in the north of Europe.

(licking slowly, very slowly)

It gets cold here. By chance, it gets extremely cold in this land. Once a year-in the winter. Isn’t that incredible? That’s not normal in the tropics. Snow. Every year, this chill. Have you ever been frostbitten? Implacable.

(there is a thermometer outside the window. it shows seventeen below zero)

The chill is a dog that doesn’t bark. It installs itself. You have a sense that the cold is eating away your bones. You try to melt the pain, but you feel your extremities turning to stone. The mercury finally bites into the nape of your neck. You lose the ability to move.

What Was Mahler Thinking?

MahlerJan Swafford examined “Why haven’t we figured out his Ninth Symphony yet?” in Slate 6 years ago. Now James C. Taylor wonders the same about Mahler’s 8th symphony in More Intelligent Life and comes up with a tentative answer:

Performances of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (the “Symphony of a Thousand”) never quite add up. Perhaps the work is too technically unwieldy, or maybe its meaning is too obtuse. (After he finished the symphony, Mahler wrote his wife in 1909 that “it is all an allegory to convey something that, no matter what form it is given, can never be adequately expressed.”) Whatever the reason, it is a work that demands attention. Mahler’s largest creation–and one of few that were well received in his lifetime–premiered in 1910. Nearly 90 years later, New York City played host to not one but two performances of this massive and rarely mounted symphony.

The first took place in May at Carnegie Hall. Pierre Boulez, a French modern-music maestro and arguably the leading interpreter of Mahler’s 6th Symphony, conducted the Staatskapelle Berlin, the orchestra for the Berlin State Opera. The Staatskapelle is a solid pit band, but hardly a world-class symphonic orchestra, and not the first group of players you’d pick for Mahler. The singers, however, were first rate and the orchestra played with assurance, if little sparkle. The performance was most notable for its restraint.

It is not clear whether this restraint was due to Boulez’s minimalism, the relatively modest size of the forces assembled (the Carnegie concert involved barely 300 musicians; at the symphony’s premiere in 1910 there were over a thousand) or simple fatigue (the Staatskapelle was performing all ten of Mahler’s symphonies in under two weeks). Regardless, the result was an 8th that beguiled more than it overwhelmed.

The Tipping Point Theory of Racial Segregation: Fascinating but Mythological?

Easterly picWilliam Easterly in VoxEU:

The “tipping point” is a popular concept covering a whole range of phenomena (and a best-selling book by Malcolm Gladwell) where individual behaviour depends on the behaviour of the herd.

Its original application was to racial segregation. Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling developed a beautifully simple model for this. Suppose that whites have different degrees of racism – some would “tolerate” higher shares of non-whites in their local neighbourhood than others. Schelling showed that even the less racist whites would still wind up exiting during tipping because of a chain reaction.

Here’s how it happens – at first only the most extreme racist whites exit. But their departure causes the white share to go down, making the second most extreme racist whites uncomfortable, so they also exit. The white share goes down some more, and so now even less racist whites will be uncomfortable being a white minority, and they will wind up exiting too. So the remarkable prediction of the tipping point model is that just a little bit of integration that directly bothered only the most racist whites wound up causing all of the whites to exit. So even if the typical white were perfectly happy with an integrated neighbourhood, these neighbourhoods would be so unstable that the final outcome would be extreme racial segregation. The segregated non-white neighbourhood will remain permanently non-white. Segregated white neighbourhoods (with a white share above the tipping point) will also be stable, because virtually all whites will tolerate a very small non-white share. So segregation happens through a chain reaction, even though the average white person did not want such extreme segregation.

Friday Poem

How to search for aliens

At midnight we’d light candles
in the tabernacle and begin
our yearly vigil for the dead.
Mostly I remember the kneeling,
how the vaulted ceiling pressed
the congregation silent until grief
weighted the air. Sometimes I slept
as the incense censer chimed smoke
into strange eddies; often I dreamed
of falling into a vast darkness only to wake
in the pew with tears stepping down my face
as though death had come and gone in the space
of an hour. Even then I knew the spirit shunned
this drama, the artificial quiet shrouding the voice
of god in ritual while outside the planet spun
unperturbed. Four point five billion years
since genesis and the sky still hovers
like a veil between us and space,
wanting to be lifted before the unintelligible
babble dismantles the tower we have
half-built. At Arecibo, signals fall
from the dark like angels dropping messages;
there are miracles in the data waiting for discovery,
contact unrealized despite centuries of squinting
into the heavens. When our vigil ended we would walk
home in the cold, my mother mourning the past
while I tracked the stars that winked between
the street lights, listening for serendipity
in between footsteps. She held my hand so tightly,
perhaps she knew that prayer was too simple:
not enough prime numbers hidden in the signal,
no small man standing on our solar system,
peering out into the universe.

by Christine Klocek-Lim, recipient of the 2009
Ellen La Forge Poetry Prize (previously the Grolier Prize)
—forthcoming in the 2009 Ellen La Forge Memorial
Poetry Foundation Annual.

If you think these failed states look bad now, wait until the climate changes

Stephen Faris in Foreign Policy:

ScreenHunter_05 Jul. 17 11.00 Until now, the two sides had been able to relegate the water issue to the back burner. In 1960, India and Pakistan agreed to divide the six tributaries that form the Indus River. India claimed the three eastern branches, which flow through Punjab. The water in the other three, which pass through Jammu and Kashmir, became Pakistan's. The countries set a cap on how much land Kashmir could irrigate and agreed to strict regulations on how and where water could be stored. The resulting Indus Waters Treaty has survived three wars and nearly 50 years. It's often cited as an example of how resource scarcity can lead to cooperation rather than conflict.

But the treaty's success depends on the maintenance of a status quo that will be disrupted as the world warms. Traditionally, Kashmir's waters have been naturally regulated by the glaciers in the Himalayas. Precipitation freezes during the coldest months and then melts during the agricultural season. But if global warming continues at its current rate, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates, the glaciers could be mostly gone from the mountains by 2035. Water that once flowed for the planting will flush away in winter floods.

More here.